One of the most distinguishing facets of any nobility is perhaps its food and wine. Picture, if you will, kitchens as big as mansions, stocked with the finest fruit and meat, moustachioed khansamas or bawarchis fussing over every detail and a liveried staff wheeling out the final spread to elegantly attired diners. It’s like that famous Ralph Waldo Emerson quote come to life: “Let the stoics say what they please, we do not eat for the good of living but because the meat is savoury and the appetite is keen.”
India has had its fair share of princes and maharajas, who were renowned pleasure-seekers and aesthetes. Their kingdoms are no more but, in many cases, vestiges of their culinary customs have been respectfully preserved by their descendants. In their coffee table book, Dining with the Nawabs, author Meera Ali and photographer Karam Puri transport readers into this charmed world of storied recipes and epicurean traditions.
For the nawabs, dining was an exercise in high artistry. Early in the book, Ali discusses the nawabs of Avadh, whose cooks were no less than mad scientists inventing ingenious confections for their masters. “Cooks took pride in creating dishes never seen before. Pulao anardana was a dish created in Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s time where half the rice in the dish was made to look like shining white pearls while the other half looked like tiny rubies,” they write.
Showmanship in the kitchen was encouraged. Another Avadhi ruler, Nawab Nasir ud din Haider, had a chef named Pir Ali who once presented his master with a samosa and a pomegranate while he was entertaining the Nizam of Hyderabad. When the nawab broke open the samosa, a tiny bird flew out of it. According to the author, “The pomegranate too was piece of art with each grain, the seeds inside the grains, the paper-like web of walls within which nestled the grains, and its thick outer skin, all made of flavoured milk and sugar.”
Modern life may require that today’s nawabi families eschew outlandish spectacle, for the most part at least. Their food though is rich with a capital R. Some of these nawab households featured in the following photo essay often open their doors to travellers, who can then experience up close what it is to live like kings even if it be for a fleeting few hours.
Shabbir Malik, the current nawab of this region bordering the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, was the grandson of Malik Shri Zain Khan of Dasada, a district nearby. The latter established Zainabad in 1919. Nowadays Shabbir Malik and his son Dhanraj Malik run Desert Coursers, a camp for visitors interested in their hometown’s culture and heritage.
Guests to the camp can catch a glimpse of Gujarat’s rare nomadic tribes and enjoy the unique local cuisine, which includes a delicacy called khad gosht, mutton cooked in sheep skin under the ground. On special occasions, father and son, accompanied by Dhanraj’s favourite canine companion, ride out to a remote corner of the Rann for a dinner picnic. Chefs are sent to the location in advance to prepare a meal. The spread incorporates all preparations typical to Zainabad: bajre ka rotla, a lentil, a biryani and jild gosht, which like khad gosht is spiced meat wrapped in goat’s skin, buried six-eight inches under the ground and cooked on a fire above ground.
Kotwara House and Anhalwara Palace in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur district is home to filmmaker Muzaffar Ali and his family. Ali’s father Raja Sajid Husain was an MLA from this constituency.He possessed an eclectic taste for food. Kotwara and Lucknawi cuisine were obviously his favourites but Sajid was also enchanted with the English way of life, having been raised in England and later Scotland. In his meals, he would attempt to infuse the best of both worlds.
As the author writes, “Food was always served in courses starting with his favourite almond soup followed by galavat ke kebab, served with paper thin rumali roti or murgh mussalam or pasanda. Grilled fish topped with large amounts of melted butter or a Chicken a la Kiev and lamb ribs were served next.” Amongst desserts, he preferred shahi tukda and rasaval, a sugarcane juice and rice-based treat.
Ali and his relatives are now enthusiastic ambassadors of the family’s past. They offer a taste of their royal dining experience to visitors at Kotwara House on appointment. Guests can also check into Anhalwara Palace, which functions as a heritage hotel.
Some of the city’s breathtaking monuments, including the famous Falaknuma Palace and Paigah tombs, are the creation of the Paigah nobles, a family whose members often married into the Nizam of Hyderabad’s dynasty. Head of the Paigahs, Asman Jah, served as the prime minister to the Nizam from 1887-1893. He was known for his grand soirées and banquets, during which every course was resplendent.
A usual menu had dum ka murgh (chicken cooked in the dum style), kuchhe gosht ke kofte, kormas and, various biryanis and pulaos.There were all manner of kebabs including the shikhampur shaami (a stuffed shaami kebab) and malai seekh. Other specialties like tootak, an oval biscuit stuffed with fresh mince and cooked with lemon, and luqmi,a pastry stuffed with fried kheema, were also served.
Subsequent rulers kept expanding the Paigah cooking repertoire with the yakhni pulao, mirch ka salan, haleem (an introduction from the Arab world) and bharwan dolma baingan (brinjal stuffed with spiced bone marrow), among other dishes.
Nawab Ghouseuddin Khan, the current head of the family, is fond of cooking and is known to entertain guests at Basheerbagh Palace with help from his wife Moin un Nisa Begum. The women of the family have recorded all the old recipes and now take turns in preparing them.
Madhya Pradesh’s capital has witnessed the rule of several female nawabs, also called begums. The first begum of Bhopal was Qudsia Begum, who took charge of the princely state after her husband Nawab Nazar Muhammad Khan was assassinated in 1819. Taj-ul-Masajid, one of the city’s prominent landmarks, was built by another female nawab, Sultan Shah Jahan Begum.
The family’s present matriarch is Begum Suraiya Rashid, who is 90-years-old and lives in Shamla Kothi. In the heydays of nawabi rule, this house was the epicentre of courtliness with a kitchen out front that had five chefs and 15 sous-chefs cooking for 100 or so family members.
Many of the delicacies evolved around shikaar, which was a favourite pastime of Rashid-uz-Zafar, Suraiya Rashid’s husband. After a hunt the game was often cooked on the spot and then used to make kaleji (liver) or filfora (coarse kheema using only whole spices). Meat from hunts was typically dried after it was boiled with salt and garlic, minced and stored.
Mutton was a favourite and was commonly prepared with different ingredients: aalu gosht, palak gosht, gobhi gosht, turai ghost and even dal gosht. Spreads for special occasions included murgh mussalam, safed korma, dar behisht (a dessert made with almonds and pistachio) and other sumptuous fare.
Suraiya Rashid’s extended clan are involved in carrying forward these eating traditions through the hospitality business, running properties like the Jehan Numa Palace Hotel in Shamla Hills and the Jehan Numa Retreat in the city’s outskirts.