From Nihari To Biryani, Several Emperors Have Paved The Way For The Present-Day Mughlai Delicacies
Image Credit: Be it Babur or Akbar, everyone has contributed to the Mughlai cuisine.

If you go to Lucknow or Hyderabad today, you will find a range of lip-smacking delicacies on the streets as well as in fine-dining restaurants and they are usually passed off as Mughlai cuisine. Be it the kakori kebabs or the spicy gosht, all falls under the umbrella term Mughlai. Now, when we come to think of it, Mughlai is closely related to the word Mughals. The Delhi Sultanate lasted for approximately 320 years, from the 13th to the 16th century. During this period, several dynasties established their rule. This period of a widespread Islamic control over the Sultanate saw the emergence of a number of Mughal emperors who established the Mughal empire from 15th century onwards, lasting till the 17th century post which Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last emperor became a part of the 1857 mutiny and was exiled. 

Beginning with Babur, the reign of Mughal emperors brought about significant influences in different spheres of life, some of whose impacts can be felt to this date. While the infrastructure and architecture were one of the most heavily influenced arenas, the cuisine of the country also underwent a great transformation. These changes were a result of the personal preferences and ideologies of the ruler at that time. Today, we known Mughlai cuisine as a meat-intensive fare but that wasn’t always the case since a few of the emperors were actually not very fond of eating meat. 

A closer look at the Mughlai cuisine will help you create links and see the stark similarities with several other culinary flavours like that of Persians, Afghanis and Uzbeks as well Kashmiris and Punjabis. The culmination of such diverse flavours on a plate has given rise to the oh-so-sumptuous Mughlai fare. The first in line was Babur whose immense love for fish was sparked by the fact that he couldn’t relish it back home. However, due to the same memories of his days in Uzbekistan, he yearned for fruits and vegetables from his homeland in Samarkand. 

While he did not give us any particular Mughlai dish that is consumed today, he can be definitely attributed for the interplay of Persian and Indian cooking styles in the royal kitchens by the Hindu cooks he had employed. As the reigns of the empire were passed on into the hands of his son, Humayun, there was a shift from war-focussed simple grilling diets to richer and fuller curries. Brought about by his wife Hamida, the fact that she was of Iranian origin made the Persian influences inevitable. From saffron to dry fruits, she brought a royal richness to the table. This also paved the way for Humayun’s fascination for sherbet, a cold beverage. Fruity flavours were added to the drink and served chilled with the goodness of nuts. 

The royalty considered food to be an integral part of hospitality as well as establishing political connections. The importance accorded to food surpassed all levels during the period of Akbar’s rule when he appointed a Minister of Kitchen, as mentioned in Ain-i-Akbari. The sheer act of designating someone to this role reflects the significance of the kitchen in the royal courts. Akbar’s love for freshly-grown vegetables in his own garden was seen in the way he took care of them by sprinkling them with rose water. 

With khansamas (cooks) from around the Indian sub-continent employed in the royal kitchen, there was bound to be some experimentation and innovation. Although Akbar, The Great was a vegetarian thrice a week and his wife Jodha Bai’s entry into the Mughal empire led to the introduction of several vegetarian dishes like the panchmel dal, there are also certain epicurean delights like Murg Mussallam and Navratan Korma which can be traced back to this time. The spicy marinated chicken stuffed with minced meat and garnished with dry fruits made this slow-cooked dish a master piece in its own regard that is relished to this date along with the nine gems (nine vegetables) dunked in a creamy korma. 

Following suit, the reign of Jehangir, who was next in line of order, also saw numerous interesting culinary experiments by his wife Nur Jahan which contributed to the evolution of Mughlai cuisine. Her fascination for rainbow-coloured yoghurts and fancy presentations became the highlight of the period and the legacy was carried on by their son Shah Jahan, who expanded the range of delicacies with the introduction of nihari, a spicy stew and biryani. 

Did you know that both nihari and biryani were born out of necessity? While the former was concocted as a spicy stew to cure a viral flu that was prevalent in the 17th century, the biryani was an enhanced version of the rice pilaf that is believed to have been devised by Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan’s wife, as a dish to provide wholesome nutrition and balanced diet to the soldiers of Shah Jahan’s army who looked weak and lean. 

Finally, when Aurangzeb took over the reigns of the empire, he was more inclined towards vegetarian delicacies including the panchmel dal yet there was one dish that he fancied the most, the Qubooli biryani. Made from Bengal gram, rice, curd, apricots and almonds, the aroma of this one-pot rice dish reached the ancient texts of Rukat-e-Alamgiri too. 

The shift from Agra to Shahjahanabad, the touch of Deccan flavours in the Mughlai kitchens and several other factors made the gastronomical pathway for Mughlai food, one to remember and devour even today.