The Awadhi Prince & His favourites

By Indranil Halder

A new influence in cooking, flourished in the Indian multicultural city of Kolkata after the arrival of the last king of Awadh, India. It is the Awadhi tradition. The tradition not only enriched the city’s culinary heritage but also introduced new style of cooking. Nowadays, Kolkata can enjoy massive spread of Awadhi Kababs served at the Great Awadhi Kabab Festival at Oudh 1590 restaurant chain.

The Awadhi Prince:

165 years ago, the last king of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah’s kingdom was annexed by the British East India Company. He made Kolkata his home with his family and subjects. His Highness Shahanshah Mirza is the great great grandson of King Wajid Ali Shah and Aklil Ara Mumtaz Begum. He is a senior GST officer in the Indian Ministry of Finance and currently posted in Kolkata. He has co-authored three books – Calcutta: Built Heritage, Calcuttadotes, and a commemorative volume on The diplomatic relations between China and India.

Mirza’s favourites:

Today, in Kolkata, Mirza is often seen as chief guest at various culinary shows, educating people on Awadhi cuisines. He is an authority on Awadhi and Mughlai cuisines too. Few years ago, BBC Good Food India had bestowed Life Time Achievement Award to his illustrious ancestor and their connection to heritage food. He was handed the award by celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor at a glittering ceremony in Kolkata. In between, his busy Kolkata social life, he loves to enjoy his favourite dishes such as Mutton Biryani, Shaami Kebab and Shahi Tukra.

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Being a great connoisseur of good food himself, Mirza would like to believe that Mutton Biryani originated at the time of construction of Asafi Imambara in the Indian heritage city of Lucknow. It was during the reign of Awadh’s fourth Nawab- Asaf-ud-Daulah. He prefers mutton biryani as it is the best meat for this dish. Although the typical Awadhi biryani cooked in Lucknow does not have potatoes but he likes the Kolkata version with this humble tuber. He is a strong advocate of having only biryani without any starters.

According to him it is a complete dish and in order to get the best taste, one should not spoil the appetite by having starters. He considers egg in biryani and biryani cooked in mustard oil almost blasphemous. With passing of many decades, this Awadhi cuisine got absorbed in Kolkata’s diet readily and is now one of commonly known Indian biryanis in the subcontinent.

Whether Mirza is passionately advocating the preservation of various heritages of India or chairing many heritage groups events as a life Member of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), he prefer enjoying his second favourite dish, Shaami Kebab with rogni roti. It is an extremely popular kebab in the Indian sub-continent. The texture of this kebab is very soft. The mince used is well pounded. Interestingly, in shami kebabs no tenderizer like raw papaya is used. The boiling of minced meat with spices and herb, one can achieve the desired result. This is a dish which one can have at any time of the day. According to Mirza, Kebabs in Awadh were referred to any chunks of meat or minced meat. Often grilled evenly on a skewer or minced meat patties(which were fried on a large, flat hot iron plate called Mahi tawa). Mirza loves this traditional style of cooking.

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Mirza is particularly proud of the Awadh rulers and their engagements to create India’s architectural, literary and cultural marvel. While his ancestors worked relentlessly to establish themselves in many areas related to music and arts, they also wrote a glorious chapter of history in their royal kitchens. The culinary genius of the Awadhi royal kitchen was achieved by extraordinary talented royal chefs who enjoyed the freedom to experiment with food and deliver the best. The legacy of Awadhi royal kitchen needs to be celebrated for influencing the Indian subcontinent food heritage.

From the Awadhi royal kitchen, one of Mirza’s all time favourite dessert from the remains Shahi Tukra. The name literally means a ‘piece of royalty’. As the name suggest, its birth is traced back to the royal kitchen. This is perhaps the only dish which emanated out of leftover food and is a brilliant example of recycling food. Ideally, one should have it with a liberal spoonful of fresh cream. A high calorie sinfully dish that taste heavenly. Even though, throughout his life, Mirza had the opportunity of tasting food cooked by leading chefs, he favourite remains his late mother Kazimi Begum’s cooking. According to Mirza, ‘The taste of my mother’s cooking is forever etched in my heart.’

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No matter, whether Mirza is working as dedicated social and green activist planting thousands of saplings for greener India or giving talks as seasoned public speaker or playing tennis, he loves to enjoy Awadhi traditional cuisines, reminiscent about his mother’s cooking and work as champion advocate for Mughlai and Awadhi royal cuisines in India.