Emperors’ new cloves, cumin and cardamom

The Mughals secured a culinary legacy that lives on today - you just can’t beat a biryani.

The Mughals' influence on Indian food has travelled far
The Mughals' influence on Indian food has travelled far. Photograph: Getty Images

I suspect the British Library’s major new exhibition on the Mughal empire will spark a boom for Euston’s many Indian restaurants. The dynasty’s wellknown cultural achievements – the architecture of the Taj Mahal, the paintings, the jewels – are covered in satisfying detail but there are also tantalising hints of its culinary legacy.

Muhammad Isa Waley, curator of the library’s Persian and Turkish collections, explains that the Mughals “left their mark on the tastes and eating habits of the people of south-Asian origin all over the world, not to mention those westerners who like to consume takeaways”. Indeed, it’s not going too far to claim that, for many non-Indians, western or not, Mughal food is Indian food.

It’s ironic, given the Mughals were a proudly central-Asian people – their emperors were descendants of Genghis Khan – who began their long conquest of lands to the south in the early 16th century. By 1700, the empire stretched from Kabul to Pondicherry and, as it expanded, it spread the tastes and customs of its ruling class. The exhibition includes a copy of the Nuskhah-yi Shah Jahani, or Shah Jahan’s recipe book – my Persian not being up to scratch, I’m going to have to take it on trust that the exquisite calligraphy on display speaks of samosas but the contents page, with its pilaus and kebabs, says much about the synthesis of Persian and Hindu culinary traditions in the imperial kitchens.

In their new homeland, delicate Persian pilaus met pungent Indian spices. Meat, never a central preoccupation of Hindu rulers, suddenly took centre stage, marinated in yoghurt until tender and grilled in long kebabs. Visitors will spot some cooking over a fire in the pastoral Kashmiri village scene displayed in the exhibition, while the brightly coloured Holi sweetmeats in a painting betray a distinctly Muslim taste for sticky treats. Thanks to agricultural reforms, Indian sugar production increased hugely under Mughal rule: the collection includes a wonderful account of the world’s largest sugar lump.

Early Mughals wore these foreign tastes as a badge of difference, with the first emperor, Babur, moved to tears by the sweet flavour of melon, a painful reminder of what he’d lost. They spurned native mangoes and jackfruit, with Akbar the Great going so far as to import Persian horticulturists to supply him with the grapes and apples he craved. Fruit thus became important political currency in the Mughal world, a fact apparently unknown to the 17th-century British ambassador Thomas Roe, whose diaries feature in the exhibition. On receiving a gift of musk melons, he complained that his hosts must “suppose our felicity lyes in the palate, for all I have ever received was eatable and drinkable”.

Currying favour

His chaplain, one Edward Terry, however, was more impressed by the delicacies served. He described the 50 dishes set before him at a banquet given in Roe’s honour, all served with rice, “some of it made yellow with saffron, and some of it was made green, and some of it put into a purple colour, but by what ingredient I know not. But this I am sure, that it tasted very well.”

He was also a fan of curries, observing that Indians “stew all their flesh . . . cut into little parts, to which they put onions, herbs, roots, and ginger . . . and other spices . . . with some butter, which . . . make a food that is exceedingly pleasing to all palates” – a meal familiar to any British curry house visitor. By the time the last emperor was packed into exile in 1858, the Mughals had secured a culinary legacy that lives on today. Their buildings may be beautiful but you can’t beat a biryani.