This Sultan’s 15th century Book of Delicacies regarded as the first proper cookbook of India

Cookbook and spice on a wooden table. Food preparation. An old book in the kitchen. Recipes for food.

“One day having observed a mouse in the royal apartment, he ordered it to receive its daily allowance of rice and money; and this absurdity extended to the tame pigeons, parrots, &c.”

This is a snatch from the late 16th century Persian historian Muhammad Qasim Ferishta, who is known for his multi-volume tome The Rise of Mohamedan Power in India. The ‘he’ here is Ghyat al-Din Khilji, the Sultan of Malwa, in present-day Madhya Pradesh, India, who reigned between 1469 and 1500 CE.

It was late in his regime that Ni’matnama, a stunningly beautiful ornamented book, translated as the ‘Book of Delicacies’, arguably the first proper cookbook of India, was compiled, although anonymously. Preceding this collection, there were of course some Ayurvedic texts, which did have recipes of several medicinal food and drinks, and also the undated Pakadarpana of Nala, but nothing compares to Ni’matnama, not before, nor even ever after.

Shaping up subcontinent’s indigenous cuisine

What makes Ni’matnama such unique a creation? For one, the absurdity of which Ferishta is amused. It included, in the ‘&c’ a remarkable imperial kitchen. A kitchen, where, for example plates of pure gold were boiled for preparing a kind of a rich nutty dough! Secondly, this book is illustrated with 50 colour plates, which are among the finest examples of the Shirazi Turkmen school of art that came to India from Iran. Thirdly, the language of the cookbook is also an educative example of how the sweet Indian language Urdu was slowly emerging in the late 15th century. To me, however, its cardinal importance lies in the fact that Ni’matnama is a unique testament to how the coming of Islam to India was influencing the subcontinent’s indigenous cuisine.

It is a little unfortunate that the arts and sciences of culinary practices have taken such a long time to emerge as serious branches of enquiry in the Indian subcontinent. Unlike Europe and the Americas, noted scholars and historians here have rarely published tomes on the fascinating food-culture of India. Barring a few names, such as historian Om Prakash and scientist K.T. Achaya, researches into the culinary culture of India have largely been conducted by amateur probers, and that too as late as the 1990s.

How the rice changed its variety?

Yet, over the past few decades, evidences have tumbled in galore that food in India was irrevocably changed in the years following the inception of the Delhi Sultanate. Now preserved in British Library, London, Ni’matnama stands as the first testimony to this culinary flourish, which in the years to follow, blossomed into a celebration of a myriad variety of food ranging from spiced naans, pulaos, biriyanis and kebabs to meat stews, including the proverbial qalias and the kurmas, and the aromatic desserts that were unheard of in India. To take just one example, the chefs of Ghyat al-din’s imperial kitchen took the humble Indian Bhaat, plain boiled rice, and spun as many as ten different varieties of it! Again, without this cookbook the history of the coming of one of India’s most common snacks today, the samosa, from Persia to this subcontinent would remain incomplete.

Yet this treasure remained hidden in the shelves of the British Library, until as late as 1959, when British journalist Robert Skelton first wrote about it. And the world had to wait till 2004, when British Library’s curator of illustrated Persian manuscripts, Norah M. Titley translated it into English for the first time. Fortunately, in recent years more cookbooks of medieval India have been shared in the public domain, into the mouth-watering pages of which we will travel in this column in days to come, to understand how Persian, Turkish and Afghan cooking traditions were being married to Indian ones to produce a syncretic cuisine, that has few parallels in the world.

 

(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)