Lahore is known for its love for food. But in case you thought our love for food is recent phenomenon, history tells us when it comes to food, our extravagance is steeped in our history. The Walled City of Lahore Authority have recently started restoration of the Royal Kitchen of the Lahore fort. Previously, it lay in utter shambles and disrepair. The royal kitchen was constructed during Mughal emporer Akbar’s tenure when he made Lahore his capital and reconstructed the Lahore fort in the shape we see it in today. Historical documents tell us that the monthly expenditure of the royal kitchen during Akbar’s rule was between a whopping 40,000 to 50,000 rupees of that time. The Royal Kitchen which was also known as the ‘Shahi Matbakh’ consisted of four sections. First section was responsible for cooking of the food and experimentation of various recipes while the second section was where variety of drinks were concocted and prepared for the royals. Third section prepared desserts and housed fruits of various sorts from all over India whereas the last section was the ‘Rakaab khana’ dedicated to items prepared from ‘Atta’.
Historical documents tell us that there was an elaborate system and a dedicated team in place that oversaw a complex supply chain and ensured transparency and taste. The caretaker of the Royal Kitchen was known as ‘Mir Bakawal’ who had a team at his disposal to travel to lands far away and procure raw material ideal for the taste buds of the royals and cooking wizardry of the chefs. During Akbar’s reign Ghee was procured from ‘Hisaar Feroza’ while there were three main types of rice that were cooked in the Royal Kitchen known as ‘Sukhdas’, ‘Deozeera’ and ‘Manjan’ that came from Gwalior and Rajwari. ‘Murghabi’ and fruits were obtained from Kashmir while lamb, chicken and various other fouls were procured from the outskirts of Lahore. All the items were brought in under the supervision of Mir Bakawal. The royal kitchen had its own treasurer who was provided annual budget in advance. Pouches of currency bore the official stamps of the Mir Bakawal and so did the bags of grains. The treasurer was responsible for providing daily list of expenditure to Mir Bakwal and the list was duly attested by two members of the kitchen staff. To top it all, once the food was prepared, there was a team of food tasters in place for food tasting and poison testing before it could be presented to the royal household.
The stories associated with the Royal Kitchen and what went on within those four sections make for many an enchanting tale. The kind of dishes and recipes that were cooked in the royal kitchen is a fascinating topic and shall be covered later but suffice it to say that the Shahi Matbakh was no less than an R&D experimentation lab specializing in culinary arts.
The Royal Matbakh continued to flourish till 1840’s when the thieving brits walked in and much like rest of Punjab looted and plundered the Lahore Fort as well. The once magnificent ‘Shahi Bawarchi khana’ was converted into a torture cell and in 1856 it was made into a special police jail. And like this, a place which was source of culinary masterpieces for three centuries became a symbol of fear and resentment. In 1988, Benazir Bhutto ordered closure of the special jail for all times to come and in the 90’s after a bout of heavy torrential rains the halls that must have once been alive with the laughter, sounds and shenanigans of its occupants, the building which once churned out items of gastronomical pleasure that left a profound effect on foods we consume even today caved in and became a picture of ruins.
The Royal Kitchen that commanded a monthly expenditure of 50,000 rupees 500 years ago cannot even command 50,000 rupees of today’s value in today’s time.
Pictures courtesy: Nadeem Dar, Walled City of Lahore Authority