Nushka-i-Shah Jahani: Celebration of Mughal culinary art

Asia Contributor
Nushka-i-Shah Jahani
© Susansam90 |

In my piece on the contribution of Islamic culinary traditions on the ancient Indian dish Khichri, I had passingly mentioned of a cookbook, titled Nuskha-i-Shah Jahani. In English the title means Recipes of Shah Jahan. For gastronomes and historians alike, it is a treasure trove. While on the one hand to real foodies Nuskha-i-Shah Jahani is a celebration of Mughal imperial culinary art at its zenith, cultural chroniclers, on the other, won’t miss how that art was drawing heavily from numerous sources, ranging from pure Indian cooking traditions to those from Persia, Turkey and Afghanistan.

Compiling  Nuskha-i-Shah Jahani

This stunning gastronomical tome, penned in Persian, was published by the Government Oriental Manuscripts Library, Madras (now Chennai) in 1956, critically edited with an introduction in Urdu by Prof. Syed Muhammad Fazlulla Sahib. Sadly, the author of this fascinating collection remains anonymous. This, however, takes nothing away from the authenticity of the collection. Editor Prof. Fazlulla Sahib informs us that the book has been published in its present form after critically comparing and editing two separate medieval manuscripts, preserved in two separate libraries.

While the first one is at Chennai’s Government Oriental Manuscripts Library, the second one is in the collection of the India Office Library. The editor also points out, it can be safely ascertained that the author was familiar with Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s (Reign 1628 – 1658) imperial kitchen from a sentence right at the beginning of the manuscript: “Recipes with weights of the dishes served during Shah Jahan’s administration”.

Interesting dishes of Nuskha-i-Shah Jahani

Spread over 165 pages the Nuskha is indeed a celebration of food. In ten sections clearly demarcated the collection provides recipes for hundreds of dishes: Breads, soups, meat and meat curries, various kinds of mash, different varieties of under-done meat, Pulaos (spiced rice and meat dishes), roast meats, pottages and omelettes, puffs and pastries, and sweets and yogurts. What struck me however, is the curious absence of one food, often stated to be the finest Mughal contribution to Indian culinary traditions: Biriyani. Clearly, the idea of this heavenly delicacy had not arrived till the middle of the seventeenth century. Certainly, not at India’s largest and finest cooking laboratory of the period.

A close look, however, gives us the recipe of an extremely interesting food, which I have no hesitation in identifying as the mother of modern of Biriyani. Zer Biriyan. Biriyan in Persian means frying, and ‘zer’ is underneath. So, something fried underneath constitutes the essence of the dish. This dish has long disappeared from our tables. I have not known of a single restaurant in the Indian subcontinent which serves anything called Zer Biriyan. Yet emperor Shah Jahan was being served with four distinct varieties of Zer Biriyan: Zer Biriyan Paneer (Indian cottage cheese), Noor Mahali (with two variations), Mahi (fish) and Roomi (derived from Turkish traditions). Are you ready for the authentic taste of this rare extinct delicacy? If you are, here’s the recipe:



Meat: 1Kg

Ghee (Rughan-i-Zard): 125 Grams

Rice: 1 Kg

Cinnamon: 2 Grams

Cloves: 2 Grams

Cardamoms: 2 Grams

Saffron: 1 Gram

Ginger: 20 Grams

Garlic: 250 Grams

Salt: 60 Grams

Coriander: 20 Grams

Black Cumin: 2.5 Grams


Cut the meat into pieces. Mix salt with ginger juice. Wait for a few minutes. Mix the garlic. Wait for a while. (In a pan) Fry onions in 100 grams of ghee. Put the (chopped) garlic on the onion. Keep adding water soaked in cumin until all the water dries up. Put the chunks of meat and add cinnamon, cloves, cardamoms and cumin.

(In a separate pan) Half-boil the rice. Mix a little rice with ghee and saffron. Wait for a while. Put (all) the rice under the meat. Pour (the remaining) ghee from above.

Seal the lid of the pan with wheat dough. For five minutes keep on full-blown flame. Move the (sealed) pan (upper) on the flame. Let it be on Dum for 45 minutes.

If the rice has to take the colour of saffron it must be fried.

My note: Moving the pan upper obviously aims to reduce the heat. And make sure the meat is 2/3 cooked before putting rice and sealing the pan with dough.

Bon appetite!


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

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