DINING WITH THE Nawabs is not the kind of book that you can perch on your chest and read in bed. It is a silver-edged tome that mandates it be ceremoniously laid out on a table and be opened like the unwrapping of a gift. Clad in an aquamarine jacket with a jaali worked inner flap, it announces its royal credentials from the start; not for it the riffraff of parchment, only velvet and glint will do. The pages are glossy and the photos perfectly choreographed. This isn’t merely a book about the royals, it is a majestic production in itself.
The layman’s interest in royalty can seem a tad distasteful. After all, what distinguishes them from the rest of us, other than an accident of birth and the extent of riches? Yet our curiosity is aroused because the lives of kings and queens have always been fodder for our imagination and the stuff of stories. Dining with the Nawabs feeds into this curiosity and satiates it many times over. It takes the reader on a guided tour of the palaces of Arcot, Bahawalpur, Bhopal, Chhatari, Hyderabad, Kamadia and Surat, Khairpur, Kotwara, Rampur and Zainabad. But what sets it apart is that it throws open the kitchens and dining halls of these families. It is here that you can gasp at the Zainabad family’s filigreed six-egg holder, or admire the mother-of-pearl monogrammed cutlery set treasured by the Chhatari family. Best of all, you can try your hand at the dishes that grace their dining tables, with the assistance of the recipes provided in the book.
The culinary traditions of these families have been passed down for centuries, and through generations. As Meera Ali writes in the introduction, ‘In these recipes and stories of food being at the epicenter of traditions and customs, the larger story of an ancient philosophy and a way of life is revealed.’ In these pages, a world of innovation and attention comes to the fore. The nawabs cajole and pamper their chefs so that from the laboratory of their kitchen, dishes fit for a king and his friends will emerge. Cooks rose to the occasion by creating meals that were works of art and made the palate dance. A chef during Nawab Waji Ali Shah’s time (19th century, Lucknow) made a rice dish that looked like a plate of white pearls offset by red rubies. Another famous cook could make a varqi parantha consisting of 18 layers. One parantha would use up to 5 kg of ghee. Chef Pir Ali once placed a samosa and pomegranate on the plate of Nawab Nasir ud din Haider of Avadh. But of course, it was no mortal samosa or fruit. When the nizam broke the samosa, a tiny red bird flew out of it. The ‘pomegranate’ was an exquisite sweet made entirely of flavoured milk and sugar.
While these old tales make for fascinating trivia, Dining with the Nawabs shows how some of these traditions have remained intact while changing with the times. The write-up on each royal family provides archival information (complete with rare photographs) and modern insight. The Arcot family, we are told, is the only royal family in India that continues to enjoy the title of ‘prince’. In their kitchens we find a summer sherbet made from jasmine flowers and other rarities.
Dining with the Nawabs reminds us of the way of kings, and the habits of queens, where eating was not a matter of daily survival, but as lavish in theatre and tradition as it was in taste.