Hotels in India » The Begum's Family Secrets

The Begum's Family Secrets

The culinary legacy of the Salar Jungs is kept bubbling by a favourite niece

The stereotypical begum: a woman bedecked in a choker and long strands of pearls, draped in a khadda dupatta and smelling of roses.

Kunwar Rani Kulsum: all of the above and also juggling with ladle and griddle and stirring pots and pans.

A niece of Salar Jung III, Kulsum has drawn on her nawabi lineage to bring foodies a festival of Hyderabadi delicacies, being held at Delhiís Maurya Sheraton hotel. ìMy family was very secretive about recipes. They never allowed girls into the kitchen because they would pass them on to their in-laws when they got married. Only daughters-in-law interested in cooking were taught,î she says. The culinary legacy of the Salar Jung family attained new heights with Nawab Yusuf Ali Khan Salar Jung III. He built a separate bawarchi khana where experiments with food were quite common.

How did Kulsum come by these recipes? “I was my nani jaanís favourite. After my marriage to Kunwar Amir Naqui Khan of Memoodabad, I came to Lucknow, this is when I started missing ghar ka khana and I implored nani to teach me our traditional cuisine. She gave me some 300 recipes that took me over six years to learn.” Kulsum remembers that on her first day in the kitchen, she watched as her grandmother picked a little bit of this and that, mixing and pouringóall the while her hand hidden behind her pallu. Says Kulsum: ìWhen I complained, she curtly said: ìDekh lena tha (you should have observed me). Youíll tarnish the reputation of our family cuisine.î I then determined that I wouldnít leave the kitchen until I had not just learnt but perfected the art.

What about the bawarchis? How did the begums keep their recipes a secret from the cooks? According to Kulsum: ìThey werenít shown any of the spices. One would grind the masalas mixed by the begum, another would prepare the marinade and a third would cook, while the begum added the ingredients.î

What sets the Salar Jung recipes apart from other cooking styles is their focus on health. ìBegums would sit with hakims to understand the correlation between food and health, and what should be eaten in which season. Then they would make up recipes, let the hakim savour it and incorporate his suggestions. Only when it was approved by him was the dish served to the family,î says Kulsum. Foods were also season specific: breakfast in summer would always include rokni roti and aam ras. Winter mornings were reserved for soul satisfying nahari, a broth cooked over a slow fire through the night, because it would keep the body warm.

How different is Hyderabadi cuisine from, say, Awadhi? Married for 24 years into an Awadhi family, Kulsum smiles knowingly. ìA potli of khara garam masala (whole spices tied in a muslin cloth) and dry fruits are commonly used in Awadhi cuisine. While Salar Jung cuisine uses a souring agent in every dish and relies on fresh ingredients, we use 21 varieties of chillies alone, season-specific souring agents and fresh fruits,î she says.

She points out that in the Awadhi biriyani, the meat is first cooked and then layers of rice and mutton are alternately arranged in the handi with a sprinkling of saffron and put on dum (sealed and cooked on a low fire). But in kachchi gosht ki biriyani of Hyderabad, raw meat is stir fried with masala for a couple of minutes and then covered with rice and put on dum. It cooks in its own steam and absorbs all the flavours. Similarly, the pathar kebab has a mild smoked flavour and tastes tangy instead of the usual strong onion-garlic or saffron flavour. Tender meat is marinated in simple spices like chilli paste, salt and raw mango or tamarind and then cooked slowly on a heated stone using a unique technique,î says Kulsum.

Royal Repast

Kachchi Biriyani (serves 8)

1 kg mutton (a mix of chops, marrow bones and cubes from the shoulder)

1/2 kg rice

4 onions, finely sliced

1 tsp ginger paste

1 tsp garlic paste

1 tsp red chilli powder

1 bunch of green coriander, washed and chopped

1 small bunch of fresh green mint, chopped

4 cups yoghurt

Juice of 3 lemons

1/2 cup milk

A pinch of saffron

2/3-cup oil

2 tbs ghee

Salt to taste

Grind the following:

4 green chillies

4 cardamoms

6 cloves

1/2 inch cinnamon stick

1 tsp caraway seeds

1 tsp peppercorns

1 small piece of nutmeg

A few flakes mace

Heat oil. Fry onions till golden brown. Crush when cool. Rub the ginger, garlic into the meat. Add 3 cups of yoghurt, salt, red chilli powder, coriander, mint, green chillies, ground spices, lemon juice, crushed onions and the oil in which the onions were fried. Mix well and marinate for about 3-4 hours.

Wash the rice and mix with 1 cup well-beaten yoghurt. Add saffron and half a cup of milk. Set aside.

Take a heavy bottomed pan with a tight covering lid. Transfer the marinated meat with the marinade to the pan. Place the rice over the meat. Sprinkle the saffron milk over the rice. Dot it with ghee. Cover and cook, first over high, then over medium low heat till the meat is tender, the liquids are absorbed and the rice cooked.

Take out gently and serve steaming hot.

Pathar Kebab (serves 8)

1 kg boneless mutton, cut into flat pieces of approximately 3/4 inch thickness, 3-inch length and 2 inches breadth

6-8 green chillies ground to a paste

1 tsp cassia buds (kebab chini), powdered

1 tsp peppercorn, ground

1 tsp ginger paste

1 tsp garlic paste

1 tsp green raw papaya skin, ground into a paste (or a dash of tenderiser)

Oil or ghee for brushing

2-3 medium onions sliced in rings

2-3 lemons sliced

A few mint leaves

Salt to taste

Take a mallet and gently flatten the meat. Mix above ingredients, except onions, lemons and mint leaves, and marinate meat in it for 3 hours.

Take a flattish piece of rough granite that is not too thick. Wash the stone and rest it on bricks and heat this stone with live charcoals underneath. Sprinkle a little oil or ghee on the surface of the stone and place the marinated meat pieces. Turn them a few times brushing them occasionally with oil. Remove when cooked through.

Serve hot with onions, wedges of lemon and fresh mint.