Unable to open file: /home/tusharm1/public_html/indiafoodantravelguide.com/wp-content/plugins/tp_this_path
Our Network Websites:      All India TodayTech Know Bits - Invest In IndiaIndia - Food And Travel GuideHowTo For India

Mughalai meets Bengali: The story of a heritage cuisine

By Anoothi Vishal

The Mughals undoubtedly had the biggest impact on the cuisines of northern Indian (as also the Deccan) and even though “Mughlai” food is a generic term today, usually standing for a hodge podge of commercially-constructed dishes, some of our most interesting heritage cuisines have Mughal roots. So what are these heritage cuisines and are we at all acquainted with them?

While Avadhi and Hyderabadi enjoy a fair amount of popularity at least amongst the connoisseurs, there are others such as the cuisines of Rampur, old Delhi (both Muslim and Kayastha cooking), and Murshidabad that we hardly know anything about. Thus, even sporadic attempts to recreate these and bring them to the table must be celebrated.

Researching Murshidabadi food had been on my agenda ever since I had heard of it from a well regarded gourmet. But it was only last week that I finally got a chance to even sample it — all thanks to chef Syed Mustaque Murshid of The Suryaa New Delhi.

Chef Syed belongs to Berhampore, Murshidabad, and has an incredible lineage. On his maternal side, he says, he can trace back 22 generations — the genealogy is, in fact, recorded, in writing, right from the earliest times when his ancestors wrote in Arabic and Persian to those who wrote in Bengali and, today, in English. The chef claims that his earliest ancestor, one Milki Jahan, most probably came to India with the army of Timur, the lame, about 1,000-1,100 years ago, and was the first Muslim to settle down in Murshidabad, on the banks of the Bhagirathi.

With the weight of history behind him, chef Syed is an unlikely, and slightly reluctant chef. He would have rather served in the army, he says, but for his eyesight. But on the night we sample his food, we were glad that he chose the kitchen as his personal battlefield (karambhoomi) instead! The cuisine that is presented to us in the hotel’s Indian restaurant is one that Syed has learnt from his mother and other relatives in his huge, extended family. It is distinctly unlike the commercial, hotel cooking that we in India are used to each time we eat out. Instead of a la minute assembly, it involves painfully-slow preparation, the masalas to be ground on a sil-batta, for the right texture and so on.  But while all this may lend it an air of exclusivity in today’s harried times, it is also interesting and valuable for another reason. Like sundry other cuisines of the Subcontinent, inspired by the food of the Mughals, Murshidabadi food shows the syncretic nature of our culture.

The cuisine has both Bengali and Mughali influences. It is both and it is neither. A cursory glance at the menu reveals some known elements. There is a delicious poshto chop that we begin with, which aptly suggests the Bengali-ness of this food, and then we graduate to a unique mutton tikiya. A flat patty, this one could be a firmer version of the shami kebab, except that this is made from raw mince (not keema boiled with dal first, as in the case of the kebab), and it is one of the unique Murshidabadi dishes that you will not find elsewhere in Bengali kitchens.

Maincourse begins with shukto, the traditional first, vegetarian course in a Bengali meal too. But here, the assorted veggies have the bitters missing. In their place, and in a tribute to the Persian/Mughlai roots of the fare, we have a generous mish-mash of rich dried nuts (cashews, raisins, pistachios) with the veggies. But it is really the Murshidabadi way of doing a qorma that is most astonishing.

What separates a Mughlai qorma from any other generic curry— salan, qaliya et al—as many of you would undoubtedly know is the fact that a qorma is far richer. As a special-occasion food, it not only has a base of cashew paste in its gravy but also expensive dry spices (such as cardamom) and yoghurt which is used as the souring agent. In Murshidabad, thanks to the Bengali influence and because of local availability, the qorma undergoes a distinct change. Instead of yoghurt, the tanginess in the curry now comes from the somewhat more rustic tamarind.

The end result is delicious. While red meat (not fish, as you would assume in Bengal) is the highlight of Murshidabadi food, and the fowl as well as other birds only came in much later into the repertoire, we had an absolutely first rate duck preparation done in the qorma style which can make it to the high tables anywhere.

I am told there is another unique dish called dalchini gosht, mutton curry flavoured with just cinnamon, and there is something called “badi fulori”, which is a kind of a kadhi that we have all over India except that instead of yoghurt you have besan added to tamarind water to make it! But it is the biryani that needs to be talked about in greater detail.

Much has been written on the subject of the “Calcutta” biryani. The latter is really Murshidabadi biryani—the nawabs of Bengal, after all, ruled from Murshidabad ever since the town’s founder Murshid Quli Khan shifted his capital from Dacca to this new headquarters. Unlike the delicate “pulaos” of the Delhi Kayasthas and the fragrant dum biryani of Lucknow (Dum was not a cooking style followed in Murshidabad, though all cooking was on slow fire), the Murshidabadi biryani is more rustic. Adapted for poorer kitchens, it uses mutton and potatoes in a half and half ratio, so much so that without the tuber, the biryani is not “true” at all.

Finally, one type of bread too stood out in its distinctiveness. The Mughlai and Persian—Noorjehan, after all, is said to have lived here with her first husband, the governor of Bengal, in Akbar’s times – influence in the cuisine means that a slightly sweet palate is favoured. This is equally true of other Mughal-inspired breads, right from the Baqarkhani of Delhi (supposedly invented by one Baqar Khan) to the Sheermal of Lucknow. In Murshidabad, maida, the staple, however, gives way to Bengali favourite, Govindbhog rice.

Chitua is a unique bread in the repertoire—almost like a thick, spongy appam (though no yeast is added to the batter that is nonetheless fermented overnight), it comes topped with fresh, molten jiggery. It’s a delicious creation, whether you wipe off the duck curry with it or just eat it for dessert.

Above all, here is a rich heritage cuisine that needs to be preserved, and enjoyed.

(The article first appeared in the author’s column in the Financial Express, last Sunday)

Blog Widget by LinkWithin
Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More


Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed.

<