The Mughal Empire that ruled most of Northern India from early 16th century to mid-18th century, not only produced some of the greatest art, architecture but also left a great culinary legacy, which over two hundred years was shaped by a blend of Iranian, Afghani, Persian, Punjabi and Deccan influences. The aftereffect of this confluence was Mughlai chicken; a creamy chicken dish prepared specially for the emperors.
Though there isn’t much ethnographic information to corroborate its origins, Delhi-based author and Persian scholar Salma Husain has done some extraordinary research in this field and brilliantly documented the cultural context in which such legendary dishes were prepared. Her book The Emperor’s Table: The Art Of Mughal Cuisine, is about the food habits of all the significant emperors, from Babur to Bahadur Shah Zafar. It intersperses anecdotes with recipes, from between 1483 and 1858.
According to her book, Mughal cooking was a riot of colours, fragrances, experiments, table manners and protocol. The Hakim (royal physician) usually planned the menu, making sure to include medicinally beneficial ingredients. For instance, the chicken was fed pellets flavoured with rosewater and saffron and massaged with musk oil and sandalwood every day until they were considered fragrant and fat enough to be served to the kings.
“What we call Mughlai today is just a combination of masala and oil,” says Husain. “I wanted to show that there was much more to Mughal cooking. There was a subtlety to it that no longer exists.” But what we call Mughlai chicken today is still a dish to reckon with. It is a winning mix of bold Indian spices and the rich, creamy nuttiness from dry fruits reminiscent of Persian cuisine.
Moreover, its taste varies from extremely mild to spicy and is often associated with a distinctive aroma and the taste of ground and whole spices. The core ingredients include onion, ginger garlic paste, tomato, yoghurt and sometimes cashew nut sauce to enrich and thicken the gravy. The preparation goes well with tandoori roti, butter naan or rice, but a serving of Mughlai roti or Roomali roti with the dish is like a match made in the royal kitchen of the once glorious empire.