A Life of Delicacy
Salma Husain's life is so delicious.
When Salma is not cooking she is eating and when not eating she is writing about food. She has already published nearly half a dozen books from sherbets to the eating habits of the Mughal rulers of India.
Flavours of Avadh, her latest book on recipes from the region's palaces to its pavements is said to be selling like hot cakes. But try calling Salma a cook and be prepared to be served a frown instead of a generous portion of mouth watering koftas and kebabs collected in plenty on her dining table. Sure Salma is crazy about cooking but this foody is first and foremost a scholar.
A post graduate in Persian, Salma is a food historian. After having worked for decades with Persian documents at Delhi's National Archives and as head of the Dari unit of All India Radio, Salma moved to the travel and tourism business before she spent two decades as food consultant to the Maurya Sheraton chain of hotels.
During her work with hotels she met chefs from different parts of the country and was wonderstruck at the variety of food that they brought to the table. A Mumbaikar who has made Delhi her home, Salma was gradually inspired to try out recipes beyond those left to her by her mother.
Married into a family from Lucknow, Salma was mesmerised with everything about Avadhi homes. She was quick to learn the delicate art of the ways of the Avadhi kitchen from her in laws. The book Flavours of Avadh is dedicated to the magical hands and pristine taste of Salma's late mother in law. Described as a journey from the royal banquet to the corner kitchen along with spicy anecdotes accompanying the chosen recipes given to Salma by those still around to talk about the days spent in grand kitchens kept by the rulers of Awadh, the book is a great hot pot of both vegetarian and non-vegetarian recipes. It is a must for all those adventurous enough to spend time cooking leisurely and for trying out delicacies that are no longer to be found either in homes or on street corners.
At first Salma's job was to help countless research scholars by translating Persian manuscripts for them. The scholars were mostly interested in history, politics and literature of times when Persian was the court language here. Then she discovered manuscripts with detailed descriptions of people who spent their entire life in the kitchen.
The exotic recipes she found within the folds of the fragile documents fascinated her.
Later her travels to the Persian speaking parts of the world exposed her to the eating habits of people and she was struck by the resemblance of food there with north Indian cuisine. This led her to research some more the cultural and linguistic similarities between the Persian speaking world and South Asia.
She found Persian documents peppered with rare details and zoomed in on information about various kitchens from medieval times. Soon she had enough material on the royal kitchens of the rulers of South Asia based in Delhi. That led her to author a precious book called Alwan-e-Nemat, highlighting 101 favourite recipes of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir.
Her next book is about Shahjahan's love for rice and recipes of all the different pulaos that were so dear to the fifth Mughal emperor.
Salma’s blockbuster The Emperor’s Table: The Art Of Mughal Cuisine traces the favourite food of Babur to Bahadur Shah Zafar. The Emperor's Table is not just a cookbook but a historical record of the times of the Mughals whose ancestors are originally Persian speaking people from Central Asia. Illustrated by Mughal paintings, the author covers the dinning table of seven Mughal Emperors as proof that food is indeed the mirror of any culture and the history of no nation is complete without reference to the eating habits of its people.
The recipes, translated from centuries old Persian manuscripts explore not only the history of food but also give a glimpse of the life of people engaged in fasting and feasting in those days. For this terrific tour de force of rare recipes from between 1483 and 1858, Salma won the coveted Gourmand World Cookbook Award founded in 1995 by Edouard Cointreau to celebrate global cookbooks each year. Cointreau, it may be added is a descendant of Rabelais, famous French writer from the 16th century and his family has owned vineyards since 1270.
What Salma has done is to have spooned in her love for cooking with her interest in history, translating into English tall tales revolving around cuisines to connect the past with the present. The result is that Salma's mouth watering twist to the humble exercise of filling the stomach, makes her a much wanted woman today by all those who love to cook and to eat.
She has already appeared on the television show of star celebrity Gary Rhodes, chef from London and appeared on South Korean Television for a series on Indian food. Indian television viewers remember Salma from a film that traces the journey of the kebab from Central Asia to the heart of the Indian sub continent that was telecast by Urdu TV as well.
As if all this is not enough Salma promises many more feasts in the future of which little is known except that whatever is served by her is sure to be the best.