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Rude Food: Tales From The Royal Kitchen

Kings have very little influence on how we eat. But yes, some palaces did have the most amazing food. All foodies know the story of François Vatel. He was a chef during the reign of French King Louis XIV...Vir Sanghvi writes.

brunch Updated: Nov 03, 2012 20:17 IST
Vir Sanghvi

All foodies know the story of François Vatel. He was a chef during the reign of French King Louis XIV and prided himself on his banquets. But on one occasion when nothing was going right with the preparations for the dinner, Vatel began to get increasingly distraught.

When somebody told him that the fish would not be delivered, he got so agitated that he committed suicide, so ashamed was he of having failed his king. (The ironic sting in the tale is that Vatel was wrong. The fish was delivered on time. But when they came to tell him that, Vatel was already dead.)

Courtesy: Dining with the maharajas, Roli Books

I don’t know about you but I’ve always found this a slightly strange story. Perhaps suicide over failed banquet planning was the done thing in 1671, but I’ve long thought that Vatel must have been a bit of a lunatic, or at the very least, neurotic and highly strung. Otherwise, why on earth would you kill yourself only because your fish supplier was unreliable? (If that was the rule in India where suppliers are notoriously erratic, then all our chefs would have killed themselves by now.)

But French people think that this is a great story, one that demonstrates Vatel’s commitment to his craft and in 2000, the tale was even made into a film starring that famous French foodie fatso Gerard Depardieu. And many chefs in other countries continue to venerate Vatel and reject my conclusion that he must have been a manic depressive or a nutcase.

Some of this, I suspect, has to do with the fact that Vatel was cooking for a king. There’s something about food and kings. Somehow we imagine that royal banquets are special, that kings eat so much better than us and that royal cuisine has changed the way in which ordinary people eat.

Some, if not most, of this is nonsense, especially when it comes to Indian food. Though so much is made of the influence of the Mughals and the Nizams, very few of these claims can be sustained. A few years ago, I was in Hyderabad shooting a TV show and was being shown around by a local culinary expert who assured me that Hyderabad’s cuisine was the food of the Mughals which had been enriched by the Nizam’s links with the Shahs of Persia, the Sultans of Turkey, etc.

This is rubbish. Yes, Mughal generals took North Indian food to the Deccan. But what we know as Hyderabadi cuisine grew out of the interaction between North Indian food and the local traditions of today’s Andhra, Telangana and Marathwada. The Shah of Persia was not consulted.

So it is with the dishes that are claimed for the Mughal court. Yes, maida, pulao and samosas did come to India from the Middle East. But the Emperor Babur did not carry them in his saddle-bag. There were contacts between India and the Middle East dating back to many centuries before the Mughals got here and these dishes travelled with the traders.

Not cooked up: French chef Vatel’s tale was made into a film starring that famous French foodie fatso Gerard Depardieu

By far the greatest influence on Indian food, however, came from Europeans. Much of what we know as Indian cuisine depends on ingredients discovered in the New World by the Europeans and then brought to India. It is hard to think of Indian food without potatoes, chillies, tomatoes, corn (as in makki ki roti) and so many other ingredients that were unknown to us only a few centuries ago.

Even these ingredients did not come to India as the food of kings. Rather, they were brought by traders and many were later planted by European residents for their own use. When the likes of Sir Thomas Roe dined with the Mughal emperor it was not to hand over food parcels from the royal court but to establish British contacts.

Why then is the cuisine of Indian royalty of any consequence? Well, largely for the opposite reason: because it did not necessarily influence the food that ordinary people ate. Royal cuisines remained largely confined to the palaces, the recipes were handed down through the generations by hereditary cooks and now, as much of India’s royalty fades into history, many of those recipes and traditions are in danger of being lost.

Two books have sought to preserve the food of the maharajas and nawabs. The first by Richard and Sally Holkar came out many decades ago but it marked the first serious attempt to document Indian royal cuisine. The second, a cookbook by the Maharaja of Sailana, is regarded by many as one of the best Indian cookbooks ever published. The Maharaja of Sailana was not only an accomplished chef but he also gathered recipes from other states and adapted them to his own style.

The Sailana family has kept up the tradition and the current maharaja (about whom I have written before) is a self-effacing and modest man who is determined to keep the food of his forefathers alive.

Now, there is a third book. Dining with the Maharajas, published this month by Roli Books, is a lavish, superbly-produced, coffee-table book that not only records some of the best recipes, but also goes beyond the dishes to look at the palaces and the dining tradition. Written with style and detail by Neha Prasada, it has the added advantage of wonderful photos by Ashima Narain.

Best seller: This book by the maharaja of Sailana is regarded by many as one of the best Indian cookbooks ever published

The format is to focus on cuisines of the old princely states, to record their culinary heritage, to reprint their recipes, to talk to current members of the families and to try and recapture what the dining experience must have been like in the heyday of the Indian princes.
Fortunately the book goes beyond the Rajasthan-only focus of most such ventures and includes the North (Kashmir), the South (Mysore, about which I have previously read very little) and Hyderabad (or Esra Jah’s Falaknuma-centred Hyderabad, at any rate), the East (Tripura, which must be a first for a book of this nature) and central India (Sailana, of course).

The author and photographer have been offered the kind of access that the rest of us can only dream of (where else would you see photos of Captain Amarinder Singh cooking?) and have wisely chosen to concentrate on the articulate and decent maharajas (Karan Singh, Amarinder, Bapji Jodhpur etc.) ignoring the pompous old bores (though one or two do get in).

The anecdotes and stories are revealing. When Motilal Nehru was sent to Allahabad jail by the British, Mohammed Amir Ahmad Khan of the Mahmudabad princely family sent him biryani with a bottle of champagne to keep him going during his imprisonment. When the Maharaja of Patiala travelled to London, he took a whole floor of the Savoy for his courtiers and his wives (mainly for his wives, I would imagine) and ate a 24-egg omelette for breakfast. The Savoy, grateful for his custom, changed the wallpaper on his floor to pink because he liked the colour.

The Tripura chapter is especially revealing because relatively little is known about the house. Four types of cuisine (Bengali, North Indian, European and local Tripuri) were cooked for dinner every night and the pastry chef was a genius but only when he was drunk. So each time a special dessert was called for, they would send a bottle to the kitchen to put him in the mood.

One of the book’s great coups is to get Dr Karan Singh, who has spent his life playing down his royal ancestry (he is one of the few 21-gun-salute maharajas who has always protested when people call him “Your Highness”) to talk about royal food. Though Karan Singh is no foodie himself (“My books are the food of my soul”), he talks fondly about his father who would go off to France only to eat oysters at Prunier’s or duck at the Tour D’Argent. Karan Singh’s daughter-in-law, Chitrangada, has learnt the recipes preserved in the hard-written diaries of Maharaja Hari Singh (Karan Singh’s famously fun-loving father) and today is proficient in three different cuisines: Dogri, Kashmiri and Nepali (her mother-in-law was a Nepali Rana; so is her mother, Gwalior’s Madhvi Raje, herself a superb cook).

There are enough states left over for a second book (Gwalior? Baroda? Indore? etc.) So I hope there will be one. If no historical record is kept by this generation then it might be too late because I’m not sure that all the recipes will survive into the next generation.
So no, kings have very little influence on how we eat. Nor is there much point in worshipping the likes of Vatel. But yes, some palaces did have the most amazing food. And in India, at least, those culinary traditions will probably die out. The great strength of Neha Prasada and Ashima Narain’s book is that it captures a slice of an India that is already vanishing, and that it does so with beauty and style.

From HT Brunch, November 4

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