Friday, July 20, 2007

Raj Kumar Mahmudabad

If you happen to be at the city station wazirganj, the dry little lane that snakes right will lead you to the gates of the grand Iqbal Manzil. A palace built in 1928 by Sir Mohammad Ali Mohammad Khan, the first Vice Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University. As you drive into the Mahal, the chatter of young children surprises you, as do the peeping smiling faces from the old windows of what appear to be classrooms. “The ground floor of the Mahal is used for a school run by the Raj Kumar Mahmudabad”, explains his personal assistant, ushering one into the director’s cabin.

A warm smile lighting up his face, Raj Kumar Amir Naqi Khan the grandson of Sir Mohd. Ali Mohd. Khan welcomes you to his home. With quick and agile steps, he ascends the staircase to his chambers. While walking across the wide, open-air second floor which seems to be a courtyard of sorts, he mentions, “This was a tennis court for the ladies.” Motioning left and right with a swerve of his arm he adds with a chuckle, “This area around the court used to be covered with purdahs so the ball wouldn’t fall to the other side”. He pauses before a little platform, “and that was for the band”.

Following the kind faced and charming Raj Kumar Mahmudabad through a hall lined with black and white pictures that capture some of the most important moments in Indian history, we enter his living room. An air of antiquity shrouds his chambers as we settle down before a fireplace which he says is still “in working condition”. The sweltering heat outside seems a distant memory within the cool environs of these walls.

The Prince is a celebrated connoisseur on Mughal cuisine, “We organized our first Mughal food festival back in 1992 and have had twelve such festivals since” he says. He credits his elegant wife Kunwarrani Kulsum Begum, a culinary consultant at the Maurya Sheraton hotel Delhi with the idea, “She belongs to the Hyderabad family and we often argue and defend our own cuisines as the best!” he laughs.

The kitchen of Iqbal Palace, the bawarchikhana, was known for its unique “riddle” dinners. “My father, Mahraj Kumar Mohd. Mahmoud Hasan Khan was particularly fond of puzzling our guests with these dinners. What appeared to be an egg would generally be a mithai made of saffron and khoya”, he remembers with a twinkle in his eye. This tradition continues and with new innovations such as the heavenly “Hari-manbhari” green kheer, which the Raj Kumar describes as “Something that delights even Hari or God”. This rich concoction of pistachios, khoya and other secret ingredients is one of his newest recipes. “Our cook was recently awarded at a ceremony at the Gomti Hotel”, he adds. Carrying on with a vivid description of Lab-e-maashook, or “lips of the beloved”, an old creation from the kitchens of the palace the Raj Kumar almost leaves one with the taste of this kheer. It consists of bits of almond, khoya and beetroot for the lip-red colour. “Originally, rubies were used as they soothed the nerves”, he smiles.

A typical day in the life of an erstwhile Nawab would begin with a breakfast at the palace with his begum. Breakfast consisted of a menu as diverse as puris, parathas, kliageena and tarkari better known as bhujia and sabzi. Lunch and dinner were far more elaborate with Qurma, chicken, fish, kababs, pulao, tarkari and tarkari salan or vegetable curry, roti, sheermal, pickle and muraba being the necessary basics along with desserts. At around 5:00 p.m., sharbats would be served. “For daawats, a variety of qurmas, kababs, pulaos and the rest were prepared”, explains the Prince. At any given time, the palace usually had fifteen to twenty guests that dined with the Nawab. Kababs such as the shaami, gola, pateeli, koftai-mulla-ajami, ghutvan, nargissi and zamin-dost kabab which was cooked inside the earth amongst many others were cooked. Most of these kababs simply melted in the mouth. “There were special chickens, fed on saffron, chameli, pineapple and other foods just to add aroma to their flesh when cooked”!

A bawarchikhana generally had fifteen different bawarchis, each one entrusted with different duty and skill, a particular bawarchi would make kababs, another dissect the meat, a third make sharbats and so on.“A hakeem was in charge of the kitchens, everything including the tobacco for the Nawab’s hookah was prepared under his guidance.” The hakeem would prepare the next day’s menu and send the list to the Begum for corrections.

The Raj Kumar remembers the aroma of his father’s hookah which wafted through these very rooms years ago. “Seasonal fruits such a pomegranate, were mashed into the tobacco for the aroma and the smoke passed through a brew of milk and keora, not water. This sucked away the nicotine… it was heavenly” he trails off.

We walk to a musty chamber, the door of which he throws open and beams, “We are renovating this area for heritage tourism. We intend to invite exclusive guests every winter to enjoy with us authentic Mughal food”. As we walk down the stairs to the classrooms, he reminisces how he grew up playing in these rooms. The fishbone design on the pillars and the tiny chandeliers hang from the roof like they did seventy nine years ago.

The story in the Newsline---