What was Shahjahan’s favourite pulao and how you can cook that?

Food Contributor
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The contribution of Islamic culture to the art of fine dining can hardly be overstated. Indeed, the number of delicacies popular today across the globe which have been enriched by Persian or Arabic culinary traditions is truly countless. One of the finest examples of such culinary ‘oeuvre extraordinaire’ is what we in India call the Pulao. This food is known in its myriad colours in different continents: Paella, Pela, Pilav, Plov, Polo, Polu and Fulao are only a few examples. Pulao, as we will call it for convenience’s sake, is cooked in varying flavours in regions and countries such as Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, China, Cyprus, Spain, France, Georgia, Greece, India, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Nepal, Pakistan, Romania, Russia, Tanzania, Tajikistan, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uganda, and Uzbekistan.

Popular Pulaos

Etymologically it is possible to argue that the genesis of this food may be traced back to the Indian scripture Yajnabalka Smriti. Yet as one of India’s leading cultural studies scholars Ashis Nandy (The Changing Popular Culture of Indian Food 2004) points out, “It is true that in Sanskrit – in the Y ̄ajnavalkya Smriti– and in old Tamil the term pulao occurs, but it is also true that biryani and pulao today carry mainly the stamp of the Mughal times and its Persianized high culture.”

Two fabulous cookbooks, one Persian and another Indian, proves Prof. Nandy’s point. Moddat Ol-Hayat (The Substance of Life), written by Nurollah the Chef of the imperial kitchen of the Persian Safavid Empire’s greatest ruler Shah Abbas I, in 1594, as well as the anonymously penned Nuskha-i-Shah Jahani (Recipes of the Indian Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s Era), written in the first half of the 17th century are colourful celebrations of Palav or Pulao. Nuskha gives over 60 varieties of Pulao that used to be served to the Mughal Emperor.

Should you wish to taste the food that the builder of the Taj Mahal adored, here’s one example:

Pulao Shah Jahani


1. Lamb meat: 1 Kg

2. Castrated Goat meat (very common in the Indian subcontinent, AKA Khassi): 2 Kg

3. Rice: 1 Kg.

4. Ghee (Clarified butter): ½ Kg.

5. Walnuts: 5

6. Sour Yogurt: ½ Kg.

7. Cinnamon: 10 Grams

8. Cloves: 10 Grams

9. Black Pepper: 15 Grams

10. Green cardamom: 10 Grams

11. Onions: ½ Kg.

12. Ginger: 125 Grams


1. Take 2 Kgs. of goat meat and mix well with onion, ginger, salt, 125 grams of ghee and water soaked in coriander, and then boil it to make a soup.

2. When it is half cooked, put in the lamb meat. Boil it. Separate the lamb meat from the stock.

3. In a pan fry onion and cloves in some ghee. Put in the lamb meat and stir well. After it is well-stirred put in some water soaked in coriander. Next, put in the nuts and the yogurt. Cook well. When the meat is soft put in half of the spices. Put in cardamom and garlic, stir well. Strain using a fabric.

4. Boil rice in water. Stir in the stock. Strain through a fabric.

5. In another deep pan put the (previously kept aside) pieces of meat at the bottom, put in the spices strained through a cloth and put in cloves of garlic. Put in the above mentioned (boiled) rice. Arrange in layers the rice and the meat. Put on heat for about 25 minutes. Spread the remaining ghee and put on dum (steam by sealing the mouth of the deep pan with dough).

When serving on the dish spread the very soft lamb meat on top.


Note: This is an elaborate recipe, with a few discrepancies. The garlic is not mentioned in the list ingredients. One small pod of garlic may be used. The rice has to be half cooked while being boiled for the first time, other wise it will become too soft during the second cooking.

(Source: Nuskha-i-Shah Jahani. Page 40-41. Government Oriental Manuscripts Library. Madras. 1956.)


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

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