From royal favourites to diaspora dishes, little-known culinary stories of India

gallery-image The Maharaja of Patiala attends the opening of the Dasra festival in the state | Getty Images
gallery-image Chugging along: The toy railway track used by the Maharaja of Gwalior to serve food | Getty Images
gallery-image Indira, Sonia, Rajiv, Rahul and Priyanka sharing a meal.
gallery-image Snack break: Sonia gandhi at the launch of The Unseen Indira Gandhi, a book written by Indira’s physician, Dr K.P. Mathur | J. Suresh

Why did the sparrow cross the road?

So as not to have its brains blown out by the Maharaja of Patiala.

Sir Bhupinder Singh, the seventh Maharaja of Patiala, was renowned for his appetite. As Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre write in their book, Freedom at Midnight, he could polish off 20 pounds of food in a day or two chickens as a tea-time snack. His appetite was not just restricted to food, as evidenced by the 350 skilled and bejewelled concubines in his harem. To prove his virility, the maharaja had to take recourse to aphrodisiacs—concoctions based on gold, pearls, spices, silver, herbs and iron. The most efficacious one? “A mixture of shredded carrots and the crushed brains of a sparrow”. After the sparrows failed to do their job, there was a short-lived phase of radium therapy by specialised French technicians. The concubines were not impressed.

Nowhere in Indian history could we find characters as quixotic as some of the maharajas of our princely states. Just as colourful were their culinary customs. If excess was the weakness of the Maharaja of Patiala, then parsimony was that of the Nizam of Hyderabad. “Although he owned a gold service for 100 places, he ate off a tin plate, squatting on a mat in his bedroom,” write Collins and Lapierre. “So stingy was he that he smoked the cigarette stubs left behind by his guests. When a state occasion forced him to put champagne on the princely table, he saw to it that the single bottle he reluctantly set out never got more than three or four places from him.”

Nowhere in indian history could we find characters as quixotic as some of the maharajas of our princely states.
Roti became so popular during the great war that it led to the ‘rooty medal’—a long service medal earned for eating army rations for a long period.
While indira was indulging her love for idlis and vadas, her son was romancing an italian beauty over moussaka.
Rabindranath tagore would tell his wife mrinalini that the food served at the ‘assembly of the whimsical’ had to have character.

However, when it came to ingenuity, the Maharaja of Gwalior could easily beat the others. His love for trains coloured every aspect of his life, including his meals. Guests were served through an electric train set that was placed on the banquet table. The maharaja sat at the head of the table, controlling the train using a control panel as it served mashed potatoes and roast chicken to his guests. Those who were not on good terms with the maharaja could find the dessert trains chugging past their waiting plates. Many state matters were decided based on where the train stopped.

There was only one set of people who could compete with the Indian maharajas—the British memsahibs. They were responsible for some interesting hybrid dishes, like “Windsor soup, Patna rice, a broth of doll (dal), kabobs, fish joey, curry chutney and Byculla soufflé”. Arrack blended with five (“panch”) ingredients that included spices, sugar, lime juice and water became “punch”, writes Shylashri Shankar in her book, Turmeric Nation: A Passage through India’s Tastes. Many Indian dishes were anglicised by the British, like the samosa, which became the ‘curry puff’; and the keema roti which ‘Roti John’, because every colonial Englishman was nick-named ‘John’ by Singaporeans. But the most interesting hybridisation took place with the humble khichri, which, with the addition of smoked fish and eggs, became the British ‘kedgeree’.

In fact, khichri is the one thing that could truly be called Indian because of its mention in historical documents and prevalence across the nation, Shankar tells THE WEEK. “You find it mentioned in traveller accounts from the 14th and 15th centuries,” she says. “Some of the Mughals liked it, but threw in various ingredients to make it more ‘regal’. Then the British came and turned it into kedgeree. Though the name and the technique remain the same, different regions give it their own spin. In Gujarat, you find one kind of khichri, and in the south, another.” The great Indian poet Kabir even penned a couplet about khichri. The translation reads thus:

“Slightly salted kichery is quite tasty fare.

Why then should one lose his head craving the flesh of another?”

Just as interesting as the story of Indian staples like khichri is the story of diaspora dishes, says Colleen Taylor Sen, author of Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India. “There are some really unusual dishes,” she says. “Like bunny chow from South Africa—a western-style loaf filled with curry. During Apartheid, blacks could not enter restaurants, so the Indian restaurant owners would pour curry into the bread and pass it to them through the back door.” The hunk of bread served as a plate, so that nothing need be returned.

The dish is believed to have originated in Durban, most probably after World War II. Indians were brought there in large numbers from the mid-19th century onwards to work in the sugar cane fields. There is even an ad condemning violence against women and children that aired on Lotus FM, an Indian radio station in Durban. In it, a couple argue whether it is ever ok to eat bunny chow with a fork and knife. “No, not each one to his own,” says the man. Some things, according to him, are non-negotiable. He might be right; eating bunny chow with cutlery might be like eating noodles with your hands.

Another diaspora dish that Taylor Sen mentions is the curry wurst. Its origin is attributed to a German housewife, Herta Heuwer, who bartered alcohol with British soldiers for ketchup and curry powder. She sprinkled the powder on sliced German sausage, or wurst, and voila, the curry wurst was born. It was an instant success, especially with construction workers, for its high protein content and affordability. Soon, however, it became popular with all Germans, regardless of social strata, including former chancellors Angela Merkel and Gerhard Schroder. “Curry wurst is a staple at German festivals everywhere,” says Taylor Sen. “At one time, it was the most popular street food in Germany. There is even a movie made on it.”

The greater beneficiaries of the trade between Herta and the British soldiers might have been the latter, for a pint of rum was of great value among the Allied troops during both World Wars. As Corporal George Coppard writes in his World War I memoir, “Rum proved to be a shock. At Givenchy, I had my first issue of rum. It was not enough to get me mad and make me want to take on the whole German army, but it was jolly welcome for all that.” It was commonly believed that the letters SRD on the rum jars stood for ‘Seldom Reaches Destination’ or ‘Service Rum Dilute’; it actually stood for ‘Supply Reserve Depot’ to ensure that the empty jars were returned to the depot for reuse.

curry wurst curry wurst

“Even more unfortunate were men in units in which the commanding officer did not approve of the issue of alcohol,” writes Andrew Robertshaw in Feeding Tommy: Battlefield Recipes from the First World War. “These men received pea soup in the form of concentrated blocks, ‘Soup Squares’, which were reconstituted with water by the cooks or the men themselves; being a ‘Pea Souper’ was not popular.”

The longing for rum was offset by the loathing for army biscuits. As Coppard observes wryly, “The hard biscuits which were issued must have been torture for men with false teeth….” The Indian soldiers, however, escaped this fate. They were granted a ration of atta to make fresh rotis. “People told us there was no atta in this country, and we should have to eat biscuits; but, where there are inhabitants, there atta must be obtainable. Besides, there are plenty of mills,” writes Bir Singh, a Sikh soldier of the 55th Rifles, in a letter cited by David Omissi in his book, Indian Voices of the Great War. In fact, roti, which became ‘rooti’, was so popular on the Western Front that it led to the ‘Rooty Medal’—“a long service medal earned by eating army rations for a long period”.

While for our soldiers, rotis were a concession, for some of our revolutionaries, lemonade became a symbol of protest against religious and caste barriers. In Bengal, for instance, lemonade was produced and sold by Muslims. Bipin Chandra Pal, writer and one of the main architects of the Swadeshi movement, narrates an incident, cited in Turmeric Nation, when he was thrashed by his father for drinking lemonade. Later, when he fell seriously ill and the doctor recommended lemonade, his father tried to persuade him to drink it. There was no ritual restriction on medicine, his father told him, but Pal resolutely turned his face away. “At last, I had the Muslim-made lemonade from my father’s own hand,” writes Pal.

Street delight: Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel with a bowl of curry wurst | Getty Images Street delight: Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel with a bowl of curry wurst | Getty Images

Post-Independence, the biographies of some of our leaders give tasty titbits about their food habits. Indira Gandhi, for example, had a preference for regional cuisine, and liked to try out indigenous dishes. K.P. Mathur, Indira’s personal physician, in The Unseen Indira Gandhi: Through Her Physician’s Eyes, narrates an incident at the Raj Bhavan in Hyderabad, where they were staying during an election campaign. While the PM would be served her meals in her room, there was a dining room below for her entourage. One morning, when Mathur visited her, she suggested he join her for breakfast. He politely refused and said the others were waiting for him downstairs. When he returned, Indira wanted to know what he had for breakfast; he told her about the south Indian fare that he was served. She was surprised. “Look, they cook such nice things for breakfast—idli, upma, vada,” she said. “But for me, they bring only toast and butter. Why?” The news spread and the next morning, Mathur had a surprise visitor: The governor of Andhra Pradesh, carrying two tiffins with idlis, one for Mathur and one for Indira.

While Indira was indulging her love for idlis and vadas, her son was romancing an Italian beauty over moussaka. Rajiv and Sonia met for the first time in 1965 at the Greek restaurant, Varsity, in Cambridge, famous for its moussaka. Rasheed Kidwai, in his book Sonia, quotes Tahir Jahangir, who was present at the restaurant when the two met. All conversation stopped when Sonia passed by their table. “Soon the conversation resumed, but I noticed that Rajiv was lost in thought, and did not participate,” says Jahangir. “He had a dazed expression on his face. He got hold of a paper napkin and a biro and carefully began to write out a poem on the napkin. He then called Charles Antoni, the tall, handsome owner of Varsity, over and asked him to get the best bottle of wine Varsity had. Rajiv then requested Charles to personally go up to the girls, present the bottle of wine, pour it out, and then give the napkin with the poem to the girl who had been introduced as Sonia Maino, and to top it all, belt out an aria.”

Initially, after their marriage, Sonia was not very fond of Indian food or clothes. Indira and Rajiv did not force anything on her except for one thing— speaking in Hindi at the dinner table. Slowly, she began liking Indian food. “Nowadays, pasta, lasagna and spaghetti are rarely cooked at 10 Janpath,” writes Kidwai.

After the Emergency, when the Congress lost to the Janata Party and Morarji Desai became PM, there was a curious addition to the breakfast menu: a glass of urine. By now, the former prime minister’s penchant for urine is widely known. Not that he ever tried to hide it. In fact, quite the opposite was true. He spent half his time on primetime television commending urine therapy. Celebrity talk show host Barbara Walters writes in her memoir about how ABC was so grossed out by Desai’s talk of urine that it did not carry her interview with him. Only when CBS came out with the story did ABC try to play catch up in what Walters refers to as the “network urine wars”.

Making merry: British sailors collecting  their ration of rum during World War II | Getty Images Making merry: British sailors collecting their ration of rum during World War II | Getty Images

Another much overlooked gastronome was Rabindranath Tagore, who, according to food historian Pritha Sen, had a significant role to play in enhancing the Bengali palate. “Tagore was constantly searching for what would serve as good, nutritious food for the people of Bengal, whether it was western or eastern cuisine,” she tells THE WEEK. “He wanted to find a solution to malnourishment and poverty.” His culinary preferences kept evolving. There was a phase when he would just eat raw eggs seasoned with salt and pepper for both lunch and dinner. When a visitor expounded on the benefits of garlic, the eggs gave way to garlic paste vadas deep-fried in oil for both meals. Then there was a phase when he believed that neem leaf juice and parathas fried in castor oil were the solution to all of mankind’s ills.

Food played an important role at the Khamkheyali Sabha (Assembly of the Whimsical), which Tagore set up in 1896 with poet and humourist D. L. Roy, classical vocalist Radhikanath Goswami, scientist Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose and others. He would tell his wife Mrinalini Devi that the food served had to have “character”. Mrinalini rose to the challenge. According to Sen, it might have been her experimentations during this period that gave rise to Bengali favourites like jackfruit yogurt fish curry, which had no fish in it, mutton cooked with mustard paste, pointed gourd and prawn raita, cauliflower sandesh, jimmikand jalebi and dahi malpua. After her death, when people would remark what a good cook she was, Tagore would reply, “Of course she was. If not, how do you think she ever executed my menus?”

Unlike Mrinalini’s cooking, which resulted in some innovative dishes, another leader’s culinary experimentation was doomed to fail spectacularly. When E.M.S. Namboodiripad came to power in Kerala in 1957, he faced a food crisis. Due to a shortage in rice, Namboodiripad’s communist government arrived at a decision: let the people eat macaroni instead. Specifically, macaroni made out of tapioca, which had become popular in Kerala in the 1940s. An article in the Government of India’s Yojana magazine read, “The Institute (referring to the Central Food Technological Research Institute in Mysore) has recognised the need to reduce the pressure on rice. One of the ways of doing it is by making use of tapioca…. The Institute has begun making macaroni by mixing 60 parts of tapioca flour with 25 parts of wheat flour and 15 parts of groundnut flour (for protein).”

The government even had plans of setting up a tapioca macaroni plant. There was only one catch—the people hated it. They found sundry ways of expressing this hatred, including coming up with a satirical drama called ‘Bhagavan Macaroni’ or ‘Lord Macaroni’, which, for some time, became Namboodiripad’s nickname. Reportedly, it was even alleged by the opposition that eating macaroni would convert one into a communist. There are no records, however, of the tapioca macaroni resulting in any conversions. Though it soon made its way out of the Malayali palate, it still finds pride of place in the rich culinary lore of our nation.

with Puja Awasthi

Spice Tales


Asafoetida, known as hing in Hindi, is a flowering plant that thrives in dry soil. India imports 1,200 tonnes of raw asafoetida annually, worth around $100 million, from Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Iran and Uzbekistan. According to the BBC, asafoetida is now barely found in cuisines outside India. Little wonder that India accounts for 40 per cent of the world’s consumption. Mostly used in vegetarian dishes, especially as an alternative to garlic and onion among the Hindus and Jains, it is found in curries “from a sambar in the south to kadhi in the north”. It is also used in roasted meats, pickles and medicines. Last year, for the first time, 800 saplings of asafoetida was planted in Lahaul and Spiti.

Spice Tales


Turmeric was found in the cooking pots of the Harappans, who lived in north India in 2600 BCE. It is commonly used in dals and vegetable dishes. It has strong medicinal properties, and has been used for hundreds of years in India and China to combat infection. It is also a powerful antioxidant that can reduce inflammation, lower cholesterol and even slow the progress of cancer, according to one research. As Shylashri Shankar writes in Turmeric Nation, turmeric was a prized possession among the dalits. A dalit’s most coveted vegetarian dish was ‘haldiya dal’—lentils cooked with turmeric. When marriage brokers proposed a groom, the bride’s family would ask: “Do they use turmeric the whole year?” The answer indicated the economic status of the family.

Spice Tales


In the kingdom of spices, saffron (also known as red gold) is queen. Saffron is the world’s most expensive spice, and Iran produces 70 per cent of it. In India, the spice comes from Kashmir via Persia. Spain, too, is a major producer. But connoisseurs choose the one from Iran, specifically for the deep red colour it imparts to food. A unique use of saffron in Awadh is in the cooking of sheermal—a bread made of flour, milk, fat and saffron. Legend has it that Nawab Ghazi-ud-din Haider Shah ordered for some unique breads to be prepared for him. The nawab would take a bite from each variety and dismiss it summarily. Until he tasted sheermal, which soon became his favourite. Some descendants of the nawab, till date, break off a tiny bit of the bread as an offering to him.