When one hears the word “Royal”, every word that follows it automatically somehow turns brighter, grander and more opulent. For a food-lover, it might be flashing images of royal meals be it grand platters or thaalis of rich and masterfully created delicacies or liveried staff bringing out courses after courses of the finest gourmet meals in silver platters. Cooking is and was a fine art to even the royal families of those times and they were true patrons and sophisticated gourmands who took their meals pretty seriously, be it their daily meal or lavish banquets designed to impress and awe. Royal cooks of those days were nothing short of artists who created rich, elaborate dishes that had to please and appease the jaded palates of their employers and guests who were exposed to grand meals on a daily basis. This competitive work space had to be kept active with creativity and expertise, and the recipes that made an impression were closely guarded and in many cases, passed down father to son, as an exclusive legacy.
But time claims all and many exclusive techniques and recipes disappeared with the fall of kingdoms, modernisation, and newer generations of these cooks seeking out other lucrative fields to work in. In this context, to the relief of the many gourmands and food aficionados everywhere, one Maharaja who was also an excellent chef and lover of food, decided to do something to preserve the rich heritage of the delicacies he grew up enjoying. Cooking delights of the Maharajas, written by Digvijaya Singh, former ruler of Sailana, a princely state in Madhya Pradesh. He painstakingly collected and compiled exotic recipes of bygone eras from authentic royal households like the Nizams of Hyderabad and Kashmir and the Begum of Bhopal.
In times like these where one cannot find truly authentic royal fare, this book is truly a priceless treasure. Every recipe is a true voyage back in time, with beautiful glimpses into the painstaking and elaborate processes and sophisticated methods that would go into any given royal meal. The richness, the unique diversity in ingredients and the exquisite order of addition of these ingredients is what kicks these dishes up an imperial notch.
The contents are divided into Meat, Chicken, Fish, Game, Rice and Allied, Vegetable and Sweet dishes. There are glossy, coloured images provided for most of the recipes. Variety, creativity and complexity of techniques can be seen in every recipe. Rich starts sounding like an understatement when you come across the recipes like Musallam Badam Piste or Sewain Pulao. These recipes are long and detailed, but result in a truly rewarding final product that is delicate, yet multi dimensional when it comes to textures and flavours. Shikaar or hunting was one of the greatest pastimes of the kings. And that love you will see in the red-meat preparations that is spread over more than half the pages of this book. For the true game-meat lovers there are detailed recipes for the preparation of rabbit and wild boar (pork) and a 5 ingredient recipe for Jungli Maans, in addition to a comprehensive subsection on game meat preparations.
For the less adventurous, there is an exquisite collection of unique recipes that suits every palate like the easily digested Be masale ka korma (korma sans spices) or the wildly elaborate and rich Do Peeaza Borani ( delicately seasoned keema stuffed carrots, which are then deep fried.)
It was very interesting to note the usage of oven and refined flour (unmistakeable western influences) in the recipes of Sasranga and Malgoba respectively. Malai ki biryani, Lehasun pulao and Aam ka Pulao are worth mentioning while Mutanjan pulao, claimed to be the oldest and grandest of pulaos takes the crown. Unique ingredients that are quite uncommon in supermarkets these days like, Kantola (spiny gourd), Goolar (wild figs), Palash/ Tesun flowers or even the commonly discarded mango seed become deliciously exotic in the hands of the royal cooks. Their creativity and out-of-the-box thinking can be seen in Ghosht ka Halwa, Ande ka Halwa and Gulab ki kheer. Yogurt and its versatility is appreciated as kababs, halwa, bhajiyas and even in a pickled (achaari) makeover. In molecular gastronomy, foam is used extensively but it blows the mind to know that the same technique was used back then in recipes like Nimish.
From a home-cook point of view, every one of the unique and complex recipes are worth a try, even though the cooking times and detailed steps might look daunting at first. Most recipes average between 2-3 hours in the making and with highly perishable items like nut-pastes, meats and cream, might not exactly last more than a day. It is definitely not a beginners cookbook, but more in the lines of a brilliantly compiled history textbook purposed to educate, and refer back. Every recipe nailed will give one a tasty bite of history and glimpses of rich, diverse heritage in its essence.
Cooking delights of the Maharajas is not your average cookbook. It exudes a higher class, a wisdom, an appreciation for the finer things in life, a very sophisticated taste and pedigree from the moment you turn the first page and that feeling lasts even after you have put it down. Strongly recommended for every lover of Indian Cuisine and history buff.
Gulab ki kheer:
50 grams fresh rose petals
2 liters milk
250 grams sugar
Select Edward, Bussarah, or any scented variety of roses. Pluck the petals discarding the stigma, the central portion.
Boil milk along with rose petals (whole), till it reduces to half. Add sugar and boil further till it is of thick consistency. Serve cold.