ni-matnama-article-330The book opens with a charming invocation: ‘King of cockroaches! Please do not eat this my offering to the culinary world -recipes of cooking food, sweetmeats, fish and the manufacture of rose-water perfumes.’  The recipes are for the shah’s favorite dishes, and many have such comments as ‘This is delicious’ or ‘This is a favorite of Ghiyath Shahi.’ They are not arranged in any particular order, and there is a lot of repetition. Recipes for sherbet, for example, are suddenly interspersed with those for soup, as if the thought of a liquid had jogged the compiler’s memory, while a recipe for fish may be followed by one for an aphrodisiac. Most of the recipes simply consist of lists of ingredients; amounts and cooking methods are missing. There are also recipes for perfumes, salves and pastes, medicines, and aphrodisiacs. As in earlier texts, there are warnings about the dangers of eating certain foods and food combinations, including milk with fish, radishes, mung dal, green vegetables, sour fruit, salt, or meat..

Ni’matnāma may owe its inspiration to the recipe collections of the Persian court, which focused on refined, luxurious and special occasion dishes and the Shah’s court included Persian artists and cooks. However, while the earliest paintings in the manuscript are  Persian in style, they become increasingly Indianized towards the end. This mingling of Persian and Indian styles is apparent in the recipes as well, although it is difficult to chart a progression.

Many of the dishes have Persian names: shorba (soup), paliv (broth or soup), qima (minced meat), baghra (a stew to which pieces of baked dough are added), dugh (a yogurt drink), naan (baked bread), yakhni (meat stew), kabobs or seekh (skewered meat), burani (a vegetable dish with yoghurt, often made with eggplants), halwa (a generic word for sweetmeats), sakba (a dish of meat, wheat flour and vinegar), harisya (harissa, a mixture of grains, usually wheat and barley, and meat), kash (a very thick pottage made of milk and flour) , ashsham([supper food: ash means food in Persian and sham means evening), baranj (rice), kofta (meat balls), sambusa (samosas), biryan (a general term for baked food), khashka (plain boiled rice), mahicha (slices of lentil dough added to a stew), paluda (a drink made of water thickened with flour and honey; also a noodle), pihiya (meat gruel), tatmaj/tutjam(vermicelli), thuli (a dish of spiced cracked wheat), qaliya (a stew), and  sherbet (a cold drink made from different ingredients) .

A characteristic Persian feature (although it is also found in earlier Indian writings) is the flavoring of stews with sour fruits, fruit juices, and green herbs, including sweet and sacred basil, orange, citron and lime leaves, and mint. For example, in one recipe parboiled rice is cooked with the leaves of sour orange, limes and citrons and basil; the leaves are removed and cardamom and cloves added imparting an Indian flavor. In another, rice is boiled with an orange stuffed with cloves, cardamoms, musk, camphor, saffron and rosewater. Green vegetables are sautéed with asafoetida, salt and ghee and then topped with sweet and holy basil, mango leaves, fresh lime leaves, sour orange leaves, and mint, each tied in a separate bunch. The vegetables are steamed briefly with the leaves, which are then thrown away.

Although there are several dozen recipes for rice, oddly, there is no mention of pulao, which The Oxford Companion of Food defines as ‘a Middle Eastern method of cooking rice so that every grain remains separate’. Pulao/pilaf  is usually flavored with meat or vegetables and cooked in ghee. Its origin is uncertain. Descriptions of the basic technique appear in 13th century Arab cookbooks, although the name pulao wasn’t used.. The word comes from the medieval Farsi pulao and the dish may have been created in the early 16th century at the Safavid court in Persia. The earliest reference in English is in the writings of Edward Terry in 1616: ‘Sometimes they boil pieces of flesh or hens, or other fowl, cut in pieces in their rice, which they call pillaw.’ Although dishes combining rice, meat and spices were prepared in ancient times, the technique of first sautéing the rice in ghee and then cooking it slowly to ensure the grains are separate probably came later with the Mughals.

Based on linguistic evidence, other dishes are of indigenous origin and many are vegetarian. They include: bara/bari (also spelled vada/vadi), deep fried balls made from ground grain or lentils), bhat (plain boiled rice), bhuji (fried vegetables), dal (lentils, both raw and cooked), ghee, puri (deep fried puffy bread), khichri (rice and lentils), khandvi (swollen parched grain), lassi (a yogurt drink), laddu (a round sweet), karhi or kadi (a yogurt and lentil stew), lapsi (a bulgar wheat porridge), and raita (yogurt with vegetables or fruit). Both puri (deep fried puffy bread) and chapati (an unleavened flat bread) are mentioned, though not parathas, which may be a later invention.

A few dishes are called ganvari or gharib[ii], which means rustic or a poor man’s food. These are very simple dishes – even kings sometimes want a break from elaborate dining. An example is green vegetables boiled in water or dal, flavored with vegetable oil, asafetida (a spice associated with Hindu cuisine), ginger, onions and black pepper and served with millet bread. Millet, a locally grown grain, features in a dozen or so recipes, boiled as rice, parched, or made into bread. Another ‘gharib’ recipe calls for cooked meat to be covered with dough, wrapped in a leaf and baked on hot coals.

Techniques in the Shah’s kitchens include sautéing in ghee or oil, deep frying, steaming, boiling, grilling, roasting on hot stones, baking on or in hot coals, and roasting in a pit. Many recipes call for venison, partridge, and other game. Sometimes meat is marinated before cooking.  Some dishes are prepared with as many as fifty spices and flavorings, which are added at different stages of the cooking process.

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[ii] In Urdu, the word gharib can mean either ‘foreign’ or ‘humble, poor.’ Although the translator uses the first meaning, the second translation seems more appropriate in the context.