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At the maharaja's dining table
The excesses, the exotic ingredients, the egos, the secret recipes and the quirks - stories from the kitchens of India's former maharajas are a royal riot.
Their masters were hard to please - nothing but the best, and you had to better even that. Chefs of the erstwhile royal kitchens had to be forever on their toes, in constant competition with each other and it was not just about preparing a splendid meal but also serving it in style.
Each royal house took pride in its own secret vault of recipes, a lot of the stuff that made for folklore: Stuffed boars, puris with live birds hidden in them and so on.
Neha Prasada's debut book 'Dining with the Maharajas' (Roli) takes us into this exotic world. Illustrated with photographs by Ashima Narain, the book offers 92 exotic recipes including khad murg, a shikar preparation from Jodhpur, chunga bejong from Tripura, lamb ulli saru from Mysore and khatta meat, a Dogri dish.
For former journalist and now wife of politico Jitin Prasada who spent several years chasing stories for the print media and news channels, delving into the royal cooking traditions was "a pretty alluring subject". "The idea was not just to talk about food and recipes, but build up the whole lifestyle of the royals together with bits of their history and culture - everything that revolved around food, " says the 33-year-old who started work on the book about two years ago.
From Mahmudbad to Hyderabad, Jodhpur to Jammu & Kashmir, ten royal households find a place in this elaborate, purple-bound tome. "Palace kitchens were almost like laboratories for producing gourmet cuisine. And it didn't stop there - the presentation of the food was again a result of their highly developed sense of aesthetics. No wonder each meal was nothing short of a grand production, " says Prasada. As Shahzadi Naghat Abedi of Rampur recalls in the book, "Our tables were always groaning with food. "
Although recipes unique to each family (and their cooks) were, till recently, closely guarded secrets, the first compilation of royal delicacies came together in a book, 'Cooking Delights of the Maharajas' (1982), complied by Maharaja Digvijay Singh of the Sailana family. It all started when, as Prasada says, some members of a royal party in the early 1900s, got separated from their attendants when out on a hunt. Since none of the royals knew how to cook and so, had to go hungry, Raja Dilip Singh (Digvijay Singh's father) decided not only to learn how to cook but also to collect and record recipes from other royal houses too.
Besides the Sailanas, others are also making an effort to preserve their recipes. Patiala's tikka-raj (heirapparent ) Raninder Singh, with the help of his father, Capt Amarinder Singh, has put all his family's recipes onto a pen drive. The Kashmir house has saved them in the handwritten diaries of Hari Singh and his daughterin-law Yasho Rajyalaxmi, wife of Dr Karan Singh.
A passionate involvement with food is what has made most of the royals splendid cooks as well. Udaipur's Arvind Singh Mewar who cooks at least three times a week is quoted in the book, "Food must talk to you before you eat it. " Like him, Jodhpur's Gaj Singh - known for lal maans, the Sailanas and the Wadiyars too are keen cooks.
The food whims of the rajas always make for a fascinating read. The Wadiyars of Mysore, for instance, always ate in brass and copper vessels so that they could spot poison. There's Maharaja Jaggannath Prasad of Deo who took his own team of cooks on a trip to Berlin in the 1930s and Sayaji Rao Gaekwad III of Baroda who took two cows for a fresh supply of milk and butter when he went to Europe.
"The (idiosyncratic) ways of our princes and the splendour of the courts often left most visitors awestruck, " says Prasada. And when it came to entertaining, no expense or effort was spared. There is the incredible story of the Lucknow kitchen of Nawab Nasiruddin Haider where khichdi was made not of rice and lentils but almonds shredded to look like rice and pistachios shaped to look like lentils.
A state dinner meant pulling out all the stops. We hear of the longest dining table in the world - 108 feet long teak table which can seat 101 diners - at the Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad. A minimum of 51 dishes were always expected at Patiala's Moti Bagh Palace feasts hosted by Maharaja Bhupinder Singh. "In the old days, pleasures were limited, thus food was a major enjoyment for people. Of course, sometimes, this result did border on gluttony, " Esra Jah of Hyderabad recalls in the book.
The idiosyncracies incidentally were not just of the maharajas but also their genius cooks. In the book, the sister of Tripura's Pradyot Bikram Deb, Rani Kriti Singh of Kavardah, talks about a cook who specialised in making desserts: "He'd make the most delicious puddings but only when he was drunk. " Afzal Ahmad Qureishi, the chief chef in the Mahmudabad kitchen, would like nothing better than to participate in the Master Chef contest on TV. But there is a problem. "They only give you one hour and my kind of cooking takes the entire day, " he is quoted as saying.
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