Eat Like Royalty With This Cookbook From The Emperor Who Built The Taj Mahal
It was the mid 1600s, and Friar Sebastian Manriquea, a Portuguese priest who had come to visit the Mughal Court, wanted to witness a royal supper. It was a rare sight. The Mughal emperors, who ruled territory across the northern Indian subcontinent, usually didn’t dine with anyone but their wives and concubines. But on this day, Shah Jahan—the Mughal ruler who commissioned the Taj Mahal—would be dining with his wazir, advisor Asaf Khan. Sensing an opportunity, the curious priest found an ally: A court eunuch, one of the many third-gender people who enjoyed an elevated status as guardians of women in the Mughal palace, smuggled the Portuguese friar into the inner chamber to watch Shah Jahan at his meal.
The exact meal Manriquea witnessed has been lost to history. But thanks to The Mughal Feast, a recently-translated Mughal royal cookbook, we have some ideas. Salma Yusuf Husain, a Persian-language scholar and culinary historian, dubs her version of the book—which includes literal translations of recipes as well as cultural and historical notes—a “transcreation” of the Persian-language Nuskha-e-Shahjahani. One of the only extant culinary texts from Shah Jahan’s court, the manuscript had sat in the British Library for years without being available in English. Illustrated with ornate Mughal miniature paintings, the new translation details an elevated courtly cuisine, in which Indian ingredients such as mango and tamarind fused with Persian soups and meats, and every grain of rice was covered in costly silver.
The book’s recipes for qormas, biryanis, and pulaos reveal the roots of one of India’s most globally recognized cuisines: Mughlai food, a culinary tradition descended from the Mughal court, enjoyed across North India, and disproportionately exported abroad. Walk into an Indian restaurant outside of South Asia today, and you’re almost guaranteed to encounter menu items descended from Shah Jahan’s kitchens.