The Jehan Numa Palace Hotel, Bhopal (Photo courtesy: Jehan Numa Palace Hotel)
MAMMA’S REASONS FOR THE impromptu Bhopal trip were, in her opinion, perfectly sensible. She had to get away somewhere before a possible Covid third wave; she might die without visiting an important princely state. With her roots in Rampur, an erstwhile princely state, Mamma has a penchant for historical places and crumbling princely states. I ranted, argued, and gave wild excuses––the parent’s emotional invite had the effect of reducing a rational, middle-aged woman to a whining teenager.
“You can study Bhopal’s cuisine; you will like it once you get there,” said She Who Must Be Obeyed as she wheeled me in.
Resigned, I started reading up Bhopal and realised that the common Pathan culinary roots shared by Bhopal and Rampur princely states could be a fascinating study. Qamar, my travel enthusiast husband, also decided to join us. Thus, armed with two discerning Rampur tastebuds I started feeling excited about the (for me) culinary trip.
Bhopal and Rampur were both erstwhile princely states under British rule and shared common Afghan- Pathan cultural ethos. The princely state of Bhopal was founded by an Afghan chieftain, Dost Mohammad Khan, in 1724; Rampur was also founded by an Afghan chieftain, Faizullah Khan, in 1774. The chieftains with their families, allied tribes and soldiers brought their Pakhtun traditions with them as they settled in the two geographically diverse regions. Interactions between the two princely states under the colonial rule were regular and might have led to culinary exchanges as well. It would be interesting to note the similarities in cuisine, flavours, and tastes after nearly three centuries of amalgamations with the local cuisines and other princely states.
Around the mid 19th century and especially after the revolt of 1857, the cooks and artists from the fallen states of Delhi and Awadh had found refuge and sponsorship with the Nawabs of Rampur. This had led to an era of culinary amalgamation and innovation in Rampur where Awadhi and Mughal cuisine granted an elegant sheen to the rustic Afghan-Pathan Rampuri foodways. Bhopal’s cuisine was said to be influenced by the local Gond cuisine, the cuisine of Jain traders as well as the princely state of Hyderabad. The founder of Bhopal, Dost Mohammad Khan, enjoyed meat preparations, and had instructed his soldiers to avoid sweets and eat a meat-heavy diet for strength. Coming from these militaristic traditions, Bhopal cuisine is primarily a meat dominant food way with echoes of Afghan cuisine still evident in the kababs and pulaos.
We stayed at Jehan Numa Palace hotel on Shamla hill, which belongs to the descendants of Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum (who ruled from 1901-1926) and is known for preserving heirloom recipes of Bhopal’s Nawabi cuisine. It is regarded as the best place to discover royal Bhopal flavours.
Expecting the usual fare associated with Muslim princely states, I was intrigued by two new dishes with exotic and unusual names––the rezala and the filfora. Rezala is a chicken or mutton preparation known for its subtle taste and aroma. It is a popular dish in Bengal and Bangladesh where it was said to have been transported by the cooks of the exiled Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Awadh. There are several Bengali versions of the dish, some adhering to the simple yoghurt, poppy seeds and cashew pastes as the dominant notes, while others add on turmeric and chili powders. As no such dish is found in Awadhi cuisine, one can give credence to the claim of Bengali gourmands that the dish was created in Bengal. Possibly, when the Awadhi chefs of Nawab Wajid’s entourage in Calcutta encountered the delightful posto, they added its understated flavours to the meat.
When rezala was brought to Bhopal sometime at the turn of the nineteenth century, it was introduced to the local passion for coriander. The Bhopali rezala served at Jehan Numa and at other eateries in Bhopal combines copious amounts of coriander into the curry, lending it a dull green colour and a fresh taste. The base is still yoghurt, poppy seeds, and cashew. Princess Niloufer, from the Jehan Numa or Shamla hill branch of the Royal family, says that Bhopali rezala was innovated by Begum of Bhopal, Shah Jahan Begum (who ruled from 1844-60 and from 1868-1901). Apparently, the Begum loved celebrations and royal events curated around colour themes. Thus, jashn e gulabi and jashn e hariyali celebrated pink and green colours, respectively. Everyone was dressed in the given colours, and the décor as well as the cuisine highlighted the colour. Thus, the dull beige rezala curry was endowed with coriander to make it green, and the Bhopali rezala was born. An interesting gastronomic twist was the use of fried onions and turmeric to enhance the taste. Interestingly, the dish is only prepared in Bengal, Bangladesh and Bhopal.
We stayed at Jehan Numa Palace Hotel on Shamla Hill, which belongs to the descendants of nawab Sultan Jahan Begum (who ruled from 1901 to 1926) and is known for preserving heirloom recipes of Bhopal’s nawabi cuisine. It is regarded as the best place to discover royal Bhopal flavours
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The story of filfora, a unique mincemeat preparation, is rooted in the shikar or hunting traditions of Bhopal. During the colonial era, the region was known for game, and royal hunting parties would go for shikar expeditions with their cooks in the surrounding jungles. Princess Niloufer explained that the word ‘filfora’ comes from the local Gond language and means “quickly”. So, when the animal was killed, the meat was coarsely chopped and immediately fried with basic ingredients on a campfire. This hand-chopped mincemeat cooked with ginger-garlic paste, turmeric, chilies, onions, yoghurt and the culinarily omnipresent coriander is the popular filfora. It corresponds to a favourite quotidian mincemeat Rampur dish ––the darra qeema. Whereas the Awadhi connoisseurs cringe at the prospect of rough-cut mincemeat and assert that fine mince is essential to absorb the flavours, the Rampuris and Bhopalis love their sans garam masala rustic mincemeat.
The two baseline notes of nearly all traditional Bhopali dishes are fried onions and coriander. I remember an old Rampuri khansama telling me that he can cook the best qorma and kababs with just fried onions and green cardamoms. As in Rampur cuisine, the Bhopal dishes rely on the basic spices and there is a near absence of the aromatics favoured by Awadh cuisine. Princess Niloufer was married into the Rampur royal family and her sister-in-law, Bano, comes from an Aligarh family. Both the ladies have worked to refine and innovate the Jehan Numa Palace repertoire. Today the chefs and sous-chefs working at Jehan Numa restaurants are trained by the family cooks under the supervision of the two women. The resulting amalgamations served at their Under the Mango Tree and Under the Jamun Tree restaurants are an epicurean delight. Saleem Qureshi, their marketing head and culinary aficionado continues the culinary refinement as Jehan Numa hosts food festivals inviting cooks from Rampur, Lucknow, Hyderabad, and Delhi. They also host Bhopali rezala masterclasses to popularise this mis-remembered culinary marvel.
The Bhopalis, as the Rampuris, favour the yakhni pulao–– with the rice cooked in lightly flavoured meat stock–– over the spicy biryani. The Bhopali yakhni pulao had the familiar light aroma. Mamma and Qamar, as most Rampuris, are qorma-pulao-kabab snobs, and I awaited their comments as we were served Jehan Numa Palace delights. Qorma passed the muster. It was slow cooked on coals and had just the right consistency with an accurate balance of spices. Mamma remarked that there was a floral aroma to it, which turned out to be rose water combined with kewra. Though rose water is never used in Rampur curries, it was pronounced pleasing by the two gourmands.
As in Rampur cuisine, the Bhopal dishes rely on the basic spices and there is a near absence of the aromatics favoured by Awadh cuisine
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The seekh kababs were thick and golden, the dimensions matching the Rampur seekh kababs, and were approved by the mother. It was further observed that Rampuri kababs have a more uniform and creamy texture than the Bhopali. Rampuris collectively disapprove the overuse of papaya tenderiser and aromatics, which tend to make the Awadhi and kakori kababs (according to them) too dark and mushy with a garam masala aftertaste. The Jehan Numa cooks used the basic masalas, and the taste was meaty. The same reticence in the use of spices was found in their chapli kababs. The chapli kababs are flat, round kababs made from marinated mincemeat, fried over large skillets. They have their roots in Afghani and Peshawari kababs and use even less spices than the seekh kababs; a garnish of finely chopped onions, green chilies and coriander is mixed into the mincemeat before frying, which lends a crunch to the smooth taste. Princess Niloufer aptly describes the flavours of Bhopal as “earthy”––not spice heavy like the Mughal cuisine, and not delicately aromatic as the Awadhi cuisine. I could broadly define Rampuri cuisine in similar words.
FISH IS AN important part of the Bhopali cuisine as good quality freshwater fish from the lakes is available all year round. We ventured to the Sadar Bazar for the famed Afghani Kachhi Machhli. There are several Afghan restaurants in the Sadar Bazar claiming descent from the original Afghan settlers. Kareem Khan, the proprietor of the highly recommended New Afghani Restaurant looked every inch a Pathan with his grey beard and grand gestures. He lit up to meet fellow pathans from Rampur and we were given a tour of his hotel and restaurant interspersed with stories. He explained that the Afghani Kacchi Machli is marinated in curd and masalas for three hours. The curry is cooked over four hours and the marinated fish is simmered in the curry. Since the fish is not fried before cooking, it is called “kachhi” or raw. By now we knew Kareem bhai enough to halve the cooking and marination time. Notwithstanding the hyperbole, the fish was delicious and freshly caught from the lake. Rampuri fish curry always carries a redolence of fenugreek. We cannot dream of tempering our fish without methi seeds. Most Rampur cooks mount a war against the fishy smell by scraping, cleaning and washing it obsessively with mustard oil or lemon juice or vinegar, or with all of them. Frying the fish is an important part of the process. For Rampuris, masher and sanwal are the best freshwater fishes; Bhopalis are also devoted to sanwal fish.
We also sampled mutton stew in the chowk area at another Afghan restaurant. Indian stew has roots in British cuisine and dates to colonial times. Sometime in the culinary history of the subcontinent, the British stew, which had meats, onions, various vegetables, butter and red wine underwent drastic changes at the hands of the Indian cooks. The Burdawan stew was a favourite colonial stew cooked in Calcutta at least since the beginning of the 19th century. As the stew made its journey across India from the kitchens of the British colonial masters to the Indian elite, we put in whole garam masalas, threw out the seasonal vegetables and the red wine–– I’m sure we have the Muslim rulers to blame for the latter––and cooked the ginger-garlic-onions into a thick mush with the meat. Rampur stew even threw out the tomatoes because we are not too fond of the vegetable in our meats. The Bhopalis have a different version of the stew. They have added turmeric, coriander leaves and green chilies making the dish look more cheerful. Our collective tastebuds cringed at the culinary blasphemy. The sharp tang of the turmeric destroyed the expected smooth blandness of the Indian stew.
The Bhopali rezala is said to have been innovated by Begum of Bhopal, Shah Jahan Begum. Apparently, the Begum loved celebrations and royal events curated around colour themes
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Unlike Rampur, Bhopal cuisine has a fabulous vegetarian spread because of its prosperous Jain trading community. To cater to their taste, samosas have adopted spicy banana filling and are none the worst for it. The famous sehore kachori, for which Bhopalis stake their claim over Indore, is the pride of Bhopali street food. Lotus stem called nadru cooked in a curry is also a vegetarian delicacy catering to the Jain populace. What I found divine was the mawa baati––the sans maida Bhopali gulab jamun. The street food of Bhopal, I was told, is superior to that of Indore. It was a claim we had no means to refute as we crunched on the unlikely combination of poha-jalebi.
Loaded with stories and food we returned home. Still intrigued by the rezala, I tried out Bhopali rezala from the recipe kindly shared by Jehan Numa owners. I also cooked Bengali rezala from an internet recipe and we debated the rival tastes of the two dishes. Qamar was all for the Bengali version while Mamma felt that the latter was too sweet to be called a curry. She preferred the spicier Bhopali rezala. As we sat critiquing the remembered flavours, I hit upon the idea of taking Rampur khansamas to Jehan Numa. As I got busy connecting with Saleem Qureshi and making plans for organising a Rampur Food Festival at their hotel, Mamma smiled. “I knew you would enjoy Bhopal.”