Nurollah: Arguably the ‘first celebrity chef’ of the world
Eurocentricism is sometimes taken to bizarre heights. Take for example the name of this book, which I recently came across: Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Carome: The First Celebrity Chef.
I am taking nothing away from Antonin Careme. Of course he was a great chef, and he did cook for the French hoity toity, including Napoleon Bonaparte. But “the first celebrity chef”? Really?
I would like to ask Ian Kelly, Careme’s biographer, “Have you even ever heard of a person named Nurollah?” If he had, he would have known that Nurollah was the Bawarchi, the chef, of the imperial kitchen of one of the largest empires in history, at the peak of its glory.
In terms of historical timeline, Nurolloah preceded Careme by at least 200 years. It is a sad commentary on world historiography that while there has been such elaborate research on Western culinary history, the fascinating world of Islamic cuisine remains largely ignored. Nurollah is one the greatest representatives of that supreme culinary art, which flourished in Persia. Yet we know so little about him, besides the fact that he was the chef at the imperial kitchen of Shah Abbas the Great.
Reign of Safavid Empire
The Safavid Empire over which this great king ruled included in it, today’s Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Bahrein, eastern Georgia, vast sectors of Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq and northern Caucasus, and even large territories of modern Turkey, Syria, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. But not only in terms of its expanse, at the peak of its glory, during Shah Abbas’ reign, the Safavid empire was known to be a vigorous laboratory of all forms of the arts and sciences. In brief, it was the garden of an amazingly vibrant civilization. It’s capital, Isfahan, was known as “Nesf-e-Jahan”, half of the world!
Its hardly surprising, therefore, that dishes – varying from the subtle to the stunningly elaborate – that were being cooked up in this imperial kitchen at Isfahan, influenced cuisine across the globe over the course of several centuries that followed. And at the helm of this great culinary lab was Nurollah. Unlike Careme, however, his achievements have not been extolled in any biography. Very little, therefore, is known about his life.
Nurollah’s recipe and books
Thankfully, however, Chef Nurollah penned a book, Moddat Ol-Hayat: Resalah Dar Elm-e-Tabbakhi, in 1594, which has survived. Literally meaning, The Substance of Life: Treatise on the Science of Cooking, it is a slim collection of recipes that the great chef had served to the imperial dining room. Divided into six small chapters, it presents to us a representative few of the many dishes created by Nurollah. These include soups, curries, stews, palavs (spiced rice, aka pulao in the Indian subcontinent, pilaf in Turkey and paella in Spain), porridges and pastries. A study of this book immediately establishes how culinary practices in at least two other great empires, the Ottoman Empire and the Mughal Empire, drew heavily on Nurollah’s creations. And not only oriental cuisine, Persian imperial cuisine has left indelible footprints on food of the Oxidant as well. Over and above all, beyond historical value, most of these recipes are heavenly gastronomical experiences even to this day. To mitigate all doubts, try, for example, just this simple one:
Yakhni Pulao, Nurollah style
3lbs shoulder of lamb, cubed
1 large onion, grated
1 ½ tsp salt
½ caraway seeds
1 tsp cinnamon
pepper ½ tsp
½ tsp ginger
½ tsp clove
1 cup chickpeas
2 cups rice
¼ cup butter
1. Simmer meat and onion in 6 cups of water and spices for 20 minutes.
2. Add chickpeas and simmer for another 20-30 minutes or until meat is tender and chickpeas are cooked. Remove meat and chickpeas from the broth, set aside and keep warm
3. Add rice and butter to the broth, bring to a boil, and simmer for 30 minutes or until rice is soft.
4. Transfer all the rice except for about one cup on to a platter, arrange meat and chickpeas on top, and then sprinkle the rest of the rice over the dish
(Recipe: Dining at the Safavid Court. Moddat Ol-Hayat. Translated by M.R. Ghanoonparvar. Mazda Publishers, California.)
(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)