Nilanjana S Roy
Back in school, one of our more rabid history books devoted much spleen to the evil wreaked by Emperor Aurangzeb, caricatured as a hook-nosed, skinny guy with an expression of cunning idiocy on his face. My history teacher had her own way of setting the record straight: “For all his iniquities, one must remember that he had the palate of a gourmet — though he never descended into gluttony.”
Aurangzeb preferred austere, vegetarian food to the more elaborate confections favoured by his predecessors. But his diaries reveal a liking for clean, delicate flavours. He’s probably the only Mughal who would have understood the modern love of Japanese food or the Slow Food movement.
Great chefs are often memorialised; but in Indian history and literature, foodies are treated with reverence too. As children, we tried to quantify the appetite of Kumbhakarna, cursed to sleep for six months at a stretch, who would awaken with a ravenous hunger.
Kumbhakarna had a vast but non-discriminating appetite. He ate whatever humans or monkeys happened to come to hand; one gathers that he could make a snack of approximately 2,000-6,000 people at a go. (Kumbhakarna was said to be 420,000 metres tall, so this would actually make less than a full meal for someone of his height.) He apparently ate Hindu priests and Brahmans on a point of principle, so he was in some regards at least a man of good taste.
The Mahabharata is more forthcoming about the appetite and culinary skills of Bheema. In a famous story, he is sent to dispatch Baka, a rakshasa who has been terrorising local villagers by demanding that a cartload of food be sent to him each week: the bullocks and the cart driver are also part of his buffet lunch. Bheema takes over, spares the bullocks, but eats Baka’s food.
Baka is killed in the subsequent battle, but what’s on Bheema’s mind as he brings the corpse back is the subtle flavours of the dishes he ate pre-fight. Later, Bheema offers his services as a cook when the Pandavas are in exile, and boasts that he can make a thousand dishes. One of these is said to be aviyal, the delicate south Indian vegetable preparation that many legends say was invented by Bheema.
There are two gourmands whose influence can still be seen in today’s restaurants. Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah had the true gourmet’s eye for great food. The dum pukht style of cooking was originally a way of feeding labourers, and it was due to his efforts that it found its way into royal kitchens. By the end of his life though, Asaf-ud-Daulah was too fat to sit on a horse, and had been treated for dropsy and dyspepsia.
His legacy was maintained by Wajid Ali Shah, the “tragic nawab”. On learning that the British were on their way to arrest him, he sent for a final plate of Lukhnawi-style chops, where the meat is cooked to a point of tenderness where it flakes off the bone. He may have spent the rest of his life in prison, but he left for jail nourished and replete, as a true gourmet should.