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 handed down through generations.
Mughal queens, such as Jodha, who joined the clan from different regions imbued the kitchens with unique flavours. As more communities settled in the walled city, they brought culinary influences from the kitchens of Rampur, Awadh, even as far as Bengal. The cuisine continued to evolve as workers arrived from several parts of the country. Soon the kitchens of Old Delhi were brimming with unique ingredients, recipes and cooking techniques
The Muslim khansama around Jama Masjid and Lal Kuan areas have perfected the slow-cooked Nahari, a must for breakfast. They simmer their Biryani in large pots on a slow fire. The kebabs found here are so tender that the meat falls off the bone. The areas around Chandni Chowk were home to the Jain and Baniya communities as well. They introduced various vegetarian fare—samosas, kachori and finger-licking chaats—prepared without onions and garlic.
Jalali grew up to become a professional food writer for a reputed newspaper, writing over 2,000 food reviews. He noticed a trend in famous Indian cuisines that failed to represent its stunning variety and ancient traditions. “I saw a change in how Indian cuisine was being rebranded as progressive Indian and traditional items were being repackaged,” he says, referring to molecular gastronomy. The latest culinary trend serves up visual treats like chutney foam, yogurt spheres and deconstructed food, and has captured both chefs and foodies’ imagination.
“To me, this appeared like jugglery around food,” says Jalali, a die-hard traditionalist. “Our cuisine will get lost and youngsters will never know the intricacies of traditional Indian food,” he cautions. Since then, he has dedicated his efforts to restore some of the lost glory to Mughal cuisine. He’s on a mission to release the cuisine from the clutches of popular creamy tomato gravies and bright, spicy tikkas.
Jalali decided to put the spotlight back on the ancient foods and cooking techniques of India. This kickstarted his full immersion into finding the lost recipes of the Mughal era. He spent long hours pouring over old Persian books in ancient libraries. He dug out old recipes that his mother and wife recreated. Together the Jalalis cooked back a culinary tradition that had been lost to time.
Piecing together a story
As his work gained recognition, hotels across the country began to invite Jalali to train their chefs in traditional home-style Mughlai food. He launched food festivals, delivered lectures at hotel management institutes, was a jury member for prestigious culinary awards, started master classes in Delhi, and has represented Indian cuisine abroad. “People saw me as someone trying to recreate traditional recipes,” says Jalali, who now has his restaurant, The Masala Trail by Osama Jalali in Delhi.
If greasy butter chicken has captured popular imagination today, it was peculiar items like Mutanjan, sweet rice, and Gosht ka halwa that simmered in the ancient Mughal kitchens. Tomato didn’t feature in the recipes, but they 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 would have guessed that mutton could be turned into a sweet halwa!”
There are other 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 introduces patrons to 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
Running the restaurant wasn’t easy. Challenges began from finding the right ingredients to mapping the cooking techniques. “We’re losing the ingredients because they’re not available. Cooking techniques are going extinct because we don’t have the time. Now cooking is more 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,” says Jalali. Indians have been smoking food, cooking fish in banana leaves and kebabs in guava leaves for enhanced flavours for a long time. These techniques are now in vogue all over the world.
So the next time you think Mughlai, look beyond Chicken Tikka and you’ll find the vast and fantastic culinary heritage that gave rise to it.