Babur [right] and Humayun with Courtiers (Detail), Late Shahjahan Period, ca. 1650.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Nimatnama or The Book of Pleasures: A Cook Book from 15th Century Malwa

After the demise of the imperious Tughlaq dynasty in Delhi, Malwa saw the rise of its own independent sultanate in the 15th century. In 1469, Ghiyath Shahi became the sultan. This heck of man was a bon viveur and eccentric par excellence. As soon as he ascended the throne, he deputed his son, Nasir Shah to run state affairs and promptly busied himself in the pursuit of sensory pleasures and satisfaction. Nimatnama or the Book of Pleasures was the outcome of his unremitting exertions in this direction. The work comprises of recipes of various food and drinks, for preparation of perfumes and essences, as well as for aphrodisiacs and medicines. It also elaborates on the preparation and benefits of betel chewing and provides advice on what to take into battle and instructions concerning hunting expeditions.

The recipes of Nimatnama are detailed and alluring. Take this one for example:

Another recipe for the method of saffron meat: wash the meat well and, having put
sweet-smelling ghee into a cooking pot, put the meat into it. When the ghee is hot,
flavour it with saffron, rosewater and camphor. Mix the meat with the saffron to flavour
it and when it has become well-marinated, add a quantity of water. Chop cardamoms,
cloves, coriander, fennel, cinnamon, cassia, cumin and fenugreek, tie them up in muslin
and put them with the meat. Cook almonds, pine kernels, pistachios, and raisins intamarind syrup and add them to the meat. Put in rosewater, camphor, musk and ambergris and serve it. By the same method cook partridge, quail, chicken and pigeon.

The uniqueness of this text lies in its form as well as its subject matter. The manuscript, preserved in the India Office Library in London, has fifty miniature paintings, prepared after the Persian Turkman tradition of Shiraz, in fusion with more subcontinental styles. Thus many of the faces in the paintings are painted in profile, as opposed to the Persian practice of painting in half-profile. These paintings represent some of the earliest paintings from Muslim courts of the Deccan and hence are early predecessors of numerous paintings of the Dakhni style from later periods. The text is written in bold naskh script, characteristic of Mandu calligraphy. 

As far as content is concerned, the book lies outside the usual gamut of medieval Persian literature, which mostly comprises of political chronicles and pure fiction. As for the field pertaining to the history of cuisine is concerned, the Nimatnama is an invaluable source for obvious reasons. While other Persian sources mention feasts and banquets, and even food, in passing, this is the only text from the medieval period dedicated entirely to the subject.

Have a look at this wonderful text; who knows, some you may fall prey to its charm and end up getting interested in culinary history.
You can download the ebook from any of the following locations: