Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, after shattering the two pillars of Hindustan, Ibrahim Lodhi and Rana Sanga established the Mughal rule in India (1526).  But initially he did not like Hindustan; this seemed to him a very unromantic place, “there is no ice, cold water, good food, good bread in the markets.” And then, “there is no grapes, quality fruits, mask melons, candles,hamams, torches”; so and so.  Babur belonged from a food loving culture.  Although he spent much of his time fleeing from one place to another and fighting his rivals, he had developed a taste of food. He generally liked meat based preparations, served in camps, but not extraordinary rich, simple food of lambs or sheep prepared by the nomadic tribes like Afridi. And yes this powerful man, who was reputed to have enormous strength, ate a lot fresh vegetables and fruits.

He had to be careful as well, after crushing Lodhi, when he ascended to the throne of  Delhi, he did not  fire the Hindustani cooks who served in Lodhi’s kitchen. However this kindness  proved fatal since acting on the advice of the mother of the ousted prince, a kitchen servant sprinkled poison in Babur’s food of rabbit stew, saffron flavoured meat, and chapatis. Somehow it went unnoticed and unchecked; Babur did swallow the food, but vomited instantly before the poison could take effect. The servants who were behind this terrible conspiracy were severely and ruthlessly punished.  He after this incidence maintained some precaution in keeping Hindustani kitchen workers, but his son Humayun did not hesitate to keep Hindustani cook.

Humayun however spent most of his time in exile; his throne in Delhi was annexed by Sher Shah Suri the Afghan in 1539. He thereafter went to seek help from the Shah of Iran, and there he gifted the Shah with his Indian cooks. The Shah soon became fond of Indian cuisines like Kichari. An exchange of culture followed, Humayun also became a great lover of Persian food, partly because he married a Persian princess. When he returned to India (in 1555) after Sher Shah was dead, a great number of Persian followed him to his royal court, artisans, musicians, painters and most important of all, cooks. For a time being, the Mughal court relished the Persian delicacies of Spit-roasted chicken with herbs, koftas of different kinds, lamb cooked in the tandooor and also the Persian Pilau or Pulao.

Akbar the Great (reign 1556-1605) followed Humayun as the next Mughal Emperor, and he in his youth was a voracious eater.  Abul Fazal who was even bigger eater than Akbar, records in his profound work Ain-i-Akbari the nature of Mughal kitchen.  Before he narrates the Mughal kitchen he begins by saying that-

“His Majesty (Akbar) even extends his attention to this department, and has given many wise regulations for it; nor can a reason be given why he should not do so, as the equilibrium of man’s nature, the strength of the body, the capability of receiving external and internal blessings, and the acquisition of worldly and religious advantages, depend ultimately on proper care being shewn for appropriate food. This knowledge distinguishes man from beasts, with whom, as far as mere eating is concerned, he stands upon the same level.”

Akbar ate less as he became older, he ate only once says Abul Fazal, and left the table before he became fully satisfied. One Mir Bhakwal or the Kitchen Master was appointed to take notice of the food, he was responsible for everything related with kitchen, and he also was the final taster and stood beside the Emperor when he ate. Although there are references which say Akbar generally liked to eat alone.

Zallaluddin Mohammed Akbar at some point of his time almost renounced eating meat. Abul Fazl extravagantly says that this was due to the extreme humanity of the Emperor who did not wish to slaughter animals solely for the purpose of eating.  But there may be other reasons, it may be that he slowly developed some gastrointestinal problems which made him avoid taking meat. Akbar strictly observed routine, rarely he overstepped, on some days especially on Fridays he depended on vegetarian foods. Who knows if this was an influence from his Hindu Rajput wife, but he became like that.

Abul Fazl before describing the food classifies them:

“Cooked victuals may be arranged under three heads, first, such in  thirdly, meats with spices. I shall give ten recipes of each kind.”

He also records that Akbar’s cooks were very efficient and could ready hundred dishes within an hour. That means he had army of cooks from several parts of Hindustan, who were recruited by reputations and entered mainly as apprentices and went on to become masters and had disciples. Various foods that this mighty Emperor once ate was, Biriyan, Kichri, Halwa, Kabab, Dopiyaza, Qimah Pulao, with breads such as Chapattis,Khuskah etc. Abul Fazl in spite of being a great chronicler, at a point  grows tired giving information of all that Akbar ate and surrenders saying, “It is impossible for me to give details of all.”

The Mughal cold drink consisted of crushed ice mixed into fruit juice. Akbar preferred to drink the water of Ganges when he ate; he considered the water of Ganges to be “water of immortality” and ordered to fetch it even when he was in Punjab, 200 miles away from Ganges. And a string of Camel would go and fetch the water.

Jahangir (reign 1605-1627) didn’t have the opportunity to develop a taste of food like his ancestors, he on other hand became a great connoisseur of wine. But on one occasion while travelling around Gujarat he had come to like Kichri, a dish of lentils and rice. He occasionally took Kichri and made it quite popular.Sir Thomas Roe the English ambassador to the Mughal court at that time reported of Jahangir’s extreme debauchery. Seldom the Emperor was found sober. Sometimes the Emperor would have to be carried on to the court, even at times feed by attendants. And not only wine was his passion, but also opium, and these mal practices made him weak, his hand often shook due to the effect of alcohol.

Jahangir’s doctors had advised him to quit drinking, but the Emperor would not compromise, and it was only when he fell seriously ill, he reduced the amount of drink to six cup per day. It was perhaps quite sad to see that the descendant of Timur and Babur had fallen into such pitiful state. Often he would fall asleep during important conversation,  would stumble on the floor, sometimes would cry and weep aloud, all sorts of peculiarities are mentioned By Sir Roe, as he was most importantly Jahangir’s drinking companion so these are firsthand accounts.

Shah Jahan (reign 1627-58) his successor was a different sort of man, he carefully censored all that was written about him, so as not to leave any record that may blemish his name in the future. Even then he liked food and spent long hours at the dining table. One account records Mughal banquet given by Asaf Khan, the Emperor’s wazir, during Jahangir’s time though, Khan had invited two guests that evening, Sir Roe and Terry, the latter being chaplain to Sir Thomas Roe:

The food was served on a dastarkhana (tablecloth) around which the three men sat in a triangle, Roe as honoured guest was presented ten more dishes than the host (Asaf Khan). Terry being the least important guest was served with ten less. Nevertheless 50 dishes were placed before him. Terry possessed a curious nature and he tasted a little from each one. He particularly liked the rice which came in fantastic shades, including green and purple.

Terry observed that rather than eating large joints of meats, Mughals preferred to cut it into small pieces, and then stew it with, “onions, herbs and roots and ginger and other spices with some butter, which ingredients when they are well proportioned make a food that is exceedingly pleasing to all palates.” Terry says that the banquet ran for hours, by then he had developed pains sitting cross legged.

Another aspect of Mughal food, was fruits, the Mughals loved fruits, mangoes, musk melons and so many others. By then the Mughals had learnt that it was possible to grow fruits like grapes and apples in India. Shah Jahan liked to weigh fruits in front of him and became angry when one of his sons instead of sending mango from his favourite tree in Deccan had savoured all.  Mango was the favourite of the Mughals.

The Mughal zeal of horticulture was unparallel, during the reign of Akbar and Jahangir, in Lakhibag (near darbangha) alone there was an orchard of 100 thousand mango trees. The Ain-i-Akbari provides a complete description of mangoes with respect to taste, type, quality etc. “Of all the fruits I am particularly fond of mango,” stated Jahangir. And not only for personal consumption, fruits were offered to royalties as a gift.  Once the King of Balk offered Aurangzeb with 200 camel loads of nuts and fruits and viagra as well, but the latter seems to have no effect on him. Aurangzeb reportedly spent 1000 rupees per day on food. Asaf Khan regularly offered Sir Thomas roe basket full of musk melons as gift, and this made the haughty Roe conclude, that Mughal notion about English are only of being great eaters.

Aurangzeb (reign 1658-1707) had little desire for any amusement which had reached sky high in the reign of his father and grandfather, he avoided all sorts of these yet he was also particularly fond of food. Aurangzeb was fond of biriyani and at one time he asked from his son, “Sulaiman who cooks biriyani”,  his son refused and thereafter  the helpless Emperor requested for the cook’s disciple instead, for he had to savour biryani at all cost.  He was particularly fond of Kichari-i-biryani. It must be said here that Humayun’s import of Persian pulao was localized here in India as biryani. Biryani was taken to Hyderabad when Shah Jahan in 1630 occupied Hyderabad and installed a Mughal governor in that place.