Sunday, June 20, 2004

Feast for an emperor
Samra Rahman

Nuskha-e-Shahjahani: Pulaos from the Royal Kitchen of Shah Jahan translated by Salma Husain.
Rupa & Co., New Delhi.
Pages 71. Rs 395.

Pulaos have a long and fascinating history. In Ain-e-Akbari (1602), there is a mention of Keema Pulao. That there was also a bewildering variety of pulaos is evident from the writings of British traveller Sir Thomas Herbert. He wrote in 1638: "The feast begins; it was compounded of a hundred sorts of pelos..."

Nuskha-e-Shahjahani, we are told, is the translation of a Persian manuscript that gives the recipes of some of the pulaos prepared in the royal kitchens of Emperor Shahjahan. It is a sumptuous volume with excellent paper and printing quality, containing some fine reproductions of Mughal miniatures. Having said this, one is left wondering as to the relevance of some of the illustrations—Shahjahan honoring Aurangzeb at the latter’s wedding, the delivery of presents at Dara Shikoh’s wedding or Shahjahan on a hunting trip—to any cuisine, Mughal or otherwise!

Recipes from royal kitchens were a closely guarded secret, hardly ever written down, passed down from father to son. For this reason, one would have liked to get some idea about the provenance of the manuscript, the author, the date of its composition and its authenticity.

The only information vouchsafed in the introduction, is to the effect that it is "a book on cookery tracing its roots to the reign of Emperor Shahjahan."

A recipe book is supposed to be authentic as well as utilitarian. It should enable you to actually do the cooking, with the help of the list of ingredients and the method of preparation.

In this book, the method given for each recipe tends to be somewhat sketchy and is hardly likely to help you, unless you are an accomplished chef.

As for the ingredients, the quantities appear to be somewhat rough and ready. For instance, in the recipe for Yakhni Teh Bala (pp19), where the main ingredients are 1 seer (934gms) of mutton and 1 seer of rice, the quantity of salt is 3 dam (60gms)! Whereas in Gilani Pulao (pp46), where the main ingredients are again 1 seer each, of mutton and rice, the quantity of salt is dam (10 gms)!

Some of the pulaos like Mutanjan Pulao, where a seer of sugar is used along with 1 seers of mutton, and 1 seer of rice, are hardly likely to appeal to the Indian palate, unless, of course, you happen to be a diehard fan of Mughal cuisine.

On the whole, it is a good volume for anyone’s coffee table.