Royal repast: A world of flavours in South Indian cuisine

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Updated: September 20, 2019 4:57 PM

The kitchens of the South Indian princely states were cauldrons of culinary confluences, taking inspiration not only from their own regions, but that from the Mughals and European invaders as well.

Royal repast, South Indian cuisine, Travancore, Nizams of Hyderabad, royal cuisines, Kerala cuisine, arcot, Tamil NaduThe original cuisine is fading away with a lot of changes being made to modernise recipes. (Photo source: YouTube)

In the land of extensive immigration and innumerable food influences, south Indian royals like the Nizam of Hyderabad, the king of Vijayanagaram, Wodeyars of Mysore, the king of Travancore in Cochin or the Nawab of Arcot have contributed immensely to culinary confluences and exotic intermingling of tastes and cooking techniques.

As the British had first set foot in Madras and started to extend their sway over the rest of the subcontinent, their influence on culinary traditions also grew simultaneously. “The East India Company had established itself first in what later became the Madras Presidency and it was from here that the Carnatic Wars were fought and won. After the defeat and death of Tipu Sultan, son and successor of Hyder Ali who had ousted the Wodeyars from the kingdom of Mysore, there was none to challenge the British military might. Slowly they gobbled up royal states.

Deep down south, only the orthodox kingdom of Travancore and Cochin managed to survive but only after agreeing to be governed by the advice of a British resident. Others with pretensions to royalty were large land holders like the Raja of Ramanathapuram. The neighbouring kingdom of Pudukottai was even smaller and less affluent. The only documented reference to hospitality in Pudukottai is available in a gazetteer that records the details of a party thrown for the then governor of Madras. Three separate menus were served on the occasion that included a melange of European, Mughalai, Maratha and traditional south Indian delicacies—many prepared with exotic ingredients foraged from forests. The cooks were imported and dishes served were novelties for rulers and the guests,” explains food researcher and blogger Govind Singh Kirola.

The southern states trace their lineage to ancient empires like Cholas, Pandyas and Cheras, but the lineage is not uninterrupted and not all claims can be historically sustained. “Many usurpers try to acquire class by these claims and there is not much in common in their royal cuisines except use of local ingredients like tamarind, coconut and jaggery, along with local fruits and vegetables. The contemporary cooking was transformed by the Columbian exchange led by the Portuguese, with the Maratha expansion also leaving its mark,” says food historian Pushpesh Pant, who is also the author of India: The Cookbook, the first comprehensive guide to Indian cooking. He also feels that there are claims hard to verify that a particular recipe was created as per the command of a sovereign or on recommendation of a hakim or vaidya. “One common thread running through the most exotic recipes is the search for the perfect aphrodisiac. This is understandable as most of the profligate princes dissipated themselves in prime of youth and relied on ‘tonics’ and ‘elixirs’ for rejuvenation. Ingredients like musk, amber, saffron, iron spore (shilajit), nutmeg and mace believed to have heat generating properties were liberally used. Kushta, ashes of precious gems coral and pearls along with silver and gold leaf, were incorporated in many recipes,” he says.

An interesting story that Gurugram-based food historian and author Salma Yusuf Husain recalls about the south Indian royal kitchens is that once the treasurer of the Mysore Palace arranged a big dinner in the palace and hours before the grand feast, he checked the preparations in the royal kitchen. In the corner, he saw a large basket of vegetable scraps. “What is this?” he asked a cook. “Trimmings from the vegetables and things we don’t need,” replied the cook. “What will you do with them?” the treasurer asked. “Throw them away as they’re of no use,” said the cook. “But you can’t simply waste these pieces. You must find a way to use them,” said the wise treasurer. The cook stared at the pieces and finally took some coconut scraps to make a sauce with yoghurt and he cleaned all the vegetables and cut them into small pieces. He added some spices and cooked the mixture. Later that evening he served his dish. Guests loved it and asked its name. He called it avial. From that day, this easy-to-make dish became very popular in the palace and then elsewhere. And it all started from a basket of waste.


Of the prominent princely states in British India, the Nizam of Hyderabad had the largest territory extending from Madras presidency to Bombay and central provinces. “Here the regal menu was sophisticated and cosmopolitan, blending flavours from north, south, east and west. The most prominent influences were Persian and Turk, Tamil and Maratha. Sweet and sour is the prominent flavour in arid Deccan and slow-cooking (dum style) was preferred. Tempering (baghar) is popular in Hyderabad. Though the Nizam was first appointed by the Mughals, he inherited many a trait from the Qutb Shahi dynasty,” explains food historian Pant.

However, the abolition of titles and privy purses cut down their lavish lifestyle. Others had the foresight to develop their palatial residences and palaces as luxury hotels. “Leading hotel chains vied with each other to secure long-term leases on prime properties and the royal cuisine they offered became a USP of the hotels,” feels Pant.

Sahabzadi Haleema Begum Saheba, the granddaughter of late HEH Nawab Sir Mir Osman Ali Khan Bahadur Nizam VII, shares a princely legacy of the Nizams of Hyderabad. “An amalgamation of Mughal, Turkish and Arabic, along with the influence of the native state, Hyderabadi cuisine comprises a broad repertoire of rice, wheat and meat dishes and the skilled use of various spices, herbs and natural edibles. The royal kitchen of Nizam had many dishes like mutton haleem, qubuli rice, mutton shikampur, chicken shahi korma, chaakna, shahi naan, warqi samosa. The desserts included puranpuri, qubani ka meetha and snacks were zafrani tutak, lukmi and shahiroat,” lists out the daughter of late Prince Nawab Hasham Jah Bahadur, who has been greatly inspired by her grandfather’s royal kitchen, also known as meiz khana.

Such recipes have been prepared and perfected down the generations in Paya House in Hyderabad run by her sons, serving popular dishes like achari and adraki chicken, nargisi kofta and Hyderabadi naan. “The original cuisine is slowly fading away with a lot of changes being made to modernise the recipes. Earlier the taste of food was of utmost importance and meals took hours to prepare on a wooden log stove and baking with charcoal. Spices were ground or made by hand. Each dish was meticulously decorated with foils of silver which is not seen these days at all. Tutak and warqi samosa, snacks prepared with keema are popular dishes that are fading into oblivion. Such dishes should make a comeback in the commercial kitchens,” she feels.


While the kingdom of Mysore was known for its gold mines, elephants, sandal and silk, the Wodeyars, who were reinstated by the British after the defeat of Tipu Sultan, couldn’t boast of their golden glorious past and were not known for lavish hospitality or possession of culinary gems. “Simple fare like Mysore dosa, bonda with coffee along with temple food from Udupi is associated with its name. Sweet Mysore pak made to please a prince was a common street delight,” says Kirola.Though the Mysore palace was not about pompous living, the king’s kitchen had a special place for Karnataka-style cuisine with a collection of a few cuisines — Mangalore and Mysore—very different from the kingdom of Vijayanagaram.The weddings in Mysore king’s courts saw a wholesome meal comprising pulihora or tamarind rice with green chillies. The vegetarian dishes consisted of koora, which include cooking different vegetables in a variety of styles in gravy or fried with lentils. “There is not much to glorify about the royal cuisine of Karnataka like the Mughals or the Rajputs. Many dishes were common in the region, be it from the kingdom of Mysore, households of Mangalore chieftains, Coorg diwans or the house of the subjects,” says Naren Thimmaiah, executive chef of Taj Gateway in Bengaluru, who has manned the kitchen of seafood restaurant Karavalli for more than 28 years.“A wedding feast consisted of non-vegetarian preparations, especially a lamb dish, which was popular in the region,” he adds. Typical dishes served in Mysore kingdom were koshambari (soaked moong salad), types of vegetable palyas (stir fries), gojju (spicy and sour preparations), tovve (mild dal preparation), huli or saaru (Mysore version of sambar). Most curries were served course by course with rice, ghee and papad and flavoured rice like chitranna (lemon rice), vaangibath (brinjal rice) and the ever popular bisibelebath. Ragi mudde soppin saaru (ragi dumplings) holds its own place in the meal. Popular desserts are Mysore pak, obbattu (similar to puran poli), chiroti and various dal and rice payasams. Thimmaiah feels a rapid change happened after the British rule, where the royal cooks were exposed to baking and preparing stews, making jams and using preservatives.


A typical Kerala cuisine starts and ends with a coconut. Known for its geographical positioning and western influences, Kerala has plenty of exotic spices. The medium of cooking used till today is coconut oil, virgin coconut oil, gingelly oil and clarified butter. Author and travel enthusiast Ranjini Menon, who is the great granddaughter of HH Manavavikrama Rajah, the zamorin (the Hindu sovereign of Calicut) of Malabar Coast, says the palace menu was dominated by vegetarian delicacies. “Changalikodan nendran banana, a banana variety originated and cultivated in Chengazhikodu village of Thrissur district in Kerala, and kadali, a small and sweet variety of banana, grown for offerings in temple, were specially brought for use in the royal kitchen. Geerakasala and Gandhakasala — the two rice varieties from Wayanad which have now acquired geographical indication (GI) patent — were used in the Malabar royal kitchen. Vegetables from the west or rest of India like carrots, cabbages, potatoes, tomatoes, cauliflower, beetroot, etc, were not used in any of the royal kitchens in Kerala. Garlic or onion was prohibited as the food was offered to the deities in the temple. Meat was consumed during the sakteya pooja, a ritual offered to goddess Kali. With a not-so-flamboyant lifestyle, architecture and dressing, the royal families of Kerala were known to relish a typical vegetarian sandhya,” says Menon.For slow cooking in tamarind, mango tree wood or coconut husk or shell were used as firewood in palaces. In summers, raw and ripe mangoes or jackfruit, melons, ash-gourd, and pulses were consumed. In rainy season, tubers, rice, sesame, leafy vegetables and various herbs were favourites.

Red or green chillies were not used until the Portuguese invasion. Copper, brass, and earthen pots were used for cooking and serving food and till date are used in many households. Some common royal dishes in palaces were mampazha pulissery (ripe mango curry cooked in yogurt and coconut), varthuppery (fried raw banana with thin peel on), kurukku kalan (raw banana and elephant foot curry cooked in butter milk for hours and garnished with black pepper powder and ghee), ellu curry (curry made out of sesame seeds and yam in roasted and grounded coconut gravy, elaneer curry (tender coconut curry), olan (curry made by cooking a single vegetable in coconut milk), palada (rice flakes or rice cooked in cow milk), unniyappam or karolappam (sweet rice balls deep fried in ghee), pizhinju payasam (red rice cooked in thick coconut milk and jaggery). “Today, some of these dishes are cooked for Onam, Vishu, birthdays and temple festivals,” she adds.

Prince Rama Varma, a direct descendant of Maharaja Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma, fondly remembers, “Maharani Sethu Parvathi Bayi’s hospitality was enjoyed at the Travancore Palace as she was a genius in several fields—a source of unstinted love, utterly delectable food and endless anecdotes from the puranas. Dairy products like ghee, milk, curd and mishti doi were made at home,” says Varma, the third-generation prince, who had the privilege of performing for former president of APJ Abdul Kalam at his private events.The queen was a teetotaller and vegetarian but served alcohol and meat at the palace. When the guests enjoyed fried fish, members of the family nibbled on pieces of tapioca which were prepared in such a way that they looked exactly like the fish served to the guests. She had separate kitchens for vegetarian and non-vegetarian delicacies, even pots, pans, cutlery and crockery to prepare and serve it. Even today the two kitchens prepare rice, sambar, avial, pulissery among other south Indian dishes and macaroni and cheese, chocolate pudding and so on.

“Till amma maharani passed away in 1983, none of her descendants ever stepped into a kitchen, as far as I know, since the kitchen is about half-a-kilometre away from the dining area and the food brought to the table gets cold,” he grins. Some unique dishes that Varma likes to mention include thera made with squeezed mango juice (dark brown slivers that remarkably resemble dried meats in appearance); varattu vaazhaykka (sun-dried banana). “If sambhar is Roger Federer then pulissery is Rafael Nadal,” he laughs. “As an adult, I’ve become less chaste in my culinary tastes and preferences, and have gone on to sample and relish the best of Swiss, French, Italian, Iranian, Chinese, Indonesian, Mughlai and Japanese cuisines. But I am grateful for the good food that I have eaten in the past,” he says.


Vidya Gajapathi Raju Singh, the princess of Vijayanagaram (the only Rajput state in south India), is a Sisodia Rajput Suryavanshi, who originated from Mewar in the 11th century. Born into the erstwhile princely state of Vijayanagaram in Andhra Pradesh, Singh comes from a lineage of Maharaja Alak Narayan Gajapathi Raj (her grandfather).

“Rajputs were meat eaters; they hunted wild boar, pheasants and deer for royal family meals, so Vijayanagaram is unique to the Rajput clan. Podi koora mamsam (fried and shredded twice cooked lamb) was one of the favourites among the royal rulers, served as delicacy during shikar, as it lasted for several days. The indigenous cuisine has always been very spicy, cooked in garlic and ginger. It was actually meant to set fire to your palate,” says Singh, who is now based in Chennai and runs a wedding planning company, Sumyog.

Apart from the Vijayanagaram palace, Andhra was known to have 25 zamindaris – all inter-related with unique offerings and major focus on non-vegetarian dishes like pulusu, iguru, guthu vankaya gasagasala kura, beerakaya cooked for regular meals. The fieriest delicacies of southern Andhra, notwithstanding the recent split of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, are often identified with Mughal influence as these bring a fusion of original Andhra ingredients and Hyderabadi cuisine. A generous use of vegetables or lentils with chilli and tamarind makes the dishes tangy and spicy. Rice and sambar are staple to Andhra.


Another princely state of south India is the premise of Amir Mahal, the ancestral residence of the Prince of Arcot (nawabs of the Carnatic who ruled the Carnatic region of south India between about 1690 and 1801) that boasts a large kitchen that houses crested crockery and traditional vessels used for cooking for banquet functions held regularly. Jeelani Begum Sahiba, the mother of the Prince of Arcot, Nawab Mohammed Abdul Ali, took great pains in making special dishes for the family. Till date, the butcher makes his first call of the day to Amir Mahal with the best cuts of meat, fish and poultry. “Banquets are mostly prepared by male cooks and the family’s daily meals by women. Both cooked in separate kitchens. There is a chef dedicated only to cook biryani—mutton, chicken and prawn— another to prepare kebabs in a separate kitchen, kormas by others and the desserts by yet another,” says Nawabzada Mohammed Asif Ali, dewan and heir-apparent to the Prince of Arcot. The book, Dining with the Nawabs by author Meera Ali, lists out the royal delicacies from the past—kaddu ke lauz (dessert made with pumpkin), Oud ka sherbet made especially on special occasions, khichda (rice and lentils cooked with meat and spices overnight.) Till today, the Prince of Arcot regularly hosts dignitaries visiting Chennai at Amir Mahal, presidents, vice presidents and prime ministers, Nizam of Hyderabad, royal families of the Middle-East and Brunei, chief ministers and governors of Tamil Nadu, delegates and ambassadors from various countries. “Your favourite cuisine is what your mother fed you when you were young. My wife Seema and I relish the age-old traditional cuisines but we often try new cuisines, as every culture is different and teaches you so much about the region,” says Nawabzada Mohammed Asif Ali, who is meticulous with the recipes and cooking habits. “The cooks are trained to measure each ingredient that goes into a dish, tomatoes are brought from Bengaluru as they taste better, traditional vessels are used for cooking, kutni or pestle and mortar for grinding and not the modern electric grinder,” he says. Lal baingan ka chaar, a version of rasam with herbs infused in it along with garlic, curry leaves, peppers, tomatoes, cumin and fennel is almost a daily dish. The Prince of Arcot loves variety in his breakfast—a simple dosa or idli one day or an aapam coated with a mixture of brown palm jaggery, then doused with coconut milk and eaten with keema on another day. Eid is a major celebration with special Ramadan favourites cooked—ganji, tamatar keema, coal sa kebab bhun ko and sheerkhurma, to name a few.


A good deal of food history is preserved in Thanjavur, formerly Tanjore, a city in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Maharaja Serfoji’s Sarasvati Mahal Library that has existed since the 17th century has more than 69,000 printed books, 49,000 manuscripts, and 1,200 Modi (Marathi) script documents. “A Maratha ruler, Serfoji II (1777–1832) was a true gourmet and had employed several scribes to write down recipes of his numerous palace cooks. Food tasting was not only part of the revelries, but a way to serve God (seen in other people). Thanjavur is the only south Indian kingdom of the 18th century where the king created a palace recipe cook-book called Sarabhendra Pakasathram. Hence, an eclectic combination of Telugu, Kannada, Tamil and Marathi cuisines makes Thanjavur a foodie’s paradise,” says Chennai-based author Pradeep Chakravarthy, who has written a book on the ancient temples of Tamil Nadu, Thanjavur: A Cultural History. Tamarind was extensively used in Thanjavur cuisine. In fact, sambhar originated in the kitchen when a Maratha cook attempted to make dal and added tamarind. Several streets in Thanjavur still bear names of ‘mudubhogi’ or palace chefs, explains Chakravarthy.

With the arrival of maharaja Vyankoji Bhonsle, the younger half-brother of Shivaji and founder of the Maratha rule in Thanjavur, the cuisine was influenced by the Mughal and the south Indian style of cooking. “When the Maharaja came to Thanjavur, he patronised the south Indian style and never imposed Maratha culture,” explains S Abaji Rajah Bhonsle, a descendent of Maharaj Serfoji II, “There was a lot of emphasis on nutritional value of food with the use of coconut milk, dry coconut and ghee. Cooking and baking were done using charcoal to control the temperature. A traditional dish cooked then and even today, kesar maas, a light spicy mutton recipe, uses spices which are grinded instantly,” says Bhonsle, who has hosted royal Thanjavur cuisine for some hotels.

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