The Kitchens and Nawabs of Oudh

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The princely state of Oudh set up in 1722 by Mughals came onto its own in 1818 after the weakening of the Mughal empire and subsequent declaration of independence from Delhi by Nawabs. The princely state in its zenith till its annexation by British in 1856 was known as the lavish patron not only of art and culture but also of rich culinary tradition. It was enriched even further by the migration of fine chefs from the Delhi Durbar  after the decline of the Mughal empire. The Shiite Nawabs, originally from Persia in rather peaceful circumstances of the time had few distractions and patronized the  good food tradition by their lavish praises and rather heavy culinary expenses. In fact the chefs gained so much personal access to the Nawabs and to the politics of the times that two of them went on to become the Prime Minister of Oudh ! One was the Hassan Raza Khan, originally the Khansaama of Nawab Shujauddaula who became the prime minister in the reign of Asifuddaula. The other one was Agha Mir, the khansaama of Nawab Saadat Ali Khan turning  into the prime minister of 7th ruler, Nawab Ghaziuddin Haider.

The direct royal patronage gave to Khansaama the liberty to experiment with the food leading to creation of humongous folklore surrounding the kitchen and the chefs. The softest Kebabs of Lucknow prepared by adding ingredients like raw papaya were made so soft to help the Nawabs who had rather fragile teeth. The story of thirty seer ghee used for making just Nawab favourite paranthas every day for Nawab Ghaziuddin is no less interesting. The prime minister of the Nawab shocked by the extravagance of almost 28 kg of desi ghee daily just for one dish for the king alone objected to the chef and asked him to be reasonable. The chef responded by preparing most ordinary and dry paranthas knowing well that the Nawab would himself enquire about it one day. So when Nawab asked about the poor quality of Paranthas the chef had the opportunity of airing his grievances, leading almost to the loss of the job for the poor Prime Minister. The Prime Minister saved himself by apologizing profusely to the Nawab and Chef both.The Ghee flowed again rather liberally !

One more popular story is of a egoistic chef who charged Rs 500 ( a huge sum almost 200 years ago) as salary in those days and cooked only Urad Dal or black lentils. It could be cooked only on the advance notice of 24 hours and had to be eaten immediately after its preparation. Once Nawab got late on dinner time and the chef  felt so much hurt that risking his life he poured all of it in the roots of a dry tree nearby and left his job that night itself. The folklore says that that dried up tree greened within a week ! The culinary tradition in fact was patronized by few of the Queens or Begums also. Quddisia Begum married to Nawab Nasiruddin used to spent Rs 1400 per day on her kitchen alone and had hired a specialty chef Pir Ali for cooking only Samosas for her. Author Ravi Bhatt in his book The life and times of the Nawabs of Lucknow writes that every day the food for the Nawab and his umpteen Queens and consorts was cooked in 6 different kitchens at the monthly cost of Rs 60000 excluding the salary of the cooks. The kings were so fond of their cuisines that Nawab Wajid Ali Shah after being deposed from Oudh in 1856 and forced to settle at Matia Burz in Kolkata with a pension of only Rs 12 lacs per annum,  did not forget to carry with him favorite Khansaamas along to settle with him in Kolkata. He was thus really serious about the saying, ” The Army marches on it stomach” !

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This top of the world patronage off course yielded results in the shape of some truly mouth watering irresistible delicacies. The tradition of Dum Pukht or slow and sealed simmering though originated from Persia, the native place of Nawabs of Lucknow but came on its own in Oudh in 18th century. In it the deg cooking the dishes were sealed with dough after putting inside the key ingredients and then allowing it to cook or simmer on wooden fuel. Holly Shaffer wiring about Nababs and Kebabs mentions that Nawab Asafuddaula during famines got this method to feed for the scores of laborers working for sort of food for work programe during famines in 1780s. The recipes were further strengthened by few other smaller but well known states like of Mahmoodabad in bordering district of Sitapur. The Raja there were known to employ an army of around 300 cooks just to cook for himself. The Kakori Kebabs made with delicate meats became popular from a dargah kitchen at Kakori, a small town close to Lucknow. Given as a sort of Tabarruk or Prasad the kebabs were given with rotis at dargah to pilgrims. Soon the recipe became a part of royal kitchen. The Biriyani of Oudh too became popular for its fine ingredient cooked in the dum pukht manner. Like wise many other recipes like Shami Kebabs, Nahari, Shab Deg, Zamin Doj Machili, Nargisi Kofta, Sheermaal, Kulcha, Zarada, Phirini became the prized recipes of royal kitchens and in fact continue still to enthrall the foodies around the world.

Thus the Royal kitchens of Oudh became one of the finest landmarks in the culinary traditions of India and they competed with the best of Mughal cuisines and the cuisines of Deccan particularly of Hyderabad which like Oudh provided valuable patronage to the chefs in that part of India. The recipes and the rich tradition fortunately have survived to great extent and in fact those outstanding recipes are now available to much wider group of connoisseurs than were available at the time of Nawabs. After all who would not relish Tundey’s kebabs in Lucknow said to be a carry over of secret recipes of the royal chefs.

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( This blog is sourced with liberal help from Ravi Bahatt’s book The Life and Times of Nawabs of Lucknow, the article of Holly Shaffer sourced from web, http://www.india-seminar.com/2007/575/575_holly_shaffer.htm and various other sources including anecdotes and stories heard by author since his own birth in the capital city, Lucknow.)