When the royal chef demanded an ashrafi, the golden coin, as the essential ingredient for the tarka, the dressing for the dal that helps give the lentils a glow, he was questioned, even misbelieved. The astute chef pleaded for just one opportunity to prove his point. When the ashrafi was granted, he put it in the oil, heated it, and poured it over the yellow lentils. Before serving the dish, he poured some of it in a pot that had just been planted with a sapling. The morning after, as the tale goes, the sapling burst into a golden flower. It was the strength of the ashrafi that let the sapling flower. If a plant can thus bloom, why not the person who partakes of the dal, sprinkled with ashrafi tarkal My mother recounts this tale to prove the point that food spiked with gold, blended with crushed pearls, was a way of life in Hyderabad, the city of her birth, as also mine. The tone to this way of living and eating was set by the Nizams, the seven Asaf Jahi kings who ruled the erstwhile state of Hyderabad for nearly two hundred years. The Nizams are no more but echoes of a lifestyle they helped create persist. For what the royalty did today, the nobility did the next day, and the man on the street the day after.
The food that the Nizams feasted on was referred to as khaasa, a reverential term for food meant for royalty and nobility. It was not just plain food. Nor was it cooked the simple way. Khaasa involved ceremony and ritual. Like EmperorTiberius who is remembered for having invented a system of fattening the young liver of pigs by feeding them with figs and honey, the legacy of food Nizams of Hyderabad have left behind remains to this day the stuff of tales, almost mythical. One that recently aroused my curiosity was that of eight women hired in the royal kitchen to clean one kilo of rice. When I asked the royal cook, now an old man living in the back lanes of Char Minars, he sighed, leaning back against the discoloured bolster and said, "Ah! that was no ordinary kilo of rice!' The rice, he explained, was first pounded in flour, then strained through a fine muslin cloth to remove the invisible impurities, and later picked grain by grain, taking care that each grain was the same size. When cooked, thegrains opened like jasmine petals. Ittookas longto cook rice as it did a meat dish. Food in those days took longer to cook and longer to eat, says my mother. Each dish was savoured, recognized for its flavour, its quality. Each spice too was respected for its strength and colour and used in a proportion so that its property was not betrayed: the blackness of shahzeera, a refined kind of cumin, had to be diluted; garlic was never used whole, but squeezed and strained, and ghee heated and passed through fine muslin to preserve its itriyat, its true nature.
Eating food, like cooking, had its own norms of ritual and decorum. Food was deemed a gift of God. To bring out its true nature was the task of man. "One who accepts what God gives is the one who understands the true nature of gratitude^' is a common inscription in Urdu printed or woven into the design of the dastar khaan, a tablecloth spread out on the floor over which food is traditionally served. Sitting around it, guests would revel in the meaning of the inscription before beginning the ritual of eating. Those who lived in Hyderabad gave food its due, made it a way of life. What began with kings filtered down to the man on the street. A dawat in a poor man's house was not devoid of echoes distinctive of royal khaasa, which would arrive in a khaan, an ornate covered tray.carried by two chobedars. These liveried men would ride in a horse carriage announcing what was on the way. The small round silver tray would be arranged with tiny bowls, each gently filled with a delicacy, meant only to taste and tickle the tongue. A treat that I remember with equal clarity was a dowot at our old driver's home. It was to celebrate the bismillah ceremony of his grandson, a sacred occasion when the child learns to write the first letter of the alphabet on a silver slate with a quill dipped in saffron. The feast on the dastar khaan, was an array of aromatic delicacies that imitated the khaasa. Khatti dal, a lentil preparation was cooked with as much a ritual as shad daeg, meat cooked with turnip for three long days. The attention both dishes commanded was the same. So much of the fabric of living was woven and coloured by what one ate and how it was eaten.
The secrets of Hyderabadi cooking have begun to recede from the noble mansions. A man who brought back the sense of that lost art is unlikely to be a cook in a five star hotel. He told me stories of food the way my father would, sitting at the head of a long table. Like a craftsman, the cook wove tales of food, unfolding the social history of a time in which he had participated.
Less than a decade ago, to see a one-time jagirdar wearing a chef cap, working in a kitchen would have been sacrilege. Mir Hussain Ali Khan Moosavi, a name which wraps itself the mysteries of a lineage and lifestyle, is not embarrassed of being a chef today. Cooking food and sharing it is a tradition that he treasures. Seeing guests gather in a hotel is not very different from having guests in his home. "Not a day goes by when we do not have two or more guests to share food with us" says Moosavi in a manner that is affable and warm. Food as a lifestyle has lent his nature a generosity and warmth…a spaciousness characteristic of true Hyderabadi hospitality. Like his sisters, Moosavi learnt to cook watching his mother. Many aristocrats and princes cooked, he says, as a hobby. Stag parties were popular, when men competed and excelled in preparing special dishes. "We met in each other's houses, cooked and shared our creations with friends!' says Moosavi. What was a hobby in boyhood has today become his vocation.
Learning to cook in the style of that grand old Hyderabad was an art requiring long years of apprenticeship. To make sheermal, a special kind of bread, a cook had to put in fifteen years of apprenticeship. He had to understand the nature of flour before baking the bread. In the same way, he had to understand the kinds and cuts of meats before preparing the different meat dishes. The kind of meat or vegetables determined the kind of container to be used and the two together depended on the kind of wood used for the cooking fire.
Food is best enjoyed when eaten with hands, says Moosavi. And hands should first be washed. In the time of Nawabs, they were washed with rose water. There were no forks and knives. Those who served would begin with deep salaams and await orders. Atthe end of the meal, no tooth picks were used. It was not in good taste to use them. Also the need to use them never arose. For the meat was so soft and tender that it never got stuck or caused any embarrassment…when food was a way of life.