Indian royalty may have well lost its relevance but certainly not all of its magic. And most of this leftover magic can be found hidden in the culinary heritage of the many princely states that once ruled the country.
Royal recipes were often deeply guarded secrets handed down through generations of cooks; this meant essentially, royal cuisines never really changed the way more ordinary people ate. Despite this being largely true, palace cooking has had unexpected influences on some of the foods we consume today and even the way certain dishes are prepared. Think temple prasadams. Since most temples were run on royal patronage, food became an important way of displaying influence and regal power.
In an effort to better understand such influences of royal cuisines on Indian food traditions, among other things, a workshop-cum-panel discussion was recently organised in Bengaluru by the Andhra Pradesh-based B.E.S.T Innovation University. The workshop is the first in the ‘Ahara’ series the university, along with other organisations, plans to hold over the next few months. The workshops focus on integrating ayurveda, yoga and satvik living in everyday life — not in any didactic manner but in a fun, practical way.
As part of the workshop, food writer and host of the teleseries Dakshin Diaries, Rakesh Raghunathan moderated a discussion with the heirs of erstwhile royal families and gleaned some fascinating titbits about what they ate in their childhood, the way their kitchens functioned and how royal preparations have adapted to the changing times.
Take, for instance, the Thanjavur Maratha dynasty. Thanks to its mixed heritage, the palace boasted of a vegetarian kitchen and a separate Maratha kitchen (where meat was cooked). The temple prasadams were prepared in these satvik kitchens and then sent across to be served, sometimes to the entire town. This is perhaps why even today most famous prasadams are essentially rich preparations with heavy use of ghee, cashews, nutmeg, saffron and other expensive ingredients, all slow-cooked, often over traditional wood fires.
Raghunathan recalled researching Kumbakonam Kadappa, a dish, which he said was virtually representative of the dynasty’s culinary traditions. A potato kurma made with moong dal and cashews but with typical sambar seasoning (including poppy seeds), the dish showcases how it is indeed possible for disparate influences to merge seamlessly in the right kitchen, as it were.
Feast of the kings
Meanwhile, Yaduveer Wadiyar confirmed that the famous story of the accidental birth of Mysore Pak was indeed true. He shared how the Mysore royal kitchens always made it a point to prepare seasonal delicacies, be it mango-based preparations and curd rice in summers or heavier sweets and payasams in the cold days of winter. Apparently, Mysore Palace, too, had a separate kitchen that catered exclusively to the preparation of prasadams and other satvik foods meant for festive occasions.
Not to be left behind, Rathna Krishnadevaraya of the Vijayanagar Tulava dynasty said it was a regular practice to serve one meal from the royal kitchen to the whole town. Revealing that the vessels in which the temple naivaidya was prepared have still been preserved, she described how the prasadam that is even today distributed at the Hampi Virupaksha Temple was made in the royal kitchens using soaked rice, chana dal, spoonfuls of ghee as well as cashews and raisins.
Another interesting recipe that came out of the Vijayanagar dynasty involved lathering just-hunted wild boars with salt and pepper! “This was a special technique cooks employed to make a quick meal out of the wild boar after it was hunted down,” she narrated.
Indeed, there must have been many such stories, secret recipes and traditions that have been lost forever except for a waft of cinnamon here and a whiff of nutmeg there. Perhaps more efforts like this workshop are needed to preserve the undoubtedly rich legacy of royal kitchens and dust out their long-held food secrets.