The Mughalia Food Trail

The Mughalia Food Trail

Historical Influences on Delhi’s Cuisine

My last trip to Delhi left me with a lot of questions and emotions. Delhi and the influence of Mughals over cuisine has been my subject of interest of late. And that’s what has made me envision both ‘Dilli’ and ‘Delhi’ food in a newer or sort of, eager manner.

The first question that pop ups in my mind is about the most talked term – Mughlai (or Mughalia as it should be).

All Mughal emperors had varied tastes and were inclined towards different places as their bases. Akbar was based out of either battle or Fatehpur Sikri in his later days; turning to be a pure vegetarian. Jahangir preferred Kashmir. Aurangzeb spent most of his time in the Deccan and chose simple eating habits as is. So the only emperor who can be credited to patronising both Delhi and haute cuisine was Shahjahan.

Let’s look at Lahore from the point of view of patronisation by the Mughals and we would see where the country was ruled from. Lahore had seen more “Mughal time” than Delhi. So if we look at the cuisine that underlies all Nawabi and Nizami cuisine of Lucknow, Murshidabad and Hyderabad; it’s the Mughalia cuisine that has fetched a lot of influence from Lahore. Yet in my mind it doesn’t take away anything from the cuisine of Delhi. So what’s the Delhi food?

For the starters it’s the best barrack cuisine in the world, if I may say. The food and culture around Red fort in particular and Shahjahanabad in general exhibits how the merger of cultures – by virtue of either assault, rule, sufism or immigration – could create something as beautiful as “Dastarkhwaan-e-Dilli”.

Delhi cuisine lived in the barracks of Red Fort, the feasts of the sufis, the havelis of Mughal officers, Kayasth joint families and the mansions of the baniyas of Chandni Chowk; until 1911 happened and Delhi became the modern India’s Capital…

This reminiscence brought in the Raj cuisine and the Dining room culture at Connaught Place, creating a lovely contrast to Shahjahanabad cuisine (if I may use that term).

Then Lahore came back to Delhi and along with it came the tandoor and Turko-Afghan influences along with the partition, changing the face of Delhi cuisine again – a trend that continues till today making it India’s Food capital.

A big salute to a big city with a big heart…

I believe the Mughalia aspect of Delhi cuisine is much credited; which is great. But it majorly takes away from other beautiful influences on Delhi food whose mention is worthwhile!

The Mughalia Food Trail

So, let’s talk about those.

Starting from the beginning – the first influences were minimal, coming from the early Afghan invaders who usually never stayed. Then there were Arab raiders who established their presence in Sindh by the eighth century. However, it was only by 1200 AD that the first Sultan, of the Slave Dynasty, established his rule in Delhi. Amir Khusrau and Ibn Battuta have chronicled the Sultanate epoch to allow some insight into the era.

It’s amazing how that era must have witnessed the arrival of nuts into Indian cooking, the first cooked Pulavand Kebabs at Royal fare, the arrival of the Samosa, Falooda, Jalebi and Harissa (the precursor of today’s Haleem); the eminence of which has been lost in translation due to the improper documentation.

Another aspect that didn’t receive enough acknowledgement is the Sufi impact on Delhi’s cuisine. Amir Khusrau mentions that the meals at the sufi congregations were bold and vast enough to compete with the royal Dastarkhwaans. Also the aspect of communal eating can be credited to the Sufi influence. This was followed by the Mughalia Influences that came by way of more officers posted in Delhi than the emperors themselves.And hence the barrack food is still alive in the lanes of Shahjahanabad.

The Mughalia influences have indeed contributed to our country’s cuisine. However what needs to be understood is that the real food of Dilli is an amalgamation of Sultanate, Sufi, Mughal, Kayasth, Lahore, Punjab and Anglo-Indian influences. And much more needs to be spoken about it; else the real soul of Delhi will fade into oblivion.

The Mughalia Food Trail

As a dear friend and food historian Pushpesh Pant puts it, and I quote “While there is much greater awareness and better appreciation of foreign, regional and sub-regional cooking, somewhere in the process the precious gastronomic heritage of Delhi is getting lost.” More and more efforts are spent over writing the florid menus than on preparing a Qorma, Salan or Kaliya. It is quite rare that you would come across a halfway decent shami or seekh unless you are invited home in person. Some classics like Nargisi kofta or pasande are available only at shehar Purani Dilli. Takke-paise ki subzee is all but extinct. Bengali (chhena) sweets have been pushed to the margin, to the chewy sohan halwa. Phalsa sherbet has turned as analogous to the endangered species of flora and fauna. Paneer (fresh cheese) is ubiquitous and has alas pushed all the seasonal vegetables to an eternal exile!

This concludes my thoughts on Dilli ka khana…

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