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akbarHE EATS ONLY ONCE A DAY, CARES little for meat, holds fruits in high regard and only drinks water from River Ganga. Akbar comes into office with a routine already in place. He is entirely hands-off when it comes to matters of the kitchen, but he pays close attention to it. As a child growing up first in Sindh and then in Kabul, it became clear this department was serious business. Wandering through his caretaker’s palaces, he saw the functional kitchen of rank demanded the same focus and planning of a military-level operation. He was more interested in the action than the food, but some indulgent cooks would mistake the toddler’s visits and would smuggle out little packages for him to sample. His all time favourite since then has been kichri. His curry of choice, mirch ka salan.

A feast is now due. Necessitated by his coronation some months earlier, it is an event that will be managed by the begums, decorators, event planners and the Mir Bakawal, as usual. Unlike his father, Akbar is not a creature of celebrations or festivities. He prefers focussing on developing skills with an application to practical and tactical advantage on the field and in interactions with the jagirs. Yet he appreciates the place of tradition and will tolerate parties for their subtle social and political statement.

A_banquet_for_Babur (2)

Ahead of the big day, the Mir Bakawal lays out a mock feast banquet for Akbar. Image: From 16th C painting, A banquet for Babur (British Library)

Three weeks ahead of the feast he calls in the Mir Bakawal to run over the menu. Mir Bakawal arranges a multi-course khasa in rehearsal for the feast day. It is divided into three main sections:

  • Purely-vegetarian foods, sufiyana
  • Grain-and-meat dishes
  • Meat dishes cooked with spices

Akbar approves. He is intrigued to see a qaliya called kundan qaliya (golden lamb qaliya) and asks Mir about it. Mir Bakawal tells him it is a refined version of that everyday qaliyan found in the market stalls. Akbar tells him he’s heard something about the origin of qaliyas in connection with Mohammed bin Tughlaq of the erstwhile Delhi Sultanate.

Mir Bakawal knows this story well and for a while the King and Imperial Cook discuss that tale that is told very often: Tughlaq’s eccentric scheme to shift his population from Delhi to Daulatabad. He succeeded in some sense, but perhaps the only good thing to come of it was the invention of qaliya – the result of a large scale measure to feed the camp in transit. Mutton and spices were slow-cooked in deghs buried in dugouts with naans simultaneously turned out from an adjacent furnace.

Their conversation also touches upon salan. Akbar is pleased to see that his favourite mirch ka salan hasn’t been left out of the feast menu.  Mir Bakawal points out this thin spiced curry is an adaptation of a popular Indian cooking practice which the kitchen has embellished with local spices, condiments and souring agents from regions all over the kingdom – making something altogether unique.

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