Repasts fit for royalty

A new book chronicles the culinary history of India's presidential palace, Rashtrapati Bhavan, from its quintessentially British banquets to assertive Indian meals

The gap between how men propose and how history disposes is often amusing - a building meant to personify British imperial power became, just a few years later, the emblem of the newly independent Indian state.

Rashtrapati Bhavan, one of the largest buildings of its kind in the world, was built in 1929 when India was ruled by the British. It was to be the home of the viceroys of India.

Its architect Edwin Lutyens intended his design to embody the authority and majesty of the British empire. Scorning Indian architecture - his sketches are scrawled with comments such as "Mughal tosh" and "they want me to do Hindu - Hindon't I say!" - he employed heavy classical motifs in order to emphasise  imperial authority.

But its original purpose was short-lived. It was home to the viceroys for just 18 years.

When India became independent in 1947, the new government took over the palace and turned it into a home for the president.

In the early 19th century, the British had enthusiastically embraced Indian food. Later, they became more conscious of the need to project their culture and distinguish themselves from their subjects.

Just as Mr Lutyens had avoided Indian features in his design, no Indian food appeared on the banquet menus of the British viceroys. Instead, they comprised a melange  of Anglo-French dishes.

Butlers getting ready to serve trays of snacks to guests at the annual Independence Day reception. It took years after independence for Indian dishes to be served at Rashtrapati Bhavan. PHOTOS: DHEERAJ PAUL, FOR SAHAPEDIA

In fact, it wasn't until Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy before Indian independence, that Indians were even very welcome inside. He ruled that half of the guests at banquets and garden parties had to be Indian.

South India's Chettinad chicken (above) was added to the Rashtrapati Bhavan menu by presidents from the region. PHOTOS: DHEERAJ PAUL, FOR SAHAPEDIA

For many years after independence, the menus of the palace, where all heads of state are entertained, continued to reflect British heritage. The meal invariably started with a soup, followed by a fish course, the main course and desserts such as English trifles and puddings. It was only gradually, as the Indian state became more confident of itself, that Indian dishes were introduced at banquets, luncheons, at homes and receptions.

Now a new book delves into the history of dining at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Around India's First Table: Dining And Entertaining At The Rashtrapati Bhavan reveals how meals are prepared, how the ornate dining hall is decorated and how the staff used to roast in the heat with only a fan until the kitchens were belatedly modernised and air-conditioned. It tells how the menus have changed over the years, how the staff function and how all Indian presidents have tweaked the menu to reflect either their personal preferences or to showcase the cuisine of their region.

Mustard fish curry (above) got on the menu when Mr Pranab Mukherjee, who comes from West Bengal where fish is a staple, became president.  PHOTOS: DHEERAJ PAUL, FOR SAHAPEDIA

In it, a former butler characterises the state dining room, when laid out for a banquet, as a "sparkling fairyland".

Illustrated with photographs by Mr Dheeraj Paul, Around India's First Table offers a glimpse into the life of a grand building that most Indians know only from television or as they drive by its colonnaded facade and gigantic wrought-iron gates.

Cook Gopal Chandra Bhardwarj making saffron sauce for one of the many Indian sweets in the palace's repertoire.

The book was written by two food experts, New Delhi-based food historian Salma Husain and Britain-based Elizabeth Collingham. Ms Collingham is also the author of Curry: A Tale Of Cooks And Conquerors, a history of Britain's relationship with Indian food. Ms Husain wrote The Emperor's Table, a history of Mughal cuisine and its influence on Indian cooking.

Ms Salma Husain is a co-author of Around India's First Table: Dining And Entertaining At The Rashtrapati Bhavan.

Material was not easy to come by, she said. "There was not enough material in the Rashtrapati Bhavan library. Even the banquet menus went back only as far as 1961," said Ms Husain. "For anecdotes and stories, I had to make contact with retired butlers and chefs. Luckily, many of them are still alive - some of their sons still work in the kitchens - so I was able to gather all the interesting nuggets we needed to bring the palace culinary traditions alive."

One of them was Mr Minhaj Ali, who worked in the kitchens for 42 years, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He told the authors that when he joined in 1974, so little Indian food was served at Rashtrapati Bhavan that the staff had to use their own rice and spices when they cooked food for themselves.

The authors record how, as the kitchen gradually began introducing Indian dishes, the chefs turned to the Mughals for inspiration. It was in the Mughal courts that the greatest achievements of Indian cuisine - the fragrant biryanis, the kurmas, the great legs of spiced mutton, the velvety, melt-in-the- mouth galouti kebabs - were created. But the palace cooks made a point of keeping the Mughal dishes, which can be rich, light so that they would not be too heavy for guests who might not be familiar with Indian cuisine.

Later still, two tandoors were installed for the famous tandoori chicken and naan breads that are a staple of any Indian restaurant anywhere in the world. Dishes such as fig kofta curry have become hugely popular with guests.

The current chef, Mr Montu Saini, has introduced his signature lamb dish, darbari gosht, which consists of a blend of fine lamb stock with slow-cooked lamb and a mix of spices, with a strong note of fennel.

But the dishes from the cuisine of guest countries have also proved popular. Chinese Premier Li Peng, visiting India in 1988, had a second helping of a Chinese dish, saying it was the best he had tasted outside China.

Some of the rigid formality of British protocol was also jettisoned.

"Rashtrapati Bhavan is not just a state building, it is also the home of the president," the authors say. "This is something the staff are very conscious of. They are keen to demonstrate that they can produce a fine feast, not in the distant, grand manner of a hotel, but as a display of hospitality at the most prestigious home in India."

Along with Indian food, Indian traditions were introduced. Garlands replaced bouquets. The women, who used to be asked to withdraw after dessert, were not so asked. The desserts themselves changed from the heavy puddings and trifles loved by the British to almond kheer, a milk-based rice confection, and saffron-scented delights. Out of deference to Mahatma Gandhi's views, alcohol was banished from banquets. The champagne used for toasts was replaced by sherbet.

One very useful British custom has, however, been retained. At banquets, the pace of the meal is indicated by a blue and green light above each portrait on the walls. When the green light flashes, butlers start serving. When the red light comes on, the butlers start removing the dishes. Many guests, engaged in animated conversation and unaware of the convention, have been caught unawares, their plate whisked from under their noses even before they had started to eat.

The authors also talk about how each Indian president has made his or her contribution by adding a dish or two from the region they come from. For example, entrees such as idli, the South Indian steamed rice cake once deemed too humble to be allowed into the palace, became a regular item. Other presidents from the south put the famous Chettinad chicken on the menu.

The current occupant, President Pranab Mukherjee, is a fish-loving Bengali, so shorshe bata maach, or mustard fish curry, has been added to the repertoire.

The first Indian to move into the palace after Lord Mountbatten was Mr C. Rajagopalachari. This was in 1948, a year after independence, and Mr Rajagopalachari was still called by a British title, governor-general, rather than president. He broke with tradition by creating his own separate little kitchen in his apartment because he wanted strictly vegetarian food cooked by his wife.

Ms Husain asked the staff why, given the plethora of five-star hotels in India, they did not try other avenues instead of staying on at the palace for decades, particularly as tips are non-existent because dignitaries only dine at the palace. In the old days, those who stayed were known to have tipped lavishly.

"They told me they loved it because it isn't a rat race, it isn't competitive. It's more of a brotherhood and that makes them feel secure and happy," said Ms Husain. "They said that not a single president has ever uttered a rude word to them."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 11, 2016, with the headline 'Repasts fit for royalty'. Print Edition | Subscribe