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Legacy of the Nawabs

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The great, great granddaughter of Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh, is all set to bring the family cuisine to the world. Does this lawyer and cook have a case up her sleeve?

By Sujit Bhar in Kolkata

Manzilat Fatima is the great, great granddaughter of Wajid Ali Shah, the last ruler of the erstwhile kingdom of Awadh. She is in her late forties, of composed bearing, displaying from deep within, her nawabi lineage and culture. Manzilat also happens to be a non-practicing lawyer of the Calcutta High Court (she graduated from law from the Aligarh Muslim University). And, though she has no cases on her plate, she is a very persuasive advocate of authentic Awadhi cuisine in her kitchen in Kolkata.

The good news is that she plans to bring the flavor of genuine Awadhi cooking from the confines of her family to the world. She has been talking to prospective business partners for her Awadhi food chain (she wouldn’t divulge any names), but before Durga Puja, she is planning a surprise. Kolkata would obviously be the first city to benefit from such a restaurant, and it seems Lucknow could be the next. Delhi remains the obvious entry into big time, later.
Manzilat has already shown her keen desire to recreate some of the old favorites from the glory days of Awadh. To this end, she associated with a food blogger to organise a pop-up food fun at a Kolkata restaurant on March 1. It was a success, to put it mildly, with the word spreading quickly among foodies in the city of all the Awadhi goodies which were on offer.

That was the seed. Now plans are afoot to take it to the great-banyan-of-an-idea stage. The recipes to be featured in the prospective venture are those handed down to her family from her ancestor, Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. She insists that she is the descendant of the son of the Nawab’s chief begum, Hazrat Mahal. That means her family is not only his direct heir in matters of property and rights, they are also direct heirs in matters of any intellectual property that accrues. This includes the family recipes.
Before Manzilat starts talking about her favorite topic—food—she begins with a quick disclaimer about Awadh cuisine: “We belong to the Shia community, our preferences regarding all things would be different from the Sunnis—the Mughals were predominantly Sunnihence our taste-buds have developed differently as well.” She gives the example of the Muharram Hazari—generally a paratha with beef Ghutwaan kebab on top—and says that this developed a bit differently in Awadh, in UP, from the Mughal dishes further north.
When she begins sharing details, one gets a clearer picture of Awadhi food with its moderate spices and enduring, unique aftertaste. She agrees that the current mishmash of recipes floating around households and restaurants have somewhat distorted the original basics, and that is why she is bent on presenting to the connoisseur the real taste of Awadh. “You see, the biryani, for example, as it was originally in Awadh, is more akin to what is now available in Kolkata,” she explains. “We, in this part of the country, have adapted our taste-buds to the Awadhi type, against say the Hyderabadi biryani. I cook the biryani here with mustard oil; some say it’s heresy, but I am determined to bring back the taste of history. I also use turmeric in small quantities.”

She agrees that there have been others claiming that the hereditary bloodline follows their families and this bothers her. “I am okay with others preparing and selling what they call Awadhi cuisine, especially our family cuisine. However, doing so while saying that the recipes are with them because they represent the direct bloodline is something I am not willing to accept. I am sure the original recipes are only with me, through my mother and grandmother. But people are free to experiment.” As in many royal family issues, this also seems to be slowly heading to the courts although no cases have been filed as of now.

Manzilat explains how, despite Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s many wives and concubines, her family derives the direct heritage. “Of his wives, Hazrat Mahal was the chief begum,” she explains. “And only the children of the chief begum gain the rights to heritage. That was how Birjis Qudr became the next king, followed by Mehar Qudr, and my father Prince Kaukub Qudr.” Now the title holder is Prince Suleman Qudr, whose son Kamran Ali Meerza, is the youngest prince in the family.

She switches from lineage to food. “My mother had a great deal of those recipes, and traditions that were customary,” says Manzilat. “Take for example potatoes in biriyani. That was a no-no, in the Sultanate of Awadh. It spoils the purity of taste. But when the Nawab was exiled here, along with his huge family and entourage, it was a matter of feeding his followers, a matter of adding bulk, on a rather small allowance. And Bengal has always been a great potato-producing state.”

Pre Raj history tells us that Wajid Ali Shah was exiled from his state when the British annexed his kingdom in 1856, a year before the Sepoy Mutiny. The Nawab spent his last years in Kolkata’s Mitia Bruj (Garden Reach) area, a broken man. He was a patron of the arts and a man of letters. He loved the good life and was passionate and particular about his food.

One hopes that Manzilat succeeds in her new venture. Here’s to the slow-cooked pasanda kebab, the herbs in the nahari, the Ghutwaan kebab, and much more. Surely, the lawyer and cook in her will do justice to a cuisine with a very rich history.

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