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Mughal Culinary Practices & Colonial Legacies, Neha Vermani

Dr. Neha Vermani is a historian of early modern Mughal South Asia. Her research focuses on food practices and cultures of consumption and engages with material history and history of senses and emotions.

We talk to Dr. Neha Vermani about what Mughal food can tell us about today, colonial histories and identity politics.

Can you tell us more about your background?

I am a first generation female academic from a family of non-humanities people. Even though I was expected to be good at math and science and follow a traditional career path, as far as I can remember history has been the only the disciple I was attracted to. It did not and still does not feel like work! When I think about it, it was story telling as well as the sleuthing aspect that caught my attention as a young teen. I completed my bachelor’s degree in history from Delhi university and masters and MPhil in Medieval history from Jawaharlal Nehru. My MPhil thesis focused on Mughal feasts and from there on I explored other dimensions of Mughal food consumption practices for my Doctoral dissertation. During my time as the postdoctoral fellow on the ‘Before “Farm to Table” ‘project at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C., I focused on the conversation between early modern South Asian, European and Trans-Atlantic food and cooking practices. This was my first collaborative research engagement and what a great experience!

Unknown, At a Party Given in 1507 for Emperor Babur, a Roast Duck Is Carved for Him By His Cousin; Page from a dispersed manuscript of the Baburnama (Book of Babur), Ca.1589, Opaque watercolour, gold and silver on paper, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, 1967-30-305.

Why did you choose to focus on the Mughal period specifically?

My initial interest in the period was sparked by the images and tales of grandeur associated with the Mughals. Reading about court politics, emperors and their lavish lifestyle – themes heavily influenced by the orientalist gaze – seemed fun when I was in school and college. Fortunately, my journey since then has been to dismantle the very framework that drew me in to begin with. Moreover, the way history is taught at school and undergraduate level in India, there is insistent focus on colonial or modern period with “national freedom” struggle as the ultimate crowning glory and histories of the preceding periods are relegated as background chatter. Popular opinion in these spaces is that “serious” students do modern history and those studying ancient or early modern history must just be a way of buying time to figure alternative career options! Well, I guess the tiny rebel in me also wanted to challenge this extremely problematic pedagogical approach.

What can the study of Mughal food history tell us?

Short answer: A lot!

Till now scholars of Mughal South Asia have primarily focused on histories of agrarian production, maritime economies and adjunct revenue structures. The questions of how the produce procured through these channels was prepared, the way it was consumed and savored, the concerns that underpinned these experiences and activities, and the web of meanings they generated –studying history of food consumption allows to probe these hitherto ignored questions. These questions are important to examine because the seemingly mundane act of eating food defines the textures of everyday lives.

Decisions about what to eat and with whom shaped, as they do even now, discourses on civility and authority. Relationships between Mughal elites and with other regional and global powers were forged and negotiated as much on dinner tables as they were in the battlefields. Analytical approach towards food history also makes Mughal paintings legible in a new light by allowing us to understand why specific food items were deployed in a particular scenario. Pan or betel rolls for instance, owing to their mouth freshening qualities and ability to heighten sensory experience feature regularly in amatory scenes.

Additionally, the study of kitchen, market stalls, and apothecaries where food, beverages and medical concoctions speaks a great deal about the people, labor processes, skills, and knowledge systems that fueled the consumption habits. A quick glance through the ingredient lists and recipes further reveals how these sites were deeply imbricated in the wide network of regional and global trade. In a nutshell, as a routine act, food consumption was constitutive as well as emblematic of political, social, economic, gendered and cultural dimensions of the consumer’s identity.

Bishandas, Jahangir Entertains Shah Abbas from the St. Petersburg Album, Ca.1620, Opaque water colour, gold and ink on paper, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, F1942.16a.

How did trading operations across the Indian and Atlantic oceans introduce new ingredients and recipes to the Mughal court?

Since the ancient period, the spice trade provided fillip to Indian maritime networks that were controlled by Asian and Arab merchant communities and connected south and southeast Asia to the middle east and parts of Europe. As expensive commodities from far off lands, spices were used rather sparingly and mostly as preservatives in Europe. European trading company inserted themselves in the Indian ocean spice trade around the 15th century and this coincided with the realization about existence of “new Indies”, a massive land masses across the Atlantic. From 15th to almost 19th century, Europeans coercively manned the Indian and Atlantic Ocean waters, leading to spread of spices, crops, and animals across the globe. In fact, during my time at Folger, we put together public facing resources in forms of maps and blogposts to acquaint people better with these processes of early-modern global exchange.

The Portuguese, served as the initial link between the Mughal and ‘new’ world produce chartered via the early-modern trans-Atlantic trade. Pineapple or travelling jackfruit, as it was called in the Mughal territories was introduced by the Portuguese as early as 16th century and by the 17th century found a place in the South Asian culinary landscape in the forms of Ananas pulav, halwa, do piyaza, and relish. Other trans-Atlantic crops such as tomatoes, potatoes, chilies, corn, cauliflower – most of which are staples in present day diets across the world– did not make their way to the Mughal tables till the late 18th – early 19th century. In South Asia, cultivation of these crops is linked to exploitative British colonial agrarian and economic policies that favored high yielding cash crops such as potatoes, resulting in disruption of indigenous crop cultivation patterns and marginalization of a wide variety of native and less expensive tubers and yams.

Shiva Dayal Lal, Painting, women selling produce, ca. 1850, Patna, opaque watercolour on paper, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, IS.66-1949.

What were some of the unfamiliar culinary practices and recipes? Many people across the world are familiar with Korma and Biryani being dishes that are from the Mughal courts, is there any truth in that and where do they derive from?

A: Mughal cuisine or “Mughlai cuisine” as it is popularly called these days was much more than qorma, kebabs and biryani. Especially the latter features as a very small category, including a vegetarian panir or cottage-cheese based zir-biryan recipe, in Mughal culinary manuals. These layered rice preparations pale in contrast to the sheer variations of pulao and khichdi recipes that use rice and pulses with meat, fish, fruits, and vegetables. In fact, vegetables ranging from gourds, night shades, green leaves to tubers and yams staked a large proportion in the Mughal pantry. Vegetarianism was an important practice in Islamic and Hindu purification rituals. Culinary manuals record as many vegetarian variations for broths, qaliyas, do piyaza and pulavs as they do with meat. Unfortunately, vegetarian aspect of Mughal cuisine is hardly acknowledged in the present times. Politically motivated narratives about meat devouring Mughal Muslim outsiders, antithesis to the pious native Hindu vegetarian culinary traditions, have resulted in ahistorical understanding the food practices in India and South Asia, in general.

What projects are you currently working on?

I am currently working on a bunch of different but connected themes that focus on the sensory experience of consumption practices at the Mughal court. Hopefully, some of this work will be published soon. In April, I will be joining the University of Sheffield as the British Academy Newton International Postdoctoral Fellow and explore early modern South Asian histories of self-fashioning, science, and emotions.

What does the future of Islamic art, heritage and culture look like to you and how can food play a part in its development?

If I am being brutally honest, I would say grim. From the names of the roads and railway stations to cities, all traces of India’s Islamic past are being scoured from public spaces and popular imagination. In this scenario, the best practice would be to not romanticize food as unifying factor, because historically it has never been. Publishing expensive coffee-table books on Mughal recipes or newspaper pieces celebrating the opulence of the exotic Mughal dinner tables are not the solution. Instead, public-facing discussions about identity politics along with problematizing the notion of authenticity would be more fruitful. Cuisines are dynamic phenomenon, and it is extremely important to convey that rigidly construed categories of Muslim and Hindu food preferences or habits have crossed paths and embraced one another at some point or the other. Eat and let others eat because everyone embodies and savors their past differently!

For more information follow Neha Vermani on Twitter:

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