History is full of stories of war and conflict that remind us of the control that rulers and governments have always tried to enforce on the inhabitants of a land. It was one such conflict in 1774 AD between Nawab Faizullah Khan of Rohilla Dynasty and Nawab Shujauddaula of Oudh, and the English troops of Warren Hastings that led to the signing of a treaty that gave the Nawab of Rohilla Dynasty possession of a mere four villages, which he named “Mustafabad”. I think perhaps the city was named after Hazrat Muhammad al-Mustafa SAW, the last prophet of Islam.
However, in due course city was renamed to Rampur. I am not certain of why the name was changed, but what remained intact in the city was its tehzeeb, culture, and food. Nawab sahib was a great scholar himself who initiated the collection of precious manuscripts in different ancient languages like Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and Turkish—one of the decorated treasures of the Rampur Raza Library. He governed the region for almost twenty years.
Madhulika Dash, a senior Food and Hospitality writer and food columnist, published one of her reports in Indian Express, narrating the story of Rampur and the treaty signed between Nawab Faizullah Khan and the British. She says that the treaty ensured that the Nawab, and his successors, would never find a place of glory in the history but it did make Rampur a safe haven for artists and patrons alike. Personally, I feel that the treaty did quite the opposite of what it was supposed to do. Rampur finds its popularity in every aspect, be it poetry, food or the rich culture and heritage. Rampur has witnessed the rise of great artists and scholars like Mirza Ghalib, who stayed here for almost three months but moved back to Delhi because he could not adjust to the life in this city. Akhtaribai Faizabadi became Begum Akhtar in Rampur as a court singer at the Rampur durbar of Raza Ali Khan. Freedom fighter Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was in fact the first representative from Rampur. These are just a few of the scholars and artists that the land of Rampur has noticed in the past.
Miss Dash further writes and I quote, “the post 1858, Rampur rose in prominence as the ‘varsity’ for most of the royal khansamas (royal chefs) from the Mughal and other royal courts, who, unable to find work and the artistic liberties they were used to in the royal court, migrated to this 17-gun salute kingdom. This perhaps explains why Rampuri cuisine seems to be influenced by so many cuisines, importantly the Mughlai, Afghani, Lucknowi, Kashmiri and Awadhi cuisine.”
Since there were so many khansamas in the city, they had a lot of time on their hands to specialize in their own art and craft, and it gave rise to a great deal of nuance. For example, if one khansama liked rice, he would just focus on rice, and create mouthwatering dishes combining it with meat or other ingredients.
Rampuri cuisine for me has always been a mystery. I recently had the pleasure of attending a food festival curated by the Maestro, Osama Jalali and his family, at DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel on 4th March 2019. He provided so many nuggets of information about the cuisine, that left me wanting more. Osama bhai mentioned that the nawabs were so fond of food that the khansamas would go to France and other places to receive training and refine their art of cooking. Two dishes that I ate at the festival that were entirely unique were aloo ka zarda and gosht ka halwa. Both these desserts had a distinctive flavour which was nothing like the name suggested—the zarda tasted like pumpkin and gosht halwa (meat) tasted like rabri or khurchan. Osama bhai gave me sneak peek into making gosht ka halwa—a unique and almost counter intuitive dessert. Meat is boiled and cooked in milk, and as the milk gets soaked and emulsified in the meat, more milk is added, along with dry fruits, cardamom, rose water. These ingredients remove the smell of meat and give the dish a luxurious flavour. He said that when he was trying to source the recipe for the halwa, to his surprise, while he found mention of it in books, no recipe was available. Eventually, he had to go to pillar to post in Rampur to unearth the gem.
It was Rampur which first began the use of papaya as a tenderiser for meat, and also the omnipresent chandi ka varq (silver leaves) on dishes and desserts. It was later that the rest of the country began adopting these techniques. What makes the dishes in Rampur different from the dishes of Awadh is the texture–the former is all about simple textures and whole spices, while the later one is all about the finesse and the usage of powdered spices. The khansamas of Rampur were also masters in disguising the ingredients, which essentially meant that the diners would perhaps never know what they were eating unless they were told. The royal kitchens of Rampur used ingredients like lotus seeds, banana flower, khus ki jhad (roots) and sandalwood to give their own twists to the taste of dishes. Kele ke Kabab and Kathal ke Seekh Kabab also originated in Rampur.
One of my absolute favourite dish from Rampur is Taar Gosht Korma. Anoothi Vishal, an independent writer and author, defines it beautifully in her article— “..the dish derives its name from the layer of fat — “taar” — floating over of the curry, made primarily from beef (though restaurants now do mutton versions). The taar contained maximum flavour and would be drunk out of small katoris, or bowls, after the diners had finished with the meat!”
A few dishes that I had the privilege of having for the first time but surely not the last time were gobhi gosht, urad gosht and rampuri khichda, where gobhi and urad gosht had the technique of cooking tough ingredient like meat and soft ingredients like urad (lentil) and gobhi (cauliflower) together. Arbi ka Salan (Taro root) was a simple and I thank Osama bhai for forcing me to try this vegetable delight. In all my innocence I told him “are arbi ki sabzi to simple ghar wali hi hogi” (it will be simple vegetable that I eat at home) to which he replied “try to karo” (give it a shot first). This was seriously nothing like what I had in my short life that I have lived so far- robust and simple flavours in every spoon. I also tried another unheard dish chana dal bharta—one of his own favourites. It was a paste or we can also call it a porridge of some sorts, creamy, smooth and it just vanished the moment I put this bharta on my tongue. Growing up in Bihar/Jharkhand, I was always familiar with aalo, baingan and tamatar (potato, brinjal and tomato) ka bharta but the one I tasted during this festival was nothing like I have tasted before.
The menu included over fifteen dishes, including accompanying bread, and desserts. I was also served stories of Rampur and the cuisine. We saw a beautiful garland made out of thousands of cloves and silver balls, which according to Osama Bhai is an auspicious garland passed on through generations during weddings. The one that he had at the table was his mother’s. He also had on display his traditional silver pots and pans from his collection. It made me reminisce on my own childhood days spent at my grandparents’ houses, where silver utensils were used to serve food, or put on display on shelves as a part of the décor, or to showcase the rich Muslim heritage of their times.
This food festival was curated by Osama Jalali and his family, along with the chef of Double Tree by Hilton, Chef Deepak Sarkar. After eating the dishes and listening to the stories, I have become more (fan) of Rampur cuisine but most importantly the curators. It is because of people like Osama Jalali that we can relive the era of Nawabs and imagine what their lives had been like—an opportunity we would not otherwise have. You still have three days before the festival officially concludes on the 10th of March, so make your way down to explore this mysterious but awe-inspiring culture and cuisine.