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Khana from Sailana

Custodian to a huge repertoire of elusive, regional recipes, the royal family from Sailana is finally serving up the secrets thanks to revival efforts by the Park hotels

By Anoothi Vishal

Unlike France, where culinary maps, strictly-followed recipes and clearly etched-out techniques define the practice of cuisine and, even, say Thailand, where funeral books are strangely popular not in the least because they carry prized family recipes, India has never had a tradition of codifying recipes. Recipes have always been passed, word-of-mouth, from one cook to his descendants, mother to daughter and so forth. And the only community I can think of where these have traditionally been written, and passed on as legacies is perhaps the Chettiyars. But even those accounts are tough to come by and remain zealously guarded in the familial domain.
All this, of course, means that traditional recipes in India typically die out with the passing of an older generation and our cuisines, so diverse and varied, eventually languish. The last one-two years have seen some change in that the boom in Indian publishing and interest around food have come together to give us a bevy of cookbooks on elusive community cuisines. But apart from family lore and recipes from mothers and grandmothers, what is really the kind of material available to any researcher into the evolution of Indian cuisines? More often than not, the handful of early accounts that we do have are courtly tomes, dealing with elite food concocted for kings and princes; not really the cuisine of the common tables.

Of course, it is not to say that these accounts are not fascinating and invaluable. Ain-i-Akbari, for instance, talks in detail about the Mughal kitchen, about Akbar’s great belief in the water from the ganga (in which all food was cooked), in a separate category of vegetarian food that the emperor had on days he would ritually abstain from meat and so forth—all giving us a picture of a Mughal India where cultural amalgamation had perhaps taken place and become a way of life. The Mansollasa, a Sanskrit text, purportedly dating back to the 11th century and written by Chalukya king Somesvara, has chapters on cooking and lists several varieties of fish, for instance. Lesser known works include the Sarbendra Pakashastra from Tanjuvar, written by a 19th century ruler, complete with recipes, including for south Indian kebabs!

Undoubtedly, as patrons of the arts (including the culinary art), the erstwhile royal families are custodians of a huge slice of culture. Amongst those who have managed to hold on to some of that is the Sailana family.

“The Cooking Delights of Maharaja Digvijay Singh”, or the Sailana cookbook as it is known to its fans, was first published almost 30 years ago. It is by far one of the best cookbooks ever to have come out in India —and not because of any glamorous pictures or marketing pitch. Instead, the recipes collected and perfected by the former ruler of Sailana, a small princely state in Madhya Pradesh bordering Rajasthan, speak for themselves. Each of the 164 recipes are precise, flavourful and guaranteed to give perfect results (I have tried them). Which is why, perhaps, the tome, now out of print, is rated so highly and there are enough women who will tell you how this formed part of their wedding trousseaux (it did of mine).
Last week, I was fortunate to come across Vikram Singhji, Maharaja Digvijay Singh’s son, and as passionate a cook as the late ruler, who not only told me the incredible story behind the Sailana recipes but also cooked a whole host of these himself. A Sailana festival is being held across India at the Park Hotels (in four cities, in succession) and will feature Vikram Singhji cooking himself; a second cookbook is on the anvil, featuring another 160 recipes and there is to be a short film on the culinary legacy in conjunction with Apeejay Surrendra Park hotels.

The Sailana recipes are unique because they represent a personal passion rather than just another regional repertoire. The process of collecting the recipes started almost a century ago when Sir Dilip Singh of Sailana was stranded on a hunt without the services of a cook. The game was ready to be cooked but no one quite knew how to. This made the ruler wake up to the importance of preserving and documenting recipes and he started the process in his kitchen. His son, Digvijay Singh, turned out to be even more passionate about food. As a princely ruler, he would cook one dish a day and when he travelled to other parts of the country, he went along with a small jeweller’s scale and a small box of masalas! When he liked a particular dish, he would ask the cook to make it, watching, taking notes and noting down precise measurements for spices with the aid of the scales (a practice as unusual today in the Indian kitchen, where everything works on andaz, as it must have been then.)

The result is a collection that not only has family and regional recipes from the princely state but the best recipes the widely-travelled family ever encountered. In Kashmir (the Sailanas are related to the former royal family there), Digvijay Singh tried the rogan josh at three-four homes but liked one version best and recorded it; in Lucknow, a cook called Salim, made him a special raan that he tried out later in his own kitchen and so on.

The meal that Vikram Singh cooked for us, certainly, was unusual in the kind of disparate flavours it presented on the same thali. And in the uniqueness of the preparations: The Shikampuri kebab he served were different from the usual Hyderabadi ones in that the recipe uses a filling of cream instead of yoghurt within the mince. There were the totally fabulous goolar kebabs made with figs, murgh Irani, a dum recipe from Iran, with rich almonds, a Bengali-influenced dahi machi, whole moong dal with a dash of mustard, a totally unique kaleji (liver) ka raita not to mention a hare channe ka halwa that you may never have even heard of.

Because the Sailana recipes represent food from all over the country but with a distinctive individual touch, what a meal comprising of these, above all, exemplifies is not merely recipes that are no longer part of our kitchenlore today, but the mindboggling scope of Indian cuisines and seasonal ingredients, vegetables, fruits, grain, that would be used in our cooking so effectively and innovatively but, alas, have lost out to global marketing forces.

(An incomplete version appeared in the Financial Express on Sunday on Feb 5, 2012)

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