Food - Courtly food

South Asian cuisine is strongly regional, influenced by variations in climate and geography. It is difficult to unravel the traditions of fine dining in early South Asia but it is clear from the Sanskrit literature, and from accounts of early travellers, that huge importance was given to food.

Wealthy people feasted on refined, expensive and select foods at festivals and religious celebrations. The courtly traditions of Muslims, Hindus and the Mughal Empire emphasised hospitality, an open and generous kitchen, and the use of seasonal and local delicacies. Even a simple daily meal began with ritual cleansing and appreciation. The preferences for particular foods could denote caste, ethnic group and religious orientation.

Muslim influence

The sultan sits on a richly decorated seat under a striped awning. He watches a pot cooking on a small stove.
The Sultan of Mandu watches preparation of a pudding. From the Nimmatnama-i Nasiruddin-Shahi (the Book of Recipes), c. 1500.

The advent of the Muslim rule between the 10th and 11th centuries resulted in a great fusion of culinary traditions. As Indian, Persian and Middle Eastern cuisine evolved they reached the peak of sophistication under the Mughals.

Muslim values emphasised communal dining, often with much of the court in attendance, for two meals a day. This style of eating began before the Mughals in the period of the Delhi Sultanate from the 12th to early 16th century. A unique manuscript, called the Ni'matnamah, in the British Library, provides a glimpse into the courtly style of the Sultans. It gives insight into how people dined as well as the ingredients they used.

The Ni'matnamah, or Book of Delights, dates to the turn of the 15th century, it lists recipes, remedies and aphrodisiacs from the court of the Sultan of Mandu, in Central India. It shows that a wide variety of ingredients were used to create delicious dishes, some of which are still cooked today. Ingredients included meat, vegetables, fruits, seeds, gums, resins, leaves, bark, stems, roots, tubers, juice and pollen. Some were made into flavoursome aromatic pastes, powders, pellets and essences like rosewater and kewra, made from flowers of the fragrant screwpine.

Hindu influence

The foods available in the contemporary Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagara which flourished from 1336 to 1565 are widely documented. Many of the dishes are still part of the culinary traditions of southern India today. A wide variety of tasty and nutritious produce were available, including rice, wheat, millets, pulses, barley and beans. Markets overflowed with all sorts of vegetables and fruits including mangos, jackfruits, oranges, limes, grapes, and pomegranates. Fruits were inexpensive and so available to all, even the average person.

The nobility ate lavishly. Meals began with mangoes and pickles of ginger and lemon. Plenty of fresh vegetables such as aubergines, pumpkins, gourds and green plantains were served flavoured with cumin, fenugreek, mustard seeds, sesame seeds and black pepper. Ghee, or clarified butter, was considered the supreme fat and many foods were drizzled with it or fried in it. Soups and salads were known, and sweets were usually consumed in the middle of a meal. As with the courts of the Sultanate, meat-eating was relished and fish was important in the coastal towns. The 12th century Manasollasa, or Book of Splendours, which lists many aristocratic culinary pleasures, describes various methods of cooking pork, venison, rabbit, different birds, as well as tortoises and field rats.

Mughal legacy

Painting showing a feasting scenes from the Ramayana-Balakanda
Image: Men and women sit separately in long rows on terraces. Serving men and women ladle out rice onto leaf plates set in front of each person.

These Muslim and Hindu traditions formed the historical backdrop to the courtly cuisine of the Indian sub-continent. Extravagant dining reached its pinnacle by the time of the Mughal Empire, between 1526 and 1707. What may be considered to be the classical cuisine of India, has become synonymous with the Mughals, and is even termed Mughlai.

The Mughals, who had an overwhelming impact on literature, music, painting and architecture, also revolutionised the culinary arts. They combined indigenous traditions with their Persian-influenced culture, refining it to please the eyes as well as the palate. Skillful at projecting imperial wealth and power, the Mughal emperors used sophisticated dining to impress their courtiers, subjects and foreign visitors.

They delighted in the beauty of art and nature and tried to develop and improve what pleased them. They planted gardens, and developed methods to improve crops such as mangos and cherries by grafting. They drank juices fragrant with essences and cooled with snow and ice brought down daily from the mountains. The imperial kitchens were run like a state department and hundreds of dishes were produced every day. Highly specialised cooks were responsible for particular activities. When a dish was specially approved by an emperor, it earned an appropriate name such as shahjahani, khichri alamgiri, akbari or shahi. A type of pomegranate soup was called anarkali shorba, named after a dancer at the court. A famous rice dish, garnished with colourful vegetables and fruits was called navratan or Nine Jewels after favourite courtiers.

The Mughals brought various nuts, fruits and grilled meats to their cuisine. Fragrant rice dishes were created and breads were cooked in clay ovens. They developed marinades using butter, cream and yoghurt. Spices such as nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and saffron were added to dishes. Food was decorated with flower petals or tissue-thin gold and silver-leaf called varkh. They followed the Indian tradition of serving pickles, relishes and freshly cut ginger and lime at the start of the meal. They ended the meal with the Indian custom of betel chews. An innovation was to serve the sweet course at the end, rather than at the beginning or in the middle.

This style set the standard for others to follow, so that even with the decline of the empire after 1707, rich cuisine continued to evolve at the courts of the Nizams of Hyderabad, the Nawabs of Lucknow and Bengal, and among the rulers of Rajasthan and Kashmir. Today in Pakistan and India, the legacy of the Mughals is reflected in the grand and luxurious foods served at formal banquets.