Do Mughlai kebabs, pilaf, parantha, biryani and the likes of such rich delicacies from the great era of the Mughals make your mouth salivate and your heart melt? If you ever felt the need to dig deeper or go nearer to the royal kitchens or you want to write about food, then too you must read the books written by food historian, Salma Yusuf Husain. Spending a precious part of her life discovering Mughlai cuisine by visiting different countries and exploring materials from different libraries and museums from around the world, Husain wrote many books including recipe books on the foods of the early-modern empire.
Salma’s tryst with food
A food historian for around 30 years now, Salma’s tryst with food began by coincidence. “I never did any course to write about food but I am an entertainer and food is a great source of entertainment. I would host many parties and dinners in my early years and with the help of great cooks, we always had a diverse menu but that still didn’t begin my journey with Mughal cuisine,” Salma tells SheThePeople.TV. It was a job at the ITC as a food consultant that required her to develop new menus for the hotel chain paired with her knowledge working at the National Archives’ manuscripts at the start of her career that propelled her towards a journey of Mughlai food.
One could say that she is the OG food blogger, a pioneer in her own right who started to document Mughal food not just by their recipes but also the stories behind them. Hussain had to go through the travails of looking for a publisher but finally Roli Publishers signed a deal with her and released her first book ‘transcreation’ of Nuskha-i-Shahjahani’.
“When my first book did well then I thought that I must continue writing on Mughal food. So, then I wrote a small book on Sherbets of India because people are going back to the olden times and the Colas and soft drinks are doing no good so we should go back to the Sherbets which were not just tasty but also healthy.” For her third book, Flavours of Awadh, she realised, “Everywhere the recipes are dying so I went to Lucknow and I met the Talukadars, Rajas, the old Nawabs and whoever was left behind. I tried to get the original recipes from them and put it in the shape of a book.”
Her next book after that was on the pulses of India called Pull of Pulses: Full of Beans. “I thought what could one do with pulses. Daal is our main dish and it completes our platter. So I took six types of pulses and thought what could we do with it. The result is numerous. It could be used as it is, or as a sweet, Kebabs etc. I gave it an eloquent introduction in which I wrote that when Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his own son Aurangzeb. He asked him, what is one grain you would like to be served? And Shah Jahan chose chickpeas. Because Chana is one grain that one could cook in so many ways that one would never get tired of eating it.”
Writing about the kitchen of Rashtrapati Bhawan
After that book was released, she was commissioned by the Rashtrapati Bhawan to do a book on the kitchen of the Presidential house from the 1930s when Delhi was inaugurated till date. “It was a difficult task as they did not have any records or documents and I had to get the old cooks and the Khansamas but the book was somehow completed.” And this year she released The Mughal Feast – a transformation of the original handwritten Persian recipe book Nuskha-E-Shahjahani from the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s time. A culinary journey into the Mughal imperial kitchen, where food was cooked with just the right amount of spices to enhance the base flavours of the dishes, this book is divided into seven sections: Naan, aash, Aliya and do-piyazah, bharta, zeer biryani and Pulao, kabab and shiriniha.
Food should be looked at for more than the edible indulgence of taste, it is for the body too and it gives us strength, asserts Salma.
Hacks for writing about food
Husain shares her hacks on writing about food, she says, “Writing just the recipes doesn’t work. To make the book interesting, one has to give a little anecdote. So a little research on how the dish came about and what is its significance matters a lot. Storytelling and history make for great add-ons for a food book because food is not complete without history. It has a culture and a civilization and if you mix history, culture and civilization then that sums for a perfect food book.”
Finally talking about women writing food, she says that she sees more women writers interested in food as a subject than ever before. “There’s Romy Gill and so many others because a woman knows food better though it is said that a good cook is a man but I don’t agree. Women are the ones at the helm of the affairs.”
“When Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his own son Aurangzeb. He asked him, what is one grain you would like to be served? And Shah Jahan chose chickpeas. Because Chana is one grain that one could cook in so many ways that one would never get tired of eating it”
Also Read: Padma Lakshmi on Food Writing And Feminism
Books in the offing
She is currently working on a manuscript of a book that will give us a peek into the royal kitchen of Noor Jehan. “It has lots of contributions of Noor Jahan, an empress of the 16th century who has given us the garnishing of the food. She gave us great recipes and played with the colours of the food as in one pot, she made seven different colours of Koftas with spinach juice, beetroot juice, saffron, a paste of brown onion etc. and then covered it with silver leaves and golden leaves. She also made yoghurt in different colours. So this book is going to be very interesting,” she revealed adding that another book in the offing is ‘Pastimes of the Mughals’ where she delves into the various other occupations and hobbies of the Mughals apart from ruling the country and the rich cuisine that they left us with.