As a young boy growing up in Old Delhi, Osama Jalali watched mundane ingredients transform into magical dishes. All around him in the narrow alleys of Shahjahanabad, the old city built by the Mughal emperor, khansamas curried and cooked up dishes from recipes that had been handed down through generations—Mughal queens, like Jodha, who joined the clan from different regions imbued the kitchens with unique flavours. Later, the cuisine evolved as different communities settled in the walled city, bringing culinary influences from the kitchens of Rampur, Awadh, even as far as Bengal as workers arrived from these parts. Different communities mingled with each other, imbuing the kitchens of Old Delhi with unique ingredients, recipes and cooking techniques
The Muslim khansama around Jama Masjid and Lal Kuan areas perfected the slow-cooked Nahari for breakfast, and Biryani that had been simmered in large pots on a slow fire; kebabs so tender, the meat would fall off the bone. The Jains and Baniya communities that flourished in areas around Chandni Chowk introduced a variety of vegetarian fare often cooked without onions and garlic—samosas, kachori and finger-licking chaats.
Later, as a food writer for a reputed newspaper where he wrote over 2000 food reviews, Jalali began to notice a trend that, he believed, failed to represent the stunning variety and ancient traditions of Indian cuisine. “I saw a change in how Indian cuisine was being rebranded as progressive Indian, and traditional items were being repackaged,” he says of the trend of molecular gastronomy that served up visual treats like chutney foam, yogurt spheres and deconstructed food that captured the imagination of both chefs and foodies.
“To me, this appeared like jugglery around food,” says Jalali, a die-hard traditionalist. “Our cuisine will get lost, youngsters will never know the intricacies of traditional Indian food.” He has since worked hard to restore some of the lost glory to Mughal cuisine, to release it from the clutches of the creamy tomato gravy and bright spicy tikkas. He decided to put the spotlight back on the ancient foods and cooking techniques of India. Thus began his full immersion into finding the lost recipes of the Mughal era.
After long hours of pouring over old Persian books in ancient libraries, he dug out old recipes that his mother and wife recreated and the Jalalis pieced together a culinary tradition that had been lost to time.
Piecing together a story
As his work got noticed, Jalali was invited by hotels across the country to train their chefs in traditional home-style Mughlai food. He was launching food festivals, delivered lectures at hotel management institutes, was invited to be part of the jury for prestigious culinary awards, started conducting master classes in Delhi and represented Indian cuisine abroad. “People saw me as someone who is trying to recreate traditional recipes,” says Jalali, who recently opened his own restaurant, The Masala Trail by Osama Jalali in Delhi.
If greasy butter chicken has captured popular imagination today, it was peculiar items like Mutanjan, a sweet rice, and Gosht ka halwa (mutton halwa) that simmered in the Mughal kitchens which had not been introduced to the tomato, but made liberal use of saffron, dry fruits and black pepper, the only spice known to them for a long time.
“I met a fourth generation khansama in old Delhi, who recalled savouring Gosht ka halwa on his wedding night in Rampur, cooked by his mother-in-law,” says the gourmand, who researched and recreated it for an audience of 800 foodies. “Nobody could have guessed that mutton could be turned into a sweet halwa!” There are unusual items like the Khancha kofta (or marble kofta), a meatball, which when cut, you find a marble-spaced void inside. “It makes you wonder, how it got there! These are old techniques that are now labelled molecular gastronomy. What we did was freeze a ball of desi ghee, built the kofta around it, and put it in the dum,” reveals Jalali.
The Masala Trail by Osama Jalali focusses on dying recipes, uses traditional techniques and regional street food from Bihar, Orissa, Sikkim and Kashmir. “From Dal Petha, Panki, Dabeli to Litti Chokha, our culinary heritage is interesting and varied,” elucidates the gourmand.
Conserving a legacy
There have been challenges, beginning with finding the right ingredients to mapping the cooking techniques. “We’re losing the ingredients as they’re not available. Cooking techniques are getting extinct because we don’t have the time. Nowadays cooking is more of an assembly of food. Mixing packaged masalas and chopped veggies is not cooking. In the old kitchens, while the khansamas did the bulk cooking, it was women who did the cooking at home, and guarded family recipes,” he explains. A lot of his guests are people who want to help their kids make that connection, with old cooking techniques and flavours that they witnessed in the kitchens of their childhood.
For instance, Mughal cooking involves marinating the meat “to the extent the meat would fall off the bone”, Indians have been smoking our food, cooking fish in banana leaves and kebabs in guava leaves for enhanced flavours, techniques that are now in vogue all over the world.
So the next time you think Mughlai, look beyond Chicken Tikka at the vast and wonderful culinary heritage that gave rise to it.
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