Fortune Cookie

Gulab Jamun Made With Mutton? Salma Husain & The Fine Art of Rescuing Forgotten Recipes

Posted: October 8, 2015 at 3:33 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

YOU HAVE to be a dedicated food historian with a sharp eye for the unusual to know that in the days when people had more time, they had discovered the technique of washing mutton with milk at least three times to rid it of its characteristic taste and aromas, and then mince it to make the perfect gulab jamun.

It took this singular dish, which came at the end of a meal loaded with surprises at the Khwan-e-Mazi (Royal Treasures of the Past) festival at the Delhi Pavilion in Sheraton New Delhi, to convince me that although there’s a lot of chatter today about ‘lost recipes’ and ‘heritage cuisine’, its practitioners have been able to scratch just the surface. And we need historians such as Salma Husain to bring these recipes into the public domain and then unravel their cryptic summaries to give today’s chefs something to work with.

Salma apa, as her friends call her,has one advantage that no food historian in this country is blessed with. She’s a Persian scholar, who inaugurated her working life at the National Archives in 1964 (a year after I was born), sometimes earning a princely Rs 100 for each page she translated for scholars of the stature of Francis Robinson, the global authority on Islam.

Her life took a different turn when Hakeem Abdul Hameed, the gifted son of the founder of Hamdard, asked her to take charge of the Hamdard University hostel. It brought her in active contact with the world of food because she turned the hostel, with the reluctant approval of Hakeem sahab, into a profit centre by hosting corporate events during vacations. But her definitive career move was to come on board the ITC Hotels, on the urging of its then chief and bon vivant, Habib Rehman, to provide the research inputs that the group’s chefs needed to perfect the dishes rooted in Mughal history.

On one of her outings to London, Salma apa discovered a 17th-century Persian cookbook, Alwan-e-Nemat, which detailed many of the recipes that made their way as dishes to Jehangir’s table. Those were the days when ingredients we now consider to be basic to our cuisine — chillies and tomatoes, for instance — had no place in the Indian repertoire.

Since the discovery of the manuscript, Salma apa has been developing recipes based on the descriptions given in the book — the old Indian recipe books were a bit like puzzles because they only mentioned the proportions of ingredients and not the cooking method, so you have to understand the nuances of cooking to be able to translate them. And since these resurrected recipes are in the public domain, Salma apa has unwittingly inspired many others to become champions of heritage cuisine.

Publisher Pramod Kapoor (Roli Books), in the meantime, also stumbled upon another cookbook dating back to the Mughal era. It is called Nuska-e-Shahjahani and it is significant because it establishes the fact that even in the second half of the 17th century, chillies hadn’t established their salience in the royal kitchens at least.

From such manuscripts will come out recipes of dishes that testify to the refinement the culinary arts attained centuries ago. In Tambul Qaliya, for instance, mutton mince (keema) koftas come layered with betel leaves, acquiring an altogether new taste dimension.

Chukandar Gosht (mutton and beetroot cooked together) and Dal Turkmani (lentils cooked with yoghurt and ginger) are examples of the cleverness with which our classical cooks combined ingredients; so are the Naaz Khatun (age-old baigan ka bharta cooked with fresh pomegranate and grape juices) and Gehun ki Biryani, where the rice is replaced by whole wheat. And then there were foreign influences at play, as in the Armenian Kooze Kebab, where marinated chunks of mutton were left overnight in earthen pots and cooked on dum the next morning.

Out of this marriage of homegrown sophistication and global contribution grew a magnificent cooking tradition, and to Salma apa must go the honour of beingthe custodian of its secrets.

This article appeared as the lead of my twice-monthly column, Fortune Cookie, in Mail Today on Thursday, October 8, 2015.

To read the entire column, click on this link: