The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, October 13, 2002
Lead Article

Taste of the past
When sparrows were deep fried in puris!
K. R. N. Swamy

Illustration by Sandeep JoshiWHEN it comes to cuisine, the Indian maharajas had the best of both worlds. Cooking was one of the 64 recognised arts of the Hindu way of life and with the influx of Afghan, Central Asian tribes like that of Mughals (further flavoured with Persian influence), cooking became a fine art among the Indian royals. Then as the British Raj prospered in India, it brought about a change in the eating habits of the princes, which meant that there were three types of kitchen in any Indian palace — Hindu, Mughal and European.

The famous jurist, Chief Justice, M.C. Chagla, refers to an instance in his younger days, when he, with seniors like Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru and Pandit Motilal Nehru, were the guests of the Nawab of Mahmudabad. He was literally overwhelmed by the delicacies of the three cuisines. English menu was followed by exquisite Muslim dishes, succeeded by tasty sweets pertaining to the Hindu system of cooking. One of the other guests of the Nawab had remarked, that even the British section had 42 types of food. Similarly, when Lord Curzon visited the Nizam of Hyderabad in the late 1890, his breakfast tables had hundreds of items and the Viceroy had to firmly tell the Nizam, that he would have a British breakfast only.


It is difficult to say, which state had the best cuisine in olden days. But it is universally held, that the late Maharaja of Sailana was the most famous of the royal chefs. The Nawab of Rampur had the best cooks (300 of them, each a master in his own speciality). Patiala, especially under Maharaja Bhupinder Singh (himself a gregarious eater) was the ultimate, when it came to varied menus and Hyderabadi nawabi nobels were the most exacting taskmasters, during feasts. Sailana, in his own time, travelled to virtually all the princely states, trying to ferret out the rarest of recipes. He toured the whole of India, his royal status getting him access to the kitchens of the Indian rulers. While the host maharaja, graciously allowed him free run of the kitchen, the specialist cooks were not so helpful. But Sailana had one trick. He used to tell the cooks of other royal palaces, where he had gone for taking down the recipes, that they must use only the special spice ingredient box he was carrying. Now, when the crucial time came for adding the ingredients, Sailana would tactfully excuse himself and leave the kitchen.

The master chefs, overjoyed at being able to preserve their secret, would make the condiment flavouring in the correct proportion. Little did they realise, that the Maharaja had measured the ingredients in his box to the last gram and would later weigh them out again to find out how much of these had been utilised. Once he found out the quantity, a master cook that he himself was, there was no problem in recreating the same delicious dish! One of the recipes states "There are Puris (deep fried wheat cakes), which would puff up and the certain of the smaller Rajasthani states, they would keep a live sparrow in the Puri, quickly deep fry it and take it to the table, where the bird would fly out, as you examine the Puri. It was not for eating, just for the extravagance". One wonders as to how the sparrow remained alive. Sailana died at the age of 80 and had an encyclopaedia of all princely recipes and the ways to prepare them. These documents were carefully preserved by his son, who has published the most important items of the cuisine...

Often the specialist cooks were paid fabulous sums, like Rs 500 a month, which would be equivalent to Rs 50,000 today and they were very exacting in their standards, even to their employers. Gautam Chatterjee in his essay Lucknow flavours states: "Kitchens of the nawabs used to be controlled or headed by a Hakim, a Unani doctor. They were family physicians who knew the ailments of generations of nawabs. So they prescribed antidotes or curative elements to be added in the recipe". Nawab Jafar Mir Abdullah told Chatterjee that in the olden days there used to be cooks who specialised in innovation and aromas. During marriages, there were about 264 spices used to prepare a single dish called tunde ka kabab. One master chef (he specialised only in lentils — the common Dal) insisted that the nawab should take the food as soon as it was prepared, so that the full flavour could be relished. On one occasion, the prince was delayed and the furious cook, threw away the special lentil dish out of the kitchen window. The preparation fell on a dried tree trunk and the apocryphal story states that, few days later, the kitchen staff were surprised to find the withered stump sprouting fresh shoots, due to the exotic Dal.

One famous method of cooking that has been recently brought to light, is from Oudh (modern Uttar Pradesh) of the 18th century. It appears, that one of the Nawabs of Oudh had started road building as a relief measure during famines. In order to ensure, that the work did not slow down, they used to make the labourers eat the food kept near the work spot in huge handis (cauldrons) and left overnight for simmering. One day, the Nawab came for inspection and while tasting the food in the handis, found it so delicious, that he declared that the same type of cooking (called Dum cooking by modern chefs) should be practiced in his kitchen also.

Some of the nawabi families had strange concoctions. "The soup Emperor Akbar drank "is one of the famous anecdotes of Lucknow. It appears, that in the 16th century the Mughal emperor Akbar came to visit one of his viceroys in Lucknow and after he tasted the soup, left it as a matter of flavour to the noble. The noble, kept a part of the soup for the next day and when fresh soup was made, added to it, the portion of the soup Akbar tasted. "This adding the old soup to the new soup persisted for centuries" and this nawabi family took great pride in this heirloom soup "which the emperor has tasted".

All over India, in many royal families the maharanis would not allow their grown-up daughters to enter the kitchen, lest the family recipes be lost to the son-in-law’s clan, when the girl eventually gets married. But daughters-in-law were freely allowed permission, as the recipes would stay within the family.

Often a guest maharaja, if he is of a rank above his host, would try to embarass him by asking for some unavailable items. One of the nawabs of Hyderabad, Nawab Musallam Jung, used to proudly boast that whenever he gave a party, no guest ever had to get no for an epicurean delight, what ever it might be. Once, he invited the Nizam Mahboob Ali Khan, his suzerain, for a party, and ensured that whatever food listed in the Hyderabadi cuisine was prepared and kept ready. The mischievous Nizam wanted to Chakna, a local dish eaten mainly by the poorest in Hyderabad, made out of different parts of the goats, carcass, including the offal. Naturally, the nawabi host had not planned for the lowly Chkana and had to shamefacedly accept defeat!

Again, due to the different food habits of the Indian rulers, despite the best laid plans, things occasionally, went awry. The famous Aga Khan II, the Ismaili leader, himself a premier Indian prince, invited many maharajas, for dinner in Bombay the late 1920s and, knowing their abhorrence of bovine flesh, asked his Parsi chief cook to ensure, that beef was not in the menu.. But on that fateful day, as the first main dish arrived, Aga Khan was horrified to find that it was an ox tongue speciality. The shocked host apologised, the serving was stopped and alternatives found. Later, as the irate Aga Khan berated him, the unhappy chef de cuisine remonstrated, "But sir! You forbade only beef and not Ox" — MF