Culinary Culture of Wajid Ali Shah

Two notable women reviving the culinary culture of Wajid Ali Shah in his place of exile

When a goose stops laying eggs but needs too much feed, what does the owner do? Probably, cook it away. Something similar happened with Awadh’s last Nawab – Wajid Ali Shah, who ascended the throne of Awadh in 1847 and was dethroned by the British in 1856. After the annexation of Awadh Empire, the British packed him off to Metiyaburj, about four miles south of Calcutta.

According to the British, Wajid Ali Shah, at that period of time, was doing nothing except living his life like a King. And they gave this as the reason behind their edict to oust Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. Does the metaphor in the first line make sense now?

Wajid Ali Shah’s contributions like military reforms, his attempts at improvement of administration, and his subjects’ immense fondness of him – was brushed under the carpet by the British.

When the King was sent to Metiyaburj, he was accompanied by his Prime minister, some of his begums (wives), some musicians, khansamas (chefs) and officials. His chefs used to attend this displaced court as best as they could. They even prepared banquets as lavish as they used to make during his days as Monarch. His chefs did this to give him the feeling of still being their King and would remember his former seat – Lucknow, as his great romance and not face the hurting reality of its passage. He made him live up to his status as king to an extent that if 5 kilograms of meat was used in making one piece of kofta they didn’t scale down even during his former-king phase.

Now, centuries later, Wajid Ali Shah’s sole inheritor of the royal cuisine he founded – Manzilat Fatima and Fatima Mirza of Calcutta are trying their best to keep that legendary taste alive.

However, this descendants face plenty of problems. The recipes passed down the family are a cook’s real property. Nawab had 250 wives and 42 children so no ‘family recipe’ matches the other. Moreover, the British ensured that no documentation of Nawab’s days in exile or last days is done. As, Wasif Hussain, the manager of Nawab’s mausoleum in Metiyaburj says, “His successors and his subjects were left with nothing.”

Manzilat Fatima is a law graduate from the ruling line. Manzilat’s father, Kaukub Meerza is a grandson of Birjis Qadr – the sone of Wajid Ali Shah and Begum Hazrat Mahal. He is also a former reader of the Aligarh Muslim University. Birjis was crowned king by the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar during 1857 when Wajid Ali Shah was in Calcutta. Birjis is purported to have died after having dinner at a relative’s home in Metiyaburj.

And this was not the first time that an Awadhi royal’s food was poisoned. The royal biographies narrate – a consort sending the king a paan as a token of love during their good days and the king would not be surprised to lace its leaves with poison when the good time was over.

This incidence of Birjis’ murder made its way into the minds of the family, passed down to generations to an extent that even it became a ritual to check the food before being served to the members of the family. As Manzilat remembers that during her childhood days her paternal grandmother would always check the food and explains her impatience with the proof – seekers.

Manzilat also tells about some set questions that she has had faced since the time she launched a pop-up restaurant of Awadhi cuisine in 2014 and a home dining service, Manzilat’s, in Calcutta in 2018 – “Did I inherit a recipe book?”, or “Do I have monogrammed table-mats from Wajid Ali Shah’s time?” to which she cheekily replies – no she didn’t inherit any recipe book. Due to Birjis’ murder, there links with other branches of the kin broke up. Birjis’ wife absconded from Metiyaburj to Calcutta. Besides her great grandmother – Begum Hazrat Mahal was a queen fighting the British and not preparing cookbooks.

Manzilat makes good mutton biryani and adds mustard oil to keep it light and non-sticky. Manzilat’s cooking exhibits her expertise in aromas, sense of proportion and spicing integral to Awadhi cuisine. Fatima Mirza, a school principal also has substantial domain knowledge. She has been working on a cookbook containing the recipes around family dishes like Kacche Tikia ke Kebab. These are the only kind of Awadhi Kebabs where Sattu (ground Bengal gram) is added and these are Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s favorite. Fatima says, “As the king aged, hakeems advised the chefs to add Sattu to neutralize the heat of meat and make it easily digestible.”

Shahansha Mirza, a government official, and heritage aficionado throws light upon the difference between Mughal and Awadhi cuisine. He says, “Unlike Mughal, ours has no overdose of mace or cardamom or dry fruits. We say about Urdu – “Urdu apki zubaan pe hamla nahin karta hai,” meaning-  speaking Urdu, does no assault to your tongue. Similarly, Awadhi food is subtle, with a big presentation though.

The khansama’s (master chef’s) ego is also given great allowances by the King’s descendants. It was quite a thing in the heydays of the king to have his master chef refuse to cook for any other branch of the kin. There was even a ritual of chefs keeping their demand during the time of seeking employment they are not going to broaden their expertise. It implies that a Biryani cook would remain a biryani maker only, or a cook who makes dal (pulses) won’t put his hand in anything else.

Guddu, a grandson of Puttan – descendent of one of the great chefs of Wajid Ali Shah talk about a dish that has the sound of one made in Awadh’s trite past. He adds that now few are there with the “stomach & liver of Wajid Ali Shah” to digest extravagant dishes like meat mutanjan.

Hussain, the manager of Wajid Ali Shah’s mausoleum says – now, the Nawab Biryani, with potato is found everywhere. And as information which does the round, he adds, that potato was introduced to Biryani considering its exotic value. At that time, Potato was a new vegetable introduced by the Portuguese. Fatima and Manzilat both agree with this view.

Guzishta Lucknow written by Abdul Halim Sharara is a go-to book to dig more about Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s exile. The book reads that Nawab spent INR 24000 on a pair of silk winged Pigeons, INR 11000 on a pair of white peacocks and approx. INR 9000 per month on food for animals in his Metiyaburj Zoo.

Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s nature of splurge is evident not only the developments made under his reign in Awadh but also in Metiyaburj. Although this quality was something he borrowed from his Nawabi clan, the contributions made by him to the Mughal Cuisine are unparalleled. And the essence of which Fatima sisters endeavors to keep alive for the generations to come.