Thursday, March 17, 2005

Please stop selling atrocious food in the name of the Mughals

First, let's get the important stuff out of the way. Which means hot gossip. Mr. Director just split with his wife! Of course as soon as we read the news, we called EM and told her. We haven't heard back since. S has a theory that EM is delirious with joy, but why exactly we're not sure. After all, she has a boyfriend of 9 years, and is not really attracted to Mr. Director, right? Right.

Now for my long and meandering rant. Which would only make sense if you have some knowledge of Indian culinary culture and different kinds of Indian cuisine. I could try to explain things more, but I think I'll gloss over a lot of things. But in any case, here's some background.

The Mughals ruled India for nearly 350 years, and their courtly cuisine evolved during these years. Initially the food of the Mughals displayed their Central Asian and Turkic roots (as a few mentions in Babarnama would show), but later Persophilia brought a lot of Persian influence into the cuisine. Of course Indian ingredients, techniques and spices got incorporated in the process of assimilation, giving us a cuisine sophisticated with varied influences, impossibly rich, complex and not something that someone with a family to feed or a restaurant to run would attempt on a daily basis. In this respect of course they were exactly like every other royal family anywhere else in the world.

Two offshoots of the declining Mughal dynasty (actually aristocrats working for the Mughals) went off to Lucknow and Hyderabad to start their own dynasties and took Mughal culinary sophistication with them. However, these offshoot cuisines evolved over time with newer techniques and local ingredients, hence the presence of tamarind in Hyderabadi Nizam cooking. The rulers of Lucknow made cuisine their special obsession, and in the twilight years of their rule, the food became incredibly elaborate. Outlandish descriptions pepper Abdul Halim Sharar's "Hindustan mein mashriqi tamaddun ka akhri namuna" (the last example of Eastern culture/civilization in India), a physician who was part of the Lucknow aristocracy before its fall to the British. And then of course 1857 happened. In Lucknow most of the highest level of aristocracy were put in exile away from the city, but many surviving in surrounding towns and countryside. In Delhi, the events were truly tragic. The entire population of the city was forced out, and later only the Hindu population allowed to return. The Muslims, especially the aristocracy were kept out for a long time, and when they were finally allowed to return, many chose not to, and many had already been dead. The ruling family was killed and the king exiled to Burma, where he died a lonely death.

Now why talk of 19th century Indian history in a discussion of cuisine? Because my point is, what existed as Mughal cuisine, the cuisine of the Delhi aristocracy, the residents of the Red Fort in Delhi, died with the events of 1857. The cultural milieu that sustained this refined culinary exercise was shattered, and there was no aristocratic class to patronize such food. Vestiges of the food were preserved within the food of the ruling families in small Northern Indian principalities and wealthy, upper-strata Muslim families with a certain savoir vivre. Thus it was only in Lucknow and surroundings that certain aspects of the cuisine were preserved as an everyday exercise. The Mughals were gone, taking Mughlai food with them.

So then what explains the fact that every second restaurant in India and outside it claims to serve Mughlai food? Hmmmmmm.....that in my opinion is the biggest food scam perpetuated on patrons of Indian restaurants. Most of these restaurants are run by restauranteurs who have virtually no knowledge of Mughlai and Lucknowi culinary traditions. All they need is a USP to sell their dodgy culinary output, and the name of the Great Mughals comes as a handy excuse. And their brilliant strategy? Pour fresh cream by the gallons in any dish and voila! you get to call it Shahi (royal) and its Mughlai provenance is established. And hence, atrocities like navratan korma (basically a mish-mash of veggies in cream), malai kofta (cheesy koftas dunked in cream) or the worst of all shahi paneer (fresh cheese chunks in a tomato-cream gravy). Most of the dishes at these restaurants are overspiced and smothered with tomato puree, an ingredient that the Mughlai cooks were virtually unaware of.

The saddest part of the story is, there are food writers in India and abroad who eat at these so called Mughlai restaurants and then shoot off about how awful Mughlai food is. Or those who make absurd statements about Mughlai food, about how it is all about the use of cream! These food writers are allowed to get away with outlandish statements about Mughlai food purely because there aren't too many out there who know better. There is, of course the venerable Jiggs Kalra, who's knowledge of North Indian culinary traditions is encyclopaedic. But Jiggs is more of a food consultant than a writer these days, and no one else in India has quite the breadth of knowledge and authority as him.

So faux "Mughlai" food continues to spawn and the cuisine itself keeps getting bad press because of these terrible restaurants. At least Lucknowi and associated culinary traditions have benefitted from the efforts of chefs like Imtiaz Qureshi (with his "Dum Pukht" restaurant, and no, for the last time, "Bukhara" is not a Mughlai restaurant!) and writers like R.K. Saxena (writer of Dastarkhwan-e-Awadh). But with Mughlai food, what we need is either a careful revival aided by food historians, talented chefs and those who have partaken some bit of Mughlai tradition in their families. Or else we should just accept the fact that it is a cuisine that had its heyday and then faded away in the aftermath of the tragic demise of the city of Delhi itself. If the Delhi celebrated in prose and poetry is no more, what hope is there for Mughlai food?

And if you still want a sense of what Mughlai culinary achievements were like, please, please, avoid the Indian restaurants and go to Persian one instead.

4 Comments:

Blogger The back of the hill said...

An excellent rant, with which I wholeheartedly agree, having worked in an Indian restaurant myself for several years (an establishment whose owner dreams of a Delhi that never was).

Mughlai, in restaurant parlance, means approximately nothing more than "my cook is a Punjabi" and "heart-attack on a plate".

It is remarkable that so many restaurateurs use terms like korma, kalia, kofta, etcetera, without having a clue where those terms came from, or how they entered Urdu.

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