I rediscovered Mughalai cuisine when I visited India last year. I had thought of Mughalai cuisine as only meat cooking. To my pleasant surprise, nowadays many meatless Mughalai entrees are found in modern restaurants there.
So what is Mughalai cuisine? Many Americans do not know that the Mughals ruled India for 200 years, longer than the British did, and have had a much deeper influence on Indian culture and cuisine. The Mughal invaders, who came from Turkey, Persia, and Afghanistan, established a dynastic rule that peaked in the mid 16th century. Due to their desire to settle in India, the Mughals made efforts to integrate and blend with Indian culture, which they admired passionately. This blending is reflected in many areas of arts including architecture, music, painting, and, of course, cooking.
The mighty Mughal emperors, lovers of art, beauty, and entertainment, must have employed creative chefs who combined West Asian cooking techniques with the native Indian styles to develop a new cuisine that evolved into Mughalai cuisine. Popular Mughalai dishes served in Indian restaurants include kababs (meat and vegetable chunks marinated and cooked in an open fire or in a pit oven called tandoor), koftas (balls made with ground meat or vegetables, fried and cooked with rich sauces), and biryanis (rice or other grains cooked with spices and vegetables).
Mughal ai cuisine has been well known for its meat dishes since the Mughal emperors enjoyed the sport of hunting with other Indian (and British) royalties. Coming from arid land, and being nomadic, the Mughals’ own cuisine did not include many vegetables. However, Mughal chefs took advantage of the infinite variety of vegetables found on the Indian sub-continent. Historical accounts show that some Mughal emperors, such as Humayun and Akbar, refrained from eating meat on certain days. Many Mughalai dishes using vegetables must have been created to fill this need.
Currently, Mughalai cuisine stands out as a unique style among the many schools of Indian cooking. The Mughalai technique involves cooking food on low flame and with delicate sweet spices such as cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Cooking food in a pit fire called tandoor is another favorite method. Traditional Mughalai sauces are embellished with curds and cream, and now include tomatoes, to produce a rich gravy.
After sampling many vegetarian Mughalai dishes on my recent trip to India, I was inspired to create some of my own recipes. Here are two:
MUGHALAI ALU GOBI
l medium sized cauliflower, cut into large florets
2 to 3 medium yellow or red potatoes, peeled and cut into large cubes
1 large onion, minced
3 tablespoons oil or ghee
8 large tomatoes, chopped to make 4 cups (or 4 cups canned)
l hot green chili (jalapeño or Serrano) minced
l tablespoon grated or minced ginger root
½ teaspoon each coriander and cumin powder
1/8 teaspoon cayenne powder
l teaspoon salt
¼ cup lightly toasted cashew nuts, crushed or ground to make nutmeal
½ cup unflavored yogurt
a few tablespoons water
a few crushed saffron threads
2 tablespoons cooking oil
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
Fresh cilantro leaves for garnish
Cut the cauliflower by separating it into large florets. Set them in a large bowl filled with cold water. Peel and cut the potatoes and add them to the bowl, and set it aside.
To make the sauce, fry the onions in oil or ghee over a low flame until soft and golden but not brown. Add tomato chunks and stir-fry for a few minutes. Add the chili, ginger, powdered spices, and salt. Cook for 10 minutes or until the mixture turns into a fine paste. Then add the cashew meal, yogurt, and saffron. Cook for few more minutes, adding a few tablespoons of water to form a gravy-like sauce. Set the sauce aside.
Drain the cauliflower pieces and potato cubes. In a large saucepan heat two tablespoons of oil and add the cumin seeds. Roast the seeds for two minutes and add the cauliflower and potatoes. Stir-fry till the vegetables are well coated with oil. Add ½ cup water and cook covered for just five minutes till the vegetables are half cooked. Then add the sauce and mix well. Cook the mixture for 10 minutes, stirring gently. Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with cilantro. Serve with rice, biryani, naan, or pita bread.
4 cups cooked red kidney beans or adjuki beans (rajma are used in India) canned or freshly cooked
2 cups cooked garbanzo beans, canned or freshly cooked
3 tablespoons butter or oil
2 tablespoons finely shredded ginger
4 to 6 cloves garlic, minced
2 jalapeño peppers, minced after removing seeds and inside fibers
2 cups chopped or pureed tomatoes
½ teaspoon each ground cardamom and cinnamon
a few pinches of nutmeg and cloves
1 teaspoon (or to taste) salt
1 cup yogurt or soy yogurt
finely chopped cilantro for garnish
If you plan to use fresh, dry beans, soak one cup of red beans and ½ cup of garbanzo beans overnight. When ready to cook, rinse the beans, drain and cook them together in plenty of water for an hour or longer till they are very soft. (You will need only six cups of combined beans from this mixture) If using canned beans, drain the liquid. Set the rinsed beans aside.
Heat the oil or butter and add ginger, jalapeño pepper, and garlic. Stir-fry over low heat for a few minutes. Add the tomatoes and gently cook over low flame for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring frequently until it forms a fine sauce. Then add the ground spices and salt. Add the beans and a cup of water. Mix thoroughly and cook the mixture for another 10 minutes till well blended. Then, take out a cup of cooked sauce and blend it with yogurt or soy yogurt using a whisk or a fork. Add this mixture back to the cooking beans. Add cilantro and serve with rice or bread.
(Serves 6 to 8).