The Mughals have left an indelible mark on India’s culinary journey. But a lot of what we know as Mughlai includes attributes from the Persians and Indians. This fusion food story began sometime after 1526 CE when Emperor Babur occupied Delhi and Agra. He employed Hindu cooks to prepare Persian-style delicacies using Indian ingredients. After his death, Babur’s successors added their own chapters to the cuisine’s story.
During Humayun's reign, several Irani dishes were brought to the dining table. Dry fruits and nuts were added to different dishes of the Mughal kitchen during this time. The cuisine, however, reached new heights during Emperor Akbar’s reign. Akbar also happened to be a vegetarian informs Salma Husain, food historian and author of The Emperor’s Table. He was a vegetarian three days a week and many of the cooks he hired hailed from Rajasthan. They fused their style of cooking with Persian flavours.
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The Mughlai cuisine that we know of today is a result of an evolution driven by the expansion of the dynasty. According to Husain, one of the most popular Mughlai dishes of today, Murgh Musallam—a whole chicken stuffed with minced meat, eggs, and aromatic spices—is a descendant of the Musamman, mentioned in Ain-i-Akbari, a 16-century document that gives an account of the administration of emperor Akbar’s empire. In the first volume of Ain-i-Akbari, its author Abdul Fazal categorises the recipes from the Akbar era Mughal kitchen into three categories: The first one comprised meat-free preparations; the second, a host of meat and rice dishes; while the third featured meats cooked with spices and dry fruits.
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The Musamman was featured in the last category. “They take all the bones out of a fowl through the neck, the fowl remaining whole; .5 s. minced meat; .5 s. ghi; 5 eggs; .25 s. onions; 10 m. coriander; 10 m. fresh ginger; 5 m. salt; 3 m. round pepper; .5 m. saffron, it is prepared as the preceding (kababs),” reads the quick recipe of Musamman mentioned in Ain-i-Akbari, translated by H. Blochmann and printed for The Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1873.
Before the Mughal Era
Chef Kunal Kapur says that references to Murgh Musallam have also been found in detailed accounts of Ibn Battuta, the famous Moroccan scholar who travelled extensively through India. “It is described as one of the favoured dishes served at a grand dinner hosted by Sultan Muhammad Ibn Tughlaq (1325-1651 AD) for a Qazi from a foreign land. In this dinner, there was a dish, which featured a roasted fowl served on a bed of ghee-cooked rice. This reference indicates that Murgh Musallam was served during Sultanate period too,” he adds.
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Other documents that prove the roasted chicken ’s popularity during the Mughal era is the Persian manuscript on food—Alwan-e-Nemat. Husain elaborates, “It was written during Emperor Jehangir’s period. It mentions a kebab, Gurakh Kabab, which is basically chicken stuffed with eggs and nuts. The fowl is cooked on a bed of cinnamon. The same recipe also has a place in Nuskha-e-Shahjahani, which was written during Shahjahan’s reign. These references make it clear that cooking stuffed whole chicken was popular during the Mughal era.” It was the Indian cooks who used their creativity and served it on a thick and well-spiced gravy, very similar to the kind of Murgh Musallam or Musamman that we relish today.
Interestingly, Husain says that according to 14th century Latin book, Tractatus, the method of cooking and the spices of Ain-i-Akbari’s Musamman bears similarity to the roast fowl cooked in medieval Europe.
The Modern Avatar
“There are several versions of Murgh Musallam in our country at present. While some families and chefs follow the Mughal way of stuffing the chicken with minced meat and eggs, Awadhi cuisine enthusiasts go for a filling of nuts and mewa,” says Kapoor.
To know more about Murgh Musallam, watch Curries of India.
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