From the Sailana kitchens
It is hard to find authentic royal cuisine in India these days. But Sailana, whose Maharajas have always had a passion for food, is a rare exception. Read on to know what Vir Sanghvi found out.
So it is with Indian food. All so-called Mughlai food claims to have originated in the Mughal court and while the boasts made for many of today’s biryanis may well be bogus, there is little doubt that the Mughals laid the foundations for today’s North Indian cuisine by merging Indian, Persian, Turkish and Central Asian culinary traditions in their courts.
Sadly, it is hard to find authentic royal cuisine in India these days. The French are obsessive about recording recipes so we have a fair idea of the kind of food that, say, Louis IV ate. But while we may have access to menus from Jehangir’s court (from contemporary accounts and the journals of visitors), the recipes themselves remain a matter of speculation and guesswork. For instance, we know that the Emperor shunned overly rich food and preferred a simple Gujarati-style khichdi. But what form did this khichdi take? Was it made according to the recipes popular in Gujarat today? We can only guess.
When Maharajas or Nawabs built kingdoms that survived into the 20th century, we were slightly more fortunate. For instance, the Mughals dispatched a Governor to South India and called him Nizam-ul-Mulk. After the Mughal empire broke up, the Nizam became a major ruler in his own right. His court encouraged a synthesis of Mughal style cuisine with the flavour of Andhra and the Hyderabad style of cooking was born. Because the Hyderabadi aristocracy are still around, we have access to the recipes of this great cuisine.
In the case of other Indian states, we are not so lucky. Many have forgotten their gastronomic heritage and in any case, few possess unique cuisines. One exception is Gwalior, a Maratha state in North/Central India with a secular heritage (there were Muslim sardars in the court and the Maharaja honoured Muslim saints). Gwalior cuisine is exceptional and unusual because it merges many influences – Maratha, North Indian, Muslim and Nepali (because of frequent inter-marriage).
In the Rajasthan states, the old cooks have left the palaces and the new cooks are not necessarily familiar with the authentic traditions. Ironically, it is the hotel business that has helped preserve the royal cuisine. I went last December to the wedding of former civil servant (and now MP) NK Singh’s son at the Umaid Bhavan Palace in Jodhpur. (NK’s wife is a Jodhpur princess.) The food was absolutely outstanding because chefs at the Taj Group (which runs Umaid Bhavan) had recreated old Jodhpur recipes to serve authentic Rajasthani cuisine.
Unless the palace cooks are steeped in the cooking traditions or a hotel chain has got involved, there are only two reliable guides to the cooking of the Indian courts. The first is the influential cookbook by Richard and Sally Holkar that came out in the early 1980s (I think) and recorded recipes from palace kitchens that would almost certainly have been lost forever had it not been for Richard and Sally.
The second is the astonishingly successful Cooking Delights Of The Maharajas by Digvijaya Singh, the Maharaja of Sailana. In royal circles, Sailana has always had a reputation for its cuisine and when the Maharaja finally published his recipes in 1983, the book was an instant hit. It has since been re-printed 15 times, is still selling well and could be one of the most important cookbooks in Indian history.
I first read about the book and the Maharaja of Sailana in the early 1980s, when Sally Holkar wrote about him in a column she did, in that era, in the Indian Express. Even so, I was surprised by how quickly the book found adherents. By the mid-1980s, Sailana recipes had started appearing on menus all over India and even accomplished home cooks began treating the book as their Bible.
When I moved to Calcutta in 1986, I had a long foodie conversation with the late Adhip Sarkar of ABP (my employers at the time). Adhip, the quieter brother of Aveek and Arup, was a shy man with a deep knowledge of many varied subjects, one of which was food. He told me that if he ever had a Sunday off, he would closet himself in the kitchen and cook.
What kind of food did he make? Oh, that was easy, he said. He just pulled out the Maharaja of Sailana’s book and worked his way through the recipes. They were fool-proof and he never went wrong.
Given this background, you can imagine my delight when I was invited to lunch by the current Maharaja of Sailana, Vikram Singhji, son of Digvijaya Singh who wrote the book, at the Delhi home of his son-in-law Aishwarya Katoch (the Yuvraj of Kangra and a director of Indiabulls) and his daughter Shailja (who is now a hotelier).
The Maharaja turned out to be a surprisingly modest and unassuming man who has inherited the family’s passion for food. He told me that his grandfather began the Sailana house’s obsession with food, that his father nurtured it and that he now sees himself as custodian of the tradition.
Unlike other royal houses, Sailana was unusual in the sense that the Maharajas did not just leave it to their cooks to come up with dishes that would be served at banquets but actually went to the kitchens and cooked themselves. According to the current Maharaja, this happened because his grandfather and guests once went on a trip and got lost. The servants could not find them and so, there was nobody to cook the food. The Maharaja and his guests starved, leading Maharaja Dalip Singh to swear that he would learn to cook himself so that this never happened again.
From that initial resolve grew a whole school of cooking. Moreover, because Dalip Singh and his descendants were so passionate about food they did not just stick to the cooking of their own region but scoured the country (well, other people’s palaces, at any rate) looking for recipes to adapt. The Sailana cookbook is full of recipes borrowed (and suitably revamped) from other states. The Shikampuri kebab recipe comes from the court of Hari Singh of Kashmir (Dr Karan Singh’s father). A rabbit keema recipe originates from "the late Hakim Nizamuddin Khan Sahib of Ajmar," the Mokal Bhavnagar comes from the royal house it is named for, and so consequently the Sailana tradition is not narrow and regional but includes royal dishes from the whole country.
At our lunch, the Maharaja served loads and loads of exquisite food but two dishes stood out. The first was a fried fish kebab that the Maharaja insisted should be made only with sweet-water fish. I am sure he is right but I thought the spicing was robust enough to overcome any kind of fish taste. Indeed, I suggested that the recipe could be adapted for a crab cake.
The second was one of the most amazing biryanis I have eaten. It is a Sailana dish called Reshmi Biryani because of its silken texture. I have looked at the recipe and it does not seem so unusual but I cannot even begin to describe how terrific it was. So either, the recipe is incomplete or the secret is in the cooking.
I include both recipes. Try them yourselves and see why the Sailana school of cuisine has been so influential.
Along with the main dishes, a lot of emphasis was given to snacks. Thus originated the machchi kebab. This dish is one of the many fish dishes from the house of Sailana. It is a quick, simple recipe and makes an excellent snack with drinks.
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour
Serves: 6 persons
1 ½ kg fish pieces
3 gms mustard, ground with water
9 gms salt
9 gms red chillies, powdered
12 gms ginger, scraped and ground
12 gms garlic, ground
1 large egg
3 gms cumin seeds, powdered
60 gms onions, thinly and evenly sliced
20 peppercorns, powdered
115 ml mustard oil
5 cloves, powdered
3 gms fresh mint leaves, ground
Skin the fish, remove bones and cut into pieces. Put the fish in a colander or sieve. Place the colander in a utensil containing water to a level that is below the colander. Cover and steam cook till tender. Remove and mash thoroughly with your hands.
Add mustard, salt, red chillies, ginger, garlic, cumin seeds, peppercorns, cloves, mint leaves and egg to the fish and mix well.
Heat the mustard oil and fry onions to a golden brown. Remove, grind and add to the fish. Divide into 12 equal parts. Flatten, wetting hands with a little water to give the kebabs a smooth and even shape.
In the same oil, fry the kebabs, a few at a time, on low heat till
Note: Grind mustard with water and mix salt and keep it for 12 hours before cooking.
Preparation time: 1 hour
Cooking time: 2 hours
Serves: 8-10 persons
Not only were the masalas chosen with great care but even the names of the recipes were either inspired by
appearance, taste or contents. For instance, reshmi means soft and silky. When this dish was perfected and served at one of the banquets, the guests remarked “wah, kitni reshmi hai”. Thus, the biryani got its name.
1 kg mutton pieces
250 gms ghee
350 gms curd
25 gms salt
6 gms red chillies, powdered
25 gms ginger, scraped and ground
2 gms of asafoetida (hing) of the size of peppercorns, diluted in water
25 gms coriander seeds, powdered
12 gms Punjabi badi, powdered
1 ½ gms cumin seeds, powdered
1 ½ gms black cumin seeds, powdered
1 ½ gms cloves, powdered
1 ½ gms black cardamom, powdered
A good pinch of saffron, diluted in warm water
1 ½ kg Basmati rice
30 ml (1 oz) kewada water
360 ml (12 ounces) milk
Heat the ghee. Add meat along with curd, salt, red chillies, ginger and asafoetida. When the liquid dries up, lightly burn the meat. Add only so much water that it should dry up when meat is tender, and very little water remains. Add coriander seeds, Punjabi badi, cumin seeds, black cumin seeds, cloves, black cardamoms and saffron and simmer on low heat till water dries up completely and only the ghee remains.
Wash and soak the rice in deep water for an hour. Boil the rice in plenty of water, adding salt. When just cooked, drain in a sieve or colander, removing the water completely. Spread the rice in a wide dish and let it cool a bit.
Divide the cooked rice into four parts. Grease the bottom and sides of a heavy-bottomed pan with a little ghee. Spread one part of rice evenly. Add kewada water to the milk and sprinkle it over the rice. Then spread half of the meat over the rice. Cover it with two more parts of rice and spread the remaining meat over this. Now spread the remaining part of the rice. Cover the pan and put it on medium fire to form steam. As soon as steam rises, put on dum for half an hour.
- From HT Brunch, Januray 23
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