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Rahul Kale

Origins of Mughlai Cuisine

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Most of the food that is available at Indian restaurants worldwide is commonly referred to as Mughlai. However, I was reading a book on the history of the Mughals (Mughal; Hindi/Urdu for Mongol) and found out that the Mughals,originally Mongolian tribesmen and warriors, were living in Ferghana, modern day Uzbekistan for a couple of centuries before they invaded India.

I asked a friend of mine who lived in Central Asia for a number of years what the cuisine there was like. NOWHERE close to what we know as Mughlai food! The cuisine, flavours and cooking styles are very different (though one can liken the shashlik somewhat to the Indian kabab minus the masala)......none of the rich curries, their version of the Biryani is totally different, no Dal Bukhara even the famous Mughlai breads were nowhere to be seen.

What then is the origin of Mughlai cuisine? Did it come from Afghanistan (As many Indian restaurents would like us to believe...Kandahar, Peshawar, Frontier and all the dishes named after towns in the region), where Babur traversed before coming to India?

I was in an Iranian restaurant recently and kept commenting on how similar the food and cooking style was to Indian muslim cooking (much more subtle without all the masalas ofcourse). So could it be Persian in origin?

This brings us to another question, if Mughlai food is really foreign....what was Indian food like before the Mughals came?

I am sure many of these questions have come into your mind at some point, so lets brainstorm and try to find out about the origins of Indian cuisine

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I believe North Indian cuisine is an amalgamation of all of the invaders/occupiers. I don't have the history of the area at hand, but if you look it up, the timeline should be there. I would venture to say that even though it's called 'Mughlai,' the Mongolian influence is probably fairly small. The Muslim influence, such as your Iranian restaurant experience, is far greater. As far as I know, nuts, raisins, honey and cream all stem from the Muslim influence.

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From ingenious vegetarian offerings with a wide range of flavors to the elegant meat-centered feasts of Mogul emperors, India’s culinary traditions are rich, and as varied as her land and people. The country’s geography and climate ranges from landlocked high altitude mountains, to fertile river valleys, to arid plateaus, to verdant tropical coasts. In times past food production was totally dependent on geographic and climatic conditions, from which evolved the various peasant cuisines of India. Until the British conquest at the end of the eighteenth century, each region of India was ruled by its own royal family and each had its own provincial language, local customs, culture, and unique cuisine. The proficient palace chefs of these small independent kingdoms perfected the many elegant palace cuisines of India.

The unmistakable unifying feature of Indian cooking is the endless possibilities available for flavoring - spices differentiate one dish from the other, and define and intensify tastes. For much of their history, the cuisines of southern and northern halves of India developed separately. In ancient times the hills and forests that sprawled across the center of the country made travel very difficult.

The Afghan and Turkish armies from central Asia began making repeated incursions from 1000 AD and several Muslim kingdoms were established in northern India. The Mogul emperor Baber conquered India in 1526 AD and this Muslim dynasty ruled in an unbroken succession for nearly 200 years. The extravagant life styles of the Muslim emperors were heavily influenced by the Persians. North Indian food went through a profound transformation during this period. Palace cooks came from many parts of the world, each specializing in a particular delicacy. Ingredients were brought in from Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern kingdoms. Meats and breads grilled in clay ovens called tandoors and elaborate dishes – Kababs, pulavs and biriyanis - and sweets garnished with thin sheets of real gold and silver became the mainstay of Mogul banquets served at their capital Delhi.

When the emperors conquered Kashmir and Rajasthan the cuisines of these regions also began to show Mogul influence. The dawn of 18th century saw the beginnings of the decline of the Mogul empire. As the rebellion against the Muslim emperors spread further the Nawabs of Awadh declared independence and ruled from Lucknow (present Uttar Pradesh). The lifestyle of the Nawabs was very similar to the lavish demeanor of the Moguls. The well trained chefs of the palace refined the Mogul cuisine further and took it to another level. They considered the presentation of food equally important as taste itself; something that was very new to India. Exotic dishes of the Nawabi cuisine include gently spiced lamb and rice pulavs, fish cooked earthenware pots kept under hot charcoal, rice baked with chicken, cream and nuts, spicy okra, and several exquisite desserts.

With the migration of Indian workers to the west during 18th and 19th centuries, the hardy food of the Punjab region and the tandoori preparations of Mogul cuisine were the first to reach the western world. Even today this is the type of food that is served in most Indian restaurants abroad. A variety of Indian dishes from other parts of India is slowly but surely gaining popularity.

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My recollection (I studied this topic a few years back now so it's no longer fresh in my memory) is that the pre-moghul cuisine was simpler, more legume/grain oriented, though not all vegetarian, and as Peppertrail points out, varied across the different regions of india. Additionaly, there were already many foods in common before the Moghul incursions as there had been a fair amount of cultural interaction prior to Babur's arrival. Note also that the Moghul dynasty did not actually conquer the whole of India (though most of it), so there are regions where thier influence was not felt as directly. I also seem to recall that the Moghuls introduced many fruits such as apricots, sweet melons etc. And though they brought strong influences from their Persian/Afghan background, the Moghul court's cuisine was also highly influenced by the foods they found in india.

Two books to read if you want to know more about this:

"Indian Food; a Historical Companion" by the late great K.T. Achaya


"Moghul Cooking; India's Courtly Cuisine" by Joyce Westrip

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Also, I don't think that Mughlai is monolithic either, the cuisine of Hyderabad being quite distinct.

One reason why the Moghul style cooking in the UK (an the USA?) may not resemble that in India is that in some case 'Moghul' style dishes seem to have been developed in the UK as a label for a particular style of dishes, rather then actually being based on tradional foods.

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Andhra Pradesh, the land of chilies and rice, was once a part of the Maurya Empire and it was an important Buddhist centre. Vegetarianism was widely prevalent during these early years. Finally, parts of Andhra Pradesh succumbed to the rule of the Nizams of Hyderabad. The first Nizam Mir Qumaruddin was a Viceroy of the Mogul court, but with the fall of the Mogul empire he became the ruler of this small independent kingdom. He recreated the opulence of Mogul lifestyle and brought armies and workers from the ancient capital. Needless to say trained chefs were part of the contingent that arrived from Delhi. They integrated the predominant flavors of south India – coconut, curry leaves and peppers – and created some unbelievably delicious dishes such as baghare baingan, dalcha and lukmi.

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Plus, let's remember that Mughlai cooking, and the Nizam court style

cooking etc were all aristocrat food: rich food for rich people.

The ordinary janta ate peasant style food I would guess:

simpler ingredients, less subtlety, and cheaper overall:

maybe more grain/bean based (out of necessity)

with sharper and simpler seasonings (to create the feeling

of a full stomach)....


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