Moghul India

views updated

Moghul India

Indian cuisine reached its zenith in the royal kitchens of the kings, nawabs, and maharajas the one-time rulers of India's princely states who patronized art and culture, and enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. Among the varied cuisines that were native to India or borrowed from other world cultures and amalgamated within the Indian milieu, the one that stands at the forefront is "Moghlai cuisine," named for the era of the Grand Moghuls during which time it developed and became immensely popular. So rich and grand was this cuisine that it left a lasting impact on and influenced other equally grand cuisinesthe Awadhi cuisine of Lucknow and of the Rampur royal family in North India and the Hyderabadi cuisine within the state of Nizam in the Deccan region.

In spite of multiple invasionsby the Aryans in 200 b.c.e., the Greeks led by Alexander the Great in 326 b.c.e., the Moghuls in the sixteenth century, the British in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the more limited incursions of the Mongols, Huns, Arabs, Turks, Afghans, Portuguese, and Dutch in betweenIndia still managed to establish and maintain its own unique cuisine, with that of the Moghuls being a major influence.

Muslim incursions into India began as early as 712 c.e. However, their presence only began to be felt around 1000 c.e., starting with the raids of Mahmud Ghaznavi. The first Muslim kingdom was declared in India in the twelfth century with the establishment of the "Delhi sultanate," although it was not until 1526 that Babur the Mughal, a descendant of Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, successfully invaded the Punjab and proclaimed himself emperor of India. Humayun, Akbar, Jehangir, Shah Jehan, and Aurangzeb, with whose death in 1707 c.e. the empire effectively came to a close, followed Babur as emperor.

During Babur's rule, a Moghul era with unparelleled power flourished. Architectural projects involving the construction of great cities, palaces, mosques, and monuments were executed in North India. This time period also marked the genesis of a "cuisine" later designated as Moghuls' cuisine in India. While cherishing their cuisine, Babur and his successors, soon titled Grand Moghuls, inadvertently enhanced many facets of Indian life. They introduced a unique grandeur and style to an otherwise austere Indian hospitality.

Moghul cuisine is classified as the richest and most lavish cuisine of North India. It revolves around lamb preparations for which it is famous. Prepared with cream, luscious fruits, and almonds, and served with rich pulaos (preparations of rice), the gamut of lamb preparations can be described in one sentence: "A really superb North Indian cook can produce a different lamb dish for every day of the year." History, tradition, and religion have encouraged North Indian cooks to experiment with lamb dishes. Because of their Muslim backgrounds, Moghul kitchens could not use pork. The use of beef was also actively discouraged in a predominantly Hindu country. And, neither geography nor habit permitted the ready inclusion of fish or seafood in the diet. Although Moghlai cuisine came to include some excellent chicken dishes, they never compared in quality or scope with the supreme Moghlai culinary achievement, the inspired cooking of lamb. It was mandatory that the animal be slaughtered by cutting the jugular vein with a sharpened knife and while uttering the name of Allah. The meat produced from this type of slaughter, that is, by bleeding the animal to death, was called halal meat.

To the somewhat austere Hindu dining ambience, the Muslims brought a refined and courtly etiquette of both group and individual dining, and of sharing food and fellowship. Food items indigenous to India were enriched with nuts, raisins, spices, and ghee (clarified butter). These included meat and rice dishes (pulaos ), dressed meats (kebabs), stuffed items (samosas ), desserts (halwa and stewed fruit), and sweetened drinks (falooda and sherbet). New dishes enriched the cuisine of the land, like those made of wheat finely ground with meat (halim and harisa ), the frozen kulfi, a rich ice cream of milk solids, or the jalebi (a sweet made from gram flour, which is deep-fried and sweetened in sugar syrup). The Muslims influenced both the style and substance of Indian food.

Moghlai cuisine consists generally of sharbat i labgir (a very sweet sherbet), naan e tanuk (light bread), naan e tanuri (chapatis cooked in tandoors), samosas (whole wheat pastry stuffed with meat, onion, etc.), mutton, the flesh of birds such as quail and sparrow, halwa, and sabuni sakar (a mixture of almonds, honey, and sesame oil). Wine was also customarily served. After the meal, it was customary to serve betel leaf to refresh the palate and to aid digestion.

Vast table settings and spreads were commonplace. However, most eating was done by hand, although spoons and knives were used for serving and carving. The hospitality of the elite Moghuls was legendary. It was often the case that a nobleman's entire staff would be fed their main midday meal at his home. This would comprise naan (bread baked in a tandoor), goat meat, chicken biryani, a cup of wine, sherbet, and betel leaf. Frequently, the nobles ate their meals together and the unconsumed food would be distributed to beggars.

During the reign of Akbar, there were three classes of cooked dishes. The first, called safiyana, was consumed on Akbar's days of abstinence. No meat was eaten on these days, and the dishes were either rice-or wheat-based. The rice-based dishes included zard birinj (saffron rice), khuska (boiled rice), khichri (a dry preparation of rice and lentils cooked together), and sheer birinj (rice cooked with milk and sweetened). The wheat-based dishes included chichi (essentially the gluten of wheat isolated by washing and then seasoned). Also included in the meal were lentils, palak saag (spinach), halwa (a generic name for a dessert made by cooking one ingredient like carrots with milk solids and clarified butter, and then sweetening it with sugar), and sherbets. Both meat and rice cooked together, or meat and wheat prepared together, constituted the next set of dishes. Those with rice included pulaos, biryanis, shulla (a spicy mix of rice, lentils, and meat), and shurba (a thick soup). Those with wheat included halim and harisa (both are made by pounding wheat and meat together with spices), and kashk and qutab (both prepared with meat and wheat with different spices). The third class of cooked dishes were those in which meat was cooked with ghee (clarified butter), spices, curd, eggs, and so forth, to yield dishes such as yakhni (a mutton preparation), kebabs, dopiyaza (literally, "twice onions," once at the start of cooking in ground form and then later sliced and fried), mussaman (a mélange of minced meat, onions, herbs, and spices used as a stuffing), dumpukh (meat or vegetable dry-cooked in a heavy-bottomed, tightly sealed pan on a slow fire), qaliya (a meat dish cooked with a vegetable, in which the gravy is thick and saucelike), and malghuba (a spicy meat dish).

Variations of bread served were either thick, made from wheat flour and baked in an oven, or thin, made from unleavened dough and baked on iron plates using a dough of either wheat or khushka (boiled rice). The Persian Muslims preferred leavened bread baked in an underground oven. The paratha (whole wheat bread, layered with fat and baked on a griddle) was an adaptation of the deep-fried pooris (whole wheat dough, rolled out and deep-fried). The more affluent Muslims ate baqar khani (leavened bread enriched with clarified butter), whereas shirmal (a sweet baked bun-type bread) was even more upscale than baqar khani.

Raw materials came from various places: rice from Bharaij, Gwalior, Rajori, and Nimlah; ghee from Hissar; ducks, water fowl, and certain vegetables from Kashmir; and fruits from across the northwestern borders as well as from all over the country. Babur's personal fascination with Indian fruits was evident in his description of them, his names for the fruits sometimes making a technical comment on their variety: the citrus phylum-orange, lime, citron, santhra and galgal (both are species of orange), jambiri lime (rough lemon), amritphal (perhaps the mandarin orange), and amal bid (a citrus fruit).

A favorite breakfast for common Muslims was naan accompanied by kheema (minced meat) or kebabs. Rice and onions, and rice-based desserts, such as phirni (rice flour cooked with milk and sweetened), sheer birinj (rice and milk cooked together and then sweetened) blended with milk and sugar, halwas, and dried fruits were other delicacies. The Muslims also adopted the Hindu habit of chewing betel leaves stuffed with areca nuts and spices after a meal.

Eminent citizens who lived in grandeur relished serving opulent preparations, which could number as many as fifty types at a time. Most of the preparations served were those inspired by the Persians and Iranians, and included such dishes as khormas (meat, chicken, or fish with a sauce of creamy consistency), kebabs, rotis (unleavened bread), and pulaos. The marriage of the Persian Princess Noor Jehan to Indian Prince Jehangir also contributed to the import of many delicacies to India and this had its own profound effect on Moghul cuisine.

The art of retaining the rudimentary character of a food preparation while incorporating multiple seasonings was mastered by Indian chefs. A classic illustration is the preparation of Moghlai biryani. This dish is also a model for the fusion characteristic of cooking from a bygone era. Two odd or incompatible ingredientsrice and lambwere not only marinated, but also married with spices, curds, saffron, an aromatic mixture of spices, and garnished with varq (silver leaves).

Although there is room for modification or different styles in biryani, its basic formula is as steadfast as that of another speciality, kebabs. Through the multiple processing of lamb, which was minced, steamed, skewered, broiled, cubed, or sliced, Moghul chefs demonstrated great dexterity in the preparation of this dish. The two most popular dishes in the kebab family were shammi kebab (a combination of minced lamb, nuts, and chickpeas, stuffed with chopped onions and green chilies) and nargisi kebab (a hard-boiled egg covered with a preparation of minced lamb, onions, spices, and herbs, and then deep-fried).

Chefs were trained to present their food as impressively as possible. Some even went as far as preparing khichri (a rice and lentil preparation) with almonds and pistachio nuts, which were cut to resemble grains of rice and lentils. This was all done for visual effect. Colors also played a major role in food presentation. Various permutations and combinations were used to make the appearance of the dish as attractive as the taste.

The Moghuls introduced rich, milk-based sweets in India. Tiny bits of bread coated with sugar and ghee were prepared for the ceremonies of Fatiha (prayers offered to one's ancestors) and Niyaz (prayers offered to the Prophet). Malida (a sweet made with broken bread, sugar, and ghee, although the bread is often replaced with semolina) was another sweet dish. Gradually, milk, which had been thickened by boiling it down, replaced flour in the preparation of sweets. The Moghuls were also fond of candies and conserves. During their reign, murabbas (sweetened preserves) and achars (pickles) were developed and commonly used. Halwa, a sweet item, would be made with a variety of ingredients, from which it would take its name. For instance, if made from carrots, it would be called "carrot" halwa, if made from lentils, it would be called "lentil" halwa, and so on. Halwa is said to be of Arab origin. The most popular halwas with the Muslims were sohan (a sticky wheat confection), papri (a crispy sweet confection made with wheat and sugar), habshi (made with wheat, reduced milk, and sugar), and dudhia (made with bottle gourd, reduced milk, and sugar). Barfi (a dry, white, soft sweet like a milk cake) originated in Persia (baraf means snow in the Persian language). Balu shahi (a sweet, glazed wheat patty), khurme (a date-shaped sweet), nuktiyan (a sweet dish made of wheat and sugar shaped as small beads), gulab jamun (croquettes made of milk solids, deep-fried until golden brown, and then soaked in sugar syrup), and dar behisht (a sweet dish of rice flour and thickened milk) were all developed during this era. Jalebis originated in Arabia, where they are called zalabia (a gram flour batter, piped out in circles in hot oil, deep-fried until crisp, and then soaked in sugar syrup).

Food that was served at feasts at home or transported to another setting was called tora. This comprised a pulao (a rice-based dish); muzafar (a sweet, rich rice dish flavored with saffron); mutanjan (meat, sugar, and rice with spices); shirmal (a sweet baked bun-type bread); safaida (a simple sweet rice dish); fried aubergine; shir birinj (a rich sweet rice dish boiled in milk); qaurma (a meat curry); arvi (a fried vegetable with meat); shammi kababs (croquettes of meat and lentils); and murabba (sweetened preserves), achar, pickles, and chutney.

Regional environments influenced dietary rituals in India. Meat or any type of flesh is forbidden after a funeral. No food is cooked in the house of mourning for forty days after the death. Women who are seven months pregnant receive vegetables, dried fruit, and cake on their laps. After an engagement ceremony, dates and sugar are distributed to the family of the groom-to-be. At the wedding, the bride and her kinswomen eat from the same plate, a practice that would be unthinkable in the Hindu world. Islamic festivals such as Bakrid, Id, and Moharram are celebrated all over India. The foods consumed by the community have a strong Islamic influence. Maleeda (broken bread, sugar, and ghee) is a common ritual offering.

The Moghul emperors relished the practice of eating paan (betel leaf). Two betel leaves formed one bira : One leaf was stuffed with supari (betel nut) and kattha (Acacia catechu, heartwood extract), and the other leaf would have chuna (lime). Sometimes, the betel leaves contained kapur (camphor) and musk. When chewed, this sweetened the breath and reddened the lips. Paans were bestowed as a mark of royal favor on courtiers. By the end of the seventeenth century, a paandaan (a container for betel leaves and other ingredients) was given as a royal present to ambassadors and nobles.

The Moghul emperors favored water from the Ganges River. People with the highest integrity oversaw the transportation and distribution of water, from the source to its points of consumption. The water was tasted before consumption as a precautionary measure against poisoning. The use of wine was neither prescribed nor forbidden in the Mughal fraternity.

Devout Muslims celebrate three main festivals, each of which is replete with its own food requirements:

  • Ramadan is observed as a time of fasting and austerity. During this period, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, breaking their fast only with the setting sun. The month culminates in the festival of 'Id al-fitr, where alms are distributed. Traditionally, sheer qurma (a sweet dish of milk, vermicelli, nuts, and dried fruits) is made on this day and offered to family and guests. Haleem and hareesa are other dishes that are commonly eaten at this celebration as they are very nutritious.
  • Id uz zuha, or Bakrid, commemorates the sacrifice of Ishak by prophet Ibrahim in the name of God. However, God instructs Ibrahim to sacrifice a ram instead. On this day, Muslims sacrifice lambs, goats, rams, and cows and feast on ritual pulaos, biryanis, curries, and roasts. These are then sent to family and friends not in attendance.
  • Muharram is observed in honor of the saint Hussain, who fell in battle against Yazid, the tyrant ruler of Arabia. Meat is strictly avoided on this day. Khubooli (a simple austere dish of rice and chickpea lentils), yogurt and rice, and zarda (a sweet dish made with rice) are prepared and offered in prayers.

See also Asia, Central ; Hindu Festivals ; Hinduism ; Islam ; Middle East ; Ramadan ; Religion and Food ; Zoroastrianism .


Acharya, K. T. Indian Food: A Historical Companion. 1994.

Acharya, K. T. A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food. 1998.

Ansari, Muhammad Azhar. Social Life of the Mughal Emperors, 15261707. New Delhi, 1974.

Rao, Shavaji, and Shalini Devi Holkar. Cooking of the Maharajas. New York: Viking, 1975.

Rau, Shanta Rama. The Cooking of India. New York: Time Life Books, 1975.

Sharar, Abdul Halim. Lucknow: The Last Phase of the Oriental Culture. London: Paul Elek, 1975.

Thangam Philip