Mughal, British influence in Diwali food

Sri Lankan Tamil devotees pray during the Hindu festival of Diwali at Shivm Kovi temple in Colombo (Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)

NEW YORK – Ah, I hear they have removed the Taj Mahal from the tourist dossier, or maybe not. It does not represent Indian culture, they say. The Taj—Emperor Shah Jahan’s immortal paean to lost love— is synonymous with India.

Regardless of the cacophony, this Diwali, the Taj will still stand silent, untouched and opalescent in the darkness of a moonless night under the shimmer of starlight, rising high above the feuds and the fights of shrieking humanity.

In Ukrainian culture, art and beauty are considered to be talismans, a protection from evil. And, in Diwali, it becomes all the more significant to embrace beauty from around the globe when we invite light to enter our worlds and shatter the unfolding darkness.

Nearly every Indian household, lit with a thousand lamps, will be stocked with food, either the nutty halwa or the intoxicating sherbet or syrupy gulab jamun with thin silvery foils that are reminiscent of vintage Mughal cuisine.

And how about the Anglo-Indian festive treats – the distinctive European flavors in the vindaloo, the prawn and chicken cutlets, the Mulligatawny soup and the ubiquitous apple and grape chutney?

For surely, how can we erase history flowing in our veins for centuries? The mysterious legends that have sprung up by the side of the waters of our beloved rivers?

In our own ancestral house, Diwali was an explosive affair of lights, diyas, and food. People from all walks and stations of life would partake in the eclectic feast spread out on the table from end to end.

They would, in turn, cook for us during Eid or Christmas or Baisakhi or Navroze as their occasions would allow.

Religion was the farthest from the mind; it was all about shared humanity.

To quote a haiku written by a 17th century Japanese poet, Matsuo Baisho:

Temple bells die out.
The fragrant blossoms remain.
A perfect evening!

Layers of colored rice sprinkled with cashews and raisins, mutton jal-farazi, vegetable kofta, puris and alu dum, fish cutlets and desserts of payesh, gulab jamun, sandesh and chocolate mousse – an assortment of food, reflecting the many strands of our heritage, was the mainstay of our Diwali revelry.

Of course, the biriyani, the center-piece of Mughal cuisine, distilled to perfection with creamy and smooth yogurt, saffron, cardamom, cinnamon, nuts and apricot, sat atop the glowing dining table.

Folklore has it that Mumtaz Mahal, the beloved wife of Shah Jahan on her visit to the Mughal army barracks, found the soldiers weak and emaciated. Appalled by their condition, she recommended a meal of meat and rice to build up their stamina. The result was none other than the opulent biriyani.

Initially, the “biriyani,” the Persian counterpart, was cooked without the rice. The meat was made tender with marinated spices, oil, salt, apricots and lemon. The later additions are said to have been the introduction by Arab traders to the Malabar Coast of India.

Salma Husain’s book, The Emperor’s Table, The Art of Mughal Cuisine, notes that Mughal cooking was an epiphany of colors, fragrances, table manners and protocol.

The Mughals were prolific documenters with books such as Ain-i-Akbari, Akbarnama, Alwat-e Nemat, devoting several chapters to the Emperors extravagant tastes and culinary preferences.

The hakim (physician) set the menu according to medicinally beneficial ingredients with about hundred different recipes served at every meal. More than a hundred staff worked, simultaneously, to set it to a smooth perfection.

Flowing overlays of Iranian, Afghani and Turkish blends were evident in the luscious use of fruits, nuts, raisins, flower petals, gold and silver foils.

Fragrant and gracious food was the leitmotif of Mughal cuisine.

The Ain-i-Akbari chronicled that Babur did not care for the traditional Indian food of millets, lentils and rice. He was nostalgic for the meats, the apricots, the figs and the grapes of his home town in Samarkhand, Central Asia. However, the fabulously spiced fish stew was something that he greatly enjoyed which he did not get back at home.

Humayun brought in Iranian influences to the table while Akbar who was vegetarian three times a week, included Indian fusions from Kashmir, Punjab and the Deccan. He had his own kitchen garden which he cultivated with rose water to add a touch a fragrance to his vegetables.

When Shah Jahan was informed that the water in his new city of Shahjahanabad was contaminated, he insisted that the kormas, the kebabs and the curries be cooked with turmeric, red chilies and coriander, to increase its medicinal value.

Rose and badam sherbets, the faloodas honey- soft with pistachios and pomegranates were their signature beverages that now occupy a sunny and bright spot in our cuisine.

If Mughal cuisine was fruity, aromatic and sumptuous, the British, brought in mellow accents to cooking with their teas, flavored with ginger and cardamom, their cucumber sandwiches and salads with colored peppers, tomatoes and green leafy vegetables.

A distinctive change in the kitchen style, with a dining table replacing the mats on the floor as places to eat, the use of china instead of the traditional banana leaf and the introduction of forks and knives, revolutionized our Indian homes.

In the nineteenth century, during the British Raj, the Nobel Laureate poet, Rabindranath Tagore, who was also a die-hard food connoisseur, slipped in multi-cultural recipes from all around the world to try out in his rambling mansion, Jorasanko Thakurbari, in North Calcutta.

Indian, Turkish, Mediterranean and western influences that formed the center of his serendipitous discoveries dominated the Thakurbari kitchen.

Along with Bengali delicacies, there were lamb and chicken pies, mutton roasts, chicken with pineapple, puddings and kebabs – recipes of which were noted in treasured menu cards that the poet carried with him from his travels abroad.

The legendary bard would also give away food in big bowls to anyone who visited him at meal time with only a meagre portion left for the family to eat.

This was also a time when cooking was considered a hallowed art and the recipe exercise books were a much-coveted inheritance by the women in the household.

There was fierce competition among the wives to recreate the magic of food the Tagore brothers had tasted, the measures and proportions of which were, inevitably, kept secret.

These delicate cadences of east and the west interplay have only served to heighten our ancient Indian sensibilities, making us more open, cosmopolitan and outward looking.

India is a country where different faiths met, collided, traded, loved and lived building up imprints of civilizations, richer than the previous with its rich amalgamation of heritage, new spins and widening boundaries – a combustive fusion of elegance and euphoria that defeats stalemate.

In my own home, as the evening will set on Diwali night and the last lamp lit, I will join in prayer with the words of another beloved Japanese Haiku poem

Silent the old town..
the scent of flowers
floating . . .
And evening bell

(Poppy Mookerjee is a journalist and a writer for more than a decade with American and Indian publications)



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here