From the highlands in Scotland, to the small town at the tip of New Zealand’s South Island, you can probably find an Indian restaurant in any corner of the world today. Whether it’s fancy fusion fare such as broccoli and cheese-stuffed samosas or fast-food aloo tikki burgers, Indian food has caught the imagination and taste buds of people everywhere.
One of the first Indians to profess his love for great Indian food was Ghiyath Shahi, the 15th century ruler of Malwa, a small state in west-central India. He ruled, and was ruled, not by his head but by his heart and his stomach. Disinterested in the business of running a kingdom, he handed over charge to his son, Nasir Shah, so that he could dedicate himself to exploring the finer things in life. In fact, during his reign, the capital city Mandu, was known as Shadiyabad, or City of Joy. His palace was filled with artists, painters, musicians and several hundred cooks. Ah yes, our raja was a big foodie!
His greatest contribution to Indian food is the splendid Ni’matnama (or Book of Delights) that was commissioned in order to preserve his favourite recipes. Even the illustrations are sumptuous, created in the Mughal miniature style, many of which feature Giyath Shah overseeing the cooking, hunting and fishing or simply enjoying a grand meal. The recipes are written in the Naskh script, a beautiful calligraphic Arabic style of writing. Local and Persian influences can be seen in the artwork and in the recipes as well. In what has to be one of the best dedications in history, the book opens with the words, “King of cockroaches! Please do not eat this, my offering to the culinary world — recipes of cooking food, sweetmeats, fish and the manufacture of rose-water perfumes.”
Some time-tested dishes in the book are still found on our plates today. Take this delightful recipe for the humble samosa for example:
“The method for samosas of tender meat of mountain sheep or of deer: mince (the meat) finely and add turmeric, cumin, fenugreek, coriander, cardamom and cloves and mix them together. Flavour sweet-smelling ghee with asafoetida. When the ghee has become well-flavoured, put the mince in it and leave it so that it becomes well cooked. Add lime juice and pepper and then put in a quarter of a sīr of dried ginger and one sīr of chopped onion and remove it. Add one rattī of camphor and one rattī of musk. Prepare a few large samosas and a few small ones the size of one mouthful. Having stuffed them with the mince, fry them in sweet-smelling ghee and, when they are to be eaten, sprinkle them with vinegar or lime juice. Serve them and eat them.” Doesn’t that make you feel like devouring one right away?
Besides recipes for flavoured mutton, kheema, vadas, shorbas and others popular dishes, Giyath Shah also included recipes for drinks, preparing paan, perfumes, essences, and medicines. A real all-in-one cook book!
This wonderful Ni’matnama has been preserved through the centuries and can be found at the India Office Library in London.
Written by: Pereena Lamba. Pereena is a freelance writer, editor and creative consultant. She is also co-author of Totally Mumbai.