Gastronomy in the courts of Awadh

The most important activity in human life is eating. As any community or nation progresses, its diet is the most salient guide to its refinement. For this reason I should like to discuss the attitude of the court of Lucknow towards its cuisine and the extent to which the people of Lucknow improved the art of gastronomy.

At the time of Shuja ud Daula, the supervisor of the court kitchens was Hasan Raza Khan, who went by the name of Mirza Hasanu and came of a respectable Delhi family. A Shaikhzada, Maulvi Fazal Azim, had come to Lucknow from Safipur (Unao District, U.P.) to study. By a stroke of fortune he had been received into Mirza Hasanu’s house. The two had grown up together and Mirza Hasanu appointed him assistant supervisor of the kitchens. It was Fazal Azim’s custom to prepare the trays for dinner, then put his seal on them and take them to the Nawabs antechamber. He would personally hand them to Bahu Begums special maidservants and thus ensure that nothing detrimental was done to the food. He also kept on good terms with the maidservants.

Nawab Shuja-ud-Daula had his meals inside the Palace with his wife Bahu Begum. The maidservants brought the trays to the Begum, uncovered them in her presence and place the food on the Dastarkhwan [tablecloth]. Each day food for the Nawab and the Begum came from six separate kitchens. Firstly, there was the Nawabs own main kitchen supervised by Mirza Hasanu. In this two thousand rupees a day were spent on food, so that, apart from the wages of cooks and other servants, 60,000 rupees a month were spent on food and delicacies. The second was the subsidiary royal kitchen, the supervisor of which was originally Mirza Hasan Ali, but later on was Anbar Ali Khan, a eunuch; here three hundred rupees a day were spent on food. The third kitchen belonged to Bahu Begum’s apartments, supervised by Bahar Ali Khan, also a eunuch. The fourth was the kitchen of Nawab Begum, Shuja ud Daula’s mother, the fifth, Mirza Ali Khan’s, and the sixth that of Nawab Salar Jang. These last two were Bahu Begum’s brothers.

All these six kitchens were excellent and every day produced the most sumptuous and delicious food for the dinner of the ruler. One day a fly emerged from the Nawab’s dish which had been prepared in the royal kitchen. The Nawab was very annoyed and asked, ‘Where has this food come from?’ The maidservant thought that if she mentioned the royal kitchen, her adopted brother the Maulvi would get into trouble, so she said, ‘Sir, the meal has come from Nawab Salar Jang’s kitchen.’

After Shuja-ud-Daula’s time Asaf ud Daula gave Mirza Hasan Raza Khan the title of Sarfaraz ud daula and honoured him with the khilat. Hasan Raza then thought that supervising the kitchens was beneath his dignity and appointed Maulvi Fazal Azim for the task, who now took the dinner trays to Asaf ud Daula’s antechamber. He then collected some of his relatives to help him, amongst whom were his brother Maulvi Faiq Ali and his two cousins Ghulam Azim and Ghulam Makhdum. The four used to take turns to convey the meals to the antechamber. Following Asaf-ud-Daula’s reign, during the short period of Wazir Ali Khan’s rule, Tafazur Husain Khan became Vazir. He sent these relatives back to Safipur and appointed Ghulam Muhammad, popularly known as Bare Mirza, to be supervisor of the kitchens.

Thus from the time of Shuja-ud-Daula a very high standard of cooking was maintained. The very best cooks were enlisted, elaborate efforts were made in the preparation of foods and innovations were introduced. Expert cooks from Delhi and other places polished up their skills and invented new delicacies and special savours.

Sarfaraz-ud-Daula Hasan Raza Khan would prepare the most wonderful meals. He himself was extremely fond of good food and entertaining and as supervisor of the main royal kitchen he had every opportunity of displaying his talents. Scores of nobles became connoisseurs of good food, though Nawab Salar Jang’s family was the most celebrated for its innovations and delicacies.

Reliable sources tell us that Nawab Salar Jang’s cook, who prepared food for him alone, received a monthly salary of 1,200 rupees, an amount greater than the salary of any cook in the highest courts in the history of India. This cook used to prepare the most enormous pulaus, which no one except Salar Jang could digest. One day Nawab Shuja ud Daula said, ‘why have you never offered me any of those pulaus which are cooked for you?’ Salar Jang replied, ‘Certainly, I will have one sent to you today.’ Accordingly he asked his cook to prepare a pulau, but of twice the usual amount. His cook replied, ‘I am responsible only for your meals and I cannot cook for anyone else.’ Salar Jang said, ‘The Nawab has expressed the desire, can’t you possibly make him a pulau?’ The cook continued, ‘I can’t cook for anyone else, whoever he may be.’ After much persuasion on the part of Salar Jang, the cook finally agreed on condition that he himself would take the pulau to the Nawab, who would eat it in his presence, that he would not allow the Nawab to eat more than a few mouthfuls, and that Salar Jang would provide the Nawab with plenty of cold water. Salar Jang agreed. The cook prepared the pulau and Salar Jang himself placed it on the dastarkhwan. As soon as he had tasted the pulau, Shuja-ud-Daula was full of praise and began to eat heartily. He had taken only a few mouthfuls, however, when Salar Jang tried to stop him. Shuja-ud-Daula looked at him with annoyance and continued eating. But after a few more mouthfuls he became exceedingly thirsty and was happy to drink the cold water that Salar Jang had brought with him. Finally his thirst was quenched and Salar Jang went home.

In those days the best food was considered to be that which appeared light and delicate but was in fact heavy and not easily digestible. People with old fashioned taste still have a penchant for this sort of food but today it is not generally popular.

A special art was to produce one particular substance in several different guises. When placed on the table it looked as if there were score of different kinds of delicacies, but when one tasted them, one found they were all the same. For instance, I have heard that a Prince Mirza Asman Qadar, the son of Mirza Khurram Bakht of Delhi, who came to Lucknow and became a Shia, was invited to dine by Wajid Ali Shah. Murabba, a conserve, was put on the dastarkhwan which looked very light, tasty and delicious. When Asman Qadar tasted it he became intrigued because it was not a conserve at all but a qaurma (korma), a meat curry, which the chef had made to look exactly like a conserve. He felt embarrassed and Wajid Ali Shah was extremely pleased at having been able to trick an honoured Delhi connoisseur.

A few days later, Mirza Asman Qadar invited Wajid-Ali-Shah to a meal. Wajid Ali Shah anticipated that a trap would be laid for him, but this did not save him from being taken in. Asman Qadar’s cook, Shaikh Husain Ali, had covered the tablecloth with hundreds of delicacies and many varieties of comestibles. There were pulau, zarda, qaurma, kababs, biryani, chapatis, chutneys, achars, parathas, shir mals – in fact every kind of food. However, when tasted they were all found to be made of sugar. The curry was sugar, the rice was sugar, the pickles were sugar and the bread was sugar. It is said that even the plates, the tablecloth, the finger bowls and cups were made of sugar. Wajid Ali Shah tried everything and became more and more embarrassed.

I have said that trays of food for Nawab Shuja-ud-Daula’s dinners came from six different kitchens. This practice was not confined to him alone. It continued after his time and the honour was also accorded to some chosen nobles and especially to the royal relations.

My friend Nawab Muhammad Shafi Khan Nishapuri tells me that his grandfather, Nawab Agha Ali Hasan Khan, an eminent noble, used to send roghni roti, a rich bread, and meetha ghi [ghee], clarified butter, from his house to king. This bread was so fine and cooked with such care that it was not thicker than paper. The meetha ghee was a very special product which had to be prepared with great care.

In Delhi the most popular food was biryani, but the taste in Lucknow was more for pulau. To the uninitiated palate both are much the same, but because of the amount of spices in biryani there is always a strong taste of curried rice, whereas pulau can be prepared with such care that this can never happen. It is true that a good biryani is better than an indifferent pulau, for the pulau may be tasteless and this is never so in the case of a biryani. But in the view of gourmets a biryani is a clumsy and ill-conceived meal in comparison with a really good pulau and for that reason the latter was more popular in Lucknow. There are seven well-known kinds of pulaus in Lucknow. I can remember the names of only gulzar, the garden, nur, the light, koku, the cuckoo, moti, the pearl and chambeli, jasmine; but in fact scores of different pulaus are served. Muhammad Ali Shah’s son Mirza Azim ush Shan, on the occasion of a wedding, invited the parents of the bride and bridegroom to a dinner at which Wajid Ali Shah was also present. For that occasion there were seventy varieties of savoury pulaus and sweet rice dishes.

At the time of Ghazi ud Din Haidar, Nawab Husain Ali Khan of Salar Jang’s family was a great gourmet who had scores of different varieties of pulaus prepared for him. These were so light and delicate that no other nobleman could compete with him. Even the King envied him and gourmets would call him ‘the rice man’.

During the reign of Nasir-ud-Din Haidar, a cook came to Lucknow who made Khichri using pistachio nuts and almonds instead of rice and lentils. He cut the almonds into rice-shapes and the pistachio nuts into the shape of lentils so perfectly that when cooked the dish looked exactly like khichri. Once savoured, the taste could never be forgotten.

At the time of Nawab Sadat Ali Khah there was an expert cook who made nothing but gulathis, rice puddings. This was the splendor of the royal table, the favourite dish of the ruler and such a delicacy that the noblemen all longed for it.

There is a story about a new cook who came before Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula. He was asked, ‘What do you cook?’ He answered, ‘I only cook lentils.’ When he was then asked what wages he required he replied, ‘Five hundred rupees.’ The Nawab agreed to employ him but the cook said, ‘I will only take on service under certain conditions.’ When asked what those were, he said, ‘When your Excellency wishes to eat my preparation of lentils, you must order it the day before and when I tell you it is ready you must eat it right away.’ The Nawab agreed to these conditions and some months later ordered the cook to prepare his lentils. The cook did so and when it was ready informed the Nawab who said, ‘All right, put it on dastarkhwan, I am coming in a minute.’ The dastarkhwan was laid but the Nawab became engaged in conversation. The cook reminded him again but the Nawab tarried. After a third reminder, when the Nawab still did not appear, the cook took the pot of lentils, emptied it on the roots of a withered tree and departed. The Nawab regretted this and instituted a search but no trace of the cook was found. Some days later it was seen that the tree under which the lentils had been thrown was now blossoming. There is no doubt that this incident has been exaggerated. Still, one can judge from it the esteem accorded to cooks at the court and realize with what liberality an expert chef was treated.

Seeing the interest that the wealthy took in matters of food, cooks tried various innovations. One invented a pulau which resembled anar dana [pomegranate seed] in which half of each grain of rice was fiery red like a ruby and the other half was white and sparkled like a crystal. When the pulau was put on the table it looked as if the dish had been filled with coloured jewels. Another cook produce a nau ratan [nine-precious-gem] pulau, in which the rice was coloured to reproduce the nine well-known gems and the colours were so pure and so polished that they were a delight to the eyes. Many more delicacies of this nature were created which became known to different houses and kitchens.

Of the noblemen interested in food, one was Nawab Mirza Khan Nishapuri, who was reputed to have a vasiqa of 14,000 rupees a month. He showed such talent in producing delicious food and enlisting the services of expert chefs that his dastarkhwan became famed throughout the city. Another was Mirza Haidar, also of Nishapur. He was such an honoured and respected nobleman that the Nishapuri community in Lucknow acknowledged him as their leader. It was his practice whenever he accepted an invitation to take with him all the items necessary for the preparation of betel leaf and a hundred or more huqqas [hookahs], as well as the necessary equipment for cooling drinking-water. This was a great help to people of moderate means, who would make sure to invite him. In this way all arrangements for huqqas, betel leaf and drinking-water would be his responsibility and these arrangements were always perfect.

Three classes of people were employed in preparing food. First there were the scullions who cleaned enormous pots and dishes and worked under the cook. Second was bawarchi, the cook, who prepared the meals in large quantities. Third was rakabdar, the chef, who was the most expert and usually cooked in small pots for a few people only. He considered it beneath his dignity to produce food in large quantities. Cooks, too, like to prepared in small quantities, but chefs never do otherwise because in addition to cooking to cooking, they are occupied with the presentation and serving of the food. They adorn the dishes with dried fruits cut into the shape of flowers, edible silver foils and other embellishments. They prepare light, delicious conserves and pickles and exhibit their skill in the gastronomic art in subtle ways.

Ghazi-ud-Din Haidar was fond of parathas. His chef used to cook six parathas a day and put five seers [approximately ten pounds] of ghee into each, that is to say, he used thirty seers of ghee a day. One day the Wazir Motamad-ud-Daula Agha Mir sent for him and asked, ‘What do you do with thirty seers of ghee a day?’ He said, ‘Sir, I cook parathas.’ The wazir asked him to cook a paratha so that he could witness this. The chef did so and put in all the ghee it would hold and threw the rest away. Motamad-ud-daula said with astonishment, ‘You have not used all the ghee.’ The chef said, ‘What is left over is not worth keeping for another meal.’ The wazir could not understand the answer and said; ‘Only five seers of ghee a day will be given to you, one seer for each paratha.’ The chef said, ‘Very well, I will cook with that much ghee.’ He was so angry at the wazir’s interference that he started to cook very indifferent parathas for the King’s table. After a few days the King remarked, ‘What is wrong with these parathas?’ The chef said, ‘Your Majesty, I cook the parathas as Nawab Motamad-ud-daula Bahadur has ordered.’ The King asked for details and was given a full account. He immediately sent for the wazir who said, ‘Your Majesty, these people rob you right and left.’ On this the King became angry and slapped him, saying, ‘Don’t you rob? You who rob the whole monarchy and the whole country and think nothing of it? He only takes a little too much ghee for my meals and you don’t like it.’ The wazir repented, showed his contrition and the King, exercising his clemency, gave him a khilat. The wazir never interfered with the chef again and the latter continued to take thirty seers of ghee as before.

Credits : Last Phase of an Oriental Culture by Abdul Halim Sharar