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The complicated world of court cuisine

Much of medieval cuisine seems to have been designed only to impress

brunch Updated: Mar 18, 2017 21:15 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Mughals

The nawab of Avadh’s chef would make a special khichri for his master that looked like (Karam Puri, Dining with the Nawabs (Roli Books))

Court cuisines are a complicated business. There has, for instance, never been a court cuisine of note in England. The food at Buckingham Palace is reported to run from dull to disgusting. In medieval times, English monarchs ate like pigs. (And often, they ate pigs too.) Henry VIII’s table manners would put any decent person off dinner and his successors couldn’t come up with a single good dish for several centuries.

Nor, for that matter, could their subjects. When Elizabeth II was coronated, a joyous nation created a dish in her honour. It was Coronation Chicken, made from pre-cooked cold chicken mixed with a bright yellow mayonnaise-based sauce, flavoured with what the British called Curry Powder in memory of the Empire they had just lost.

Coronation Chicken, made in honour of Queen Elizabeth II, is pre-cooked cold chicken mixed with a bright yellow mayonnaise-based sauce (Shutterstock)

To understand what a gastronomic wasteland England was in the 1950s, you only have to look at that slimy, congealing dish and wonder: if this is how they honoured their new Queen, then what did the Brits cook normally? (Don’t ask.)

Other kingdoms have had more luck with their courts and their chefs. The French will still tell you, with a strange kind of twisted pride, about François Vatel, who was in charge of a banquet to be hosted in honour of King Louis XIV. When the fish did not arrive on time, he was so distraught that he killed himself with his own sword. This is a French saga, so there is a bittersweet coda. Vatel’s body was only discovered when somebody came to tell him that fish had finally arrived in time for dinner. But by then, my friend, eet waz too late...

Eastern kingdoms do better with court cuisine. In Thailand, a country with one of the world’s most sophisticated cuisines, there is a whole school of cooking called Royal Cuisine, which consists of the dishes eaten by the king and his nobles. The food is more complicated and richer than regional Thai cuisines, but it has become so popular that Thai restaurants all over the world brag about serving Royal Cuisine. (It ain’t bad, though personally I’ll take the simpler food of the poorer northern part of Thailand.)

Thai restaurants across the world brag about serving Royal Cuisine (Shutterstock)

In India, court cuisine has long been an obsession and kings used to pride themselves on the numbers of cooks in their kitchens. Often a single cook was paid a fortune to cook just one dish every day. And once a king liked a dish, then his kitchen brigade got to work at creating fancier versions of that dish.

I wrote some weeks ago about Mughal emperor Jahangir’s love for the simple bajra khichri he had encountered on his travels through Gujarat. But because the emperor liked the dish so much, the palace cooks came up with 27 different kinds of khichri to win the king’s favour.

Reading contemporary accounts of the meals of the kings and nobles of the post-Mughal era (lovingly collected in a grand new book, Dining With The Nawabs by Meera Ali and Karam Puri), you realise that these guys had a lot of cooks and a lot of time on their hands.

Dining with the Nawabs by Meera Ali and Karam Puri records how the court cuisine assembled by Mughal emperors became more national in character

Take some examples. The nawab of Avadh had a chef who would carve out pista kernels and cut almonds to resemble grains of rice and then make a special khichri for his master. It looked like a normal khichri but of course, its main ingredients were pista and badam.

The gloriously decadent Wajid Ali Shah, who was later exiled to the East to coach Bengalis in indolence, was proud of a court dish called Pulao Anardana. Half the rice in the pulao was made to look like shining white pearls, while the other half looked like tiny red rubies.

We have no idea of how these dishes actually tasted. But perhaps that wasn’t the point. The philosophy of the nawabi kitchen predated Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal by several centuries: make people think they are eating one thing, while actually feeding them something entirely different.

These gastronomic tricks got (to my mind, at least) sillier and sillier. Wajid Ali Shah once hosted Mirza Asman Qadar, a guest from the Delhi court who loved sweets. When the cooks served several different murabbas, Asman Qadar was delighted. It was only when he put them in his mouth that he realised that they weren’t really murabbas at all but mutton kormas that had been cunningly disguised to look like murabbas.

As The Fat Duck and El Bulli had not yet opened, Asman Qadar had to ask his own chefs to conceive of a suitable response. When Wajid Ali Shah turned up at Asman Qadar’s, he was on his guard. He knew that his fellow nawab would play tricks on him.

But when the meal was served he was reassured. There were kormas, vegetables, chutneys, parathas and sheermal. Then came the centrepiece. It was a big bowl of pulao. At its centre was a ‘bird’ eating grains of rice. The ‘bird’ was clearly made of mutton.

The nawab relaxed. Then, he started to try the food. To his horror, he discovered that every single thing on the table was a sugar sculpture.  Every grain of rice, every piece of meat, all the vegetables, all the pickles and chutneys, all the breads and all the curries were made from sugar.

 Moreover, the bowls and plates in which the food had been served were also made from sugar. So were the tablecloths and napkins.

Stunned, Wajid Ali Shah had to admit defeat.

Personally, I find all this truly impressive, but also a little boring. It’s like the novelty of molecular cooking. You can make a chicken look like a fish or a banana look like an apple but, so bloody what?

The point of a great cuisine is to create dishes that will set the standard, will change the rules and will influence the way we eat in the days to come. Much of medieval cuisine seemed designed only to impress.

In England, Heston Blumenthal’s best known dish, to which he ascribes historical origins, is Meat Fruit, which is chicken liver parfait made to look like fresh fruit. So presumably their medieval court had the same idea as ours – food as visual jokes.

Meat Fruit is chicken liver parfait made to look like fresh fruit

This Penn and Teller approach to food in England did not lead to any great advances in their cuisine. But perhaps it did in India. One of the strengths of Dining With The Nawabs is that it demonstrates how the cuisine of the Mughals, which came from Central Asia, was transformed into Indian food by court cooks.

Though political correctness requires us to treat the early Mughals as Indians, the truth is that they were roughly as Indian as Robert Clive. Babar never saw himself as an Indian and never got into Indian food. Till the end, he missed the fruits and fowl of Samarkand and never worked up much enthusiasm for Indian fruit or fish.

Babar’s son Humayun brought koftas to India and acted as a sort of pulao ambassador taking our basmati rice to Iran while bringing back their recipes. It was only under Akbar, Humayun’s son, that an Indian court cuisine developed, making extensive use of the spices that India was famous for.

Another strength of Dining With The Nawabs is that it records how the court cuisine assembled by Mughal emperors eventually moved beyond little jokes and became more national in character. For instance, we associate the Nizams of Hyderabad with the Mughals, whose governors they originally were, but the Nizams transformed court cuisine.

Their cooks used local fruit (lemons and oranges) liberally, they fell in love with the sour flavours of the Deccan, and they found many uses for tamarind. The Mughals, who had come to India with the bland food of their homeland, had eventually learnt how to use spices and now under the Nizams, the flavours became complex and more assertive.

Emperor Humayun (left) acted as a sort of pulao ambassador taking our basmati rice to Iran, and Indian court cuisine developed under his son Akbar’s reign, as it made more use of Indian spices (Getty Images)

Other nawabs abandoned Mughal pretensions and became one with their people. The ones from Saurashtra are often largely vegetarian and eat the local dal and bajra rotla. The Southern nawabs are South Indians in all their habits.

And none of them would ever dream of eating Coronation Chicken!

From HT Brunch, March 19, 2017

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