Alwan-e-N’imat: A peek on Aurangzeb’s cookbook
Historical cookbooks are fascinating documents on many counts. They reflect wonderful historical information about certain periods. They are gastronomical treasure troves. Cookbooks are one of the best ways to judge how syncretic the culture of a certain society might have been. And much more. The cookbook I shall talk about briefly in this piece is a stunning example of all these: Alwan-e-N’imat. The copy I have of this cookbook is an Urdu translation of an older Persian tome. It runs into three volumes.
Alwan-e-N’imat manuscript preserved by British Library
I have no doubt in my mind that Alwan-e-N’imat’s first volume is translation of a cookbook written in the time of Mughal emperor Muhi-ud-Din Muhammad Aurangzeb Alamgir, who ruled between 1658 and 1707. Literally it means ‘spread of delicacies’. One of the most serious researchers into Mughal culinary culture, Divya Narayan, informs us that there is a Persian manuscript in the Indian museum which also has the title Alwan-i-N’imat, but anonymously compiled.
She informs us that the same manuscript is preserved in the British Library, London, with a slightly different title: Khawan-i-Alwan-e-N’imat. Narayan opines that this tome was compiled sometime between 1656 and 1707, because it has used Alamgiri weights, and certainly not after 1765, because that’s the colophon date of the British Library manuscript.
Although the Urdu Alwan-i-N’imat’s copy that I possess clearly mentions that it was translated by Munshi Bulaki Das Dehlvi, and published in 1883, I am certain that the 1st volume at least of the Urdu Alwan-i-N’imat is a translation of the Persian manuscript bearing the same name because, on page 5 of the 1st volume is this unambiguous sentence, “
Nothing lost in Alwan-e-N’imat translation
Right at the beginning have been given recipes of those dishes which were prepared in the kitchens of Sarkar-e-falak ektedar gofran-panah rizuwan-dastgah zille-subhani jannat-ashiani firdaus-makan Muhi-ud-din Aurangzeb Alambir Badsha and other nobles.”
This elaborate title of the emperor was used in administrative documents of his time, and while announcing his arrival at the imperial court. Only a person close to such a circuit could have used this title in his book. Bulaki Prasad, while translating it more than 150 years later had truthfully kept in intact.
The other thing that Munshi Bulaki had kept intact is really stunning. The main content of the book begins on page four, and right on top of it is written: Bismillahirrahamanirrahim. “In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful”. Despite being clearly an upper caste Hindu Munshi Bulaki Das out of respect for the original anonymous author’s religion thought it prudent to keep this evocation to Allah intact!
We must remember by 1883 final curtains had been drawn on the Islamic rule in India, the British were firmly on the nation’s administrative saddle. And as a Hindu he could have easily tweaked with that single word, he had nothing to be worried or afraid of. Yet, he didn’t. That indeed to me is the real spirit of India, one of the world’s most syncretic cultures.
True book on Biryani
This amazing cookbook, Alwan-e-N’imat, in three volumes, lists numerous dishes, including breads, pulaos, curries, kebabs, omelettes, fritters and sweetmeats. However, Alwan-i-N’imat will be remembered for being the first cookbook to mention the term Biryani. And I shall leave you with the recipe of one variety of Zer Biryani mentioned in the book.
Meat: 1.5 Kg
Rice: 1.5 Kg
Ghee (Clarified butter): 375 Gms
Cinnamon: 2 Gms
Cloves and cardamom: 2 Gms
Saffron: 1 Gm
Onion: 250 Gms
Ginger: 25 Gms
Curd (sour): 250 Gms
Salt: 100 Gms
Coriander: 25 Gms
Cumin: 25 Gms
Green peas: 125 Gms
Cut the meat into pieces. Mix with salt and ginger-juice and let it rest for half of hour. Mix the curd and let it rest for another half an hour. In 15 Gms of ghee fry well the onions until red. Put in the meat with curd and stir well. Put in water soaked in coriander. When the water dries out, put cinnamon, cloves, cardamoms and cumin on the meat. Separately boil the rice and put it in a layer on the meat. Put saffron mixed in ghee on a small quantity of rice and pour in a corner.
And in another corner spread the green peas. Seal the lid of the pan with wheat dough, and let it steam. Keep the pan on mild heat. After a while lower the heat even more and put embers on the lid. Then put embers on all sides of the pan. Put some stones on the lid. Let is steam for about an hour. If the rice has taken the colour of saffron, you will know the Zer Biryani is done.
(My note: Weights have been slightly adjusted to the metric system. The idea of putting stones on the lid, clearly to stop any steam from escaping is dangerous, and may be done away with. And There is no need to put fire from all sides, but some embers must be put on the lid.)
(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)