ArchiveFebruary 1, 2020

Royal Cuisines Festival in India

On a recent trip to India I was invited to attend the Inaugural Royal Cuisines Festival in Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. From the middle of the 19th Century until 1947 when there were 150 princely states, tikanas and jagers in Central India, can you imagine the richness and diversity of the food culture.

The Madhya Pradesh Tourism association created this colourful festival to highlight the heritage and food culture of the province and share the flavours that were hitherto only accessible to those who were guests of the royal families. Many of these recipes are still jealously guarded within families and in some cases known only to the cooks. 10 royal families accepted the invitation of the Tourism Minister Surendra Singh Baghel, to participate. The event was held at the Minto Hall Palace, the former home of the assistant viceroy of India and launched by the first minister of Madhya Pradesh in the midst of a media frenzy.

Field kitchens were set up behind the palace where the royal couples watched over their chefs and students from the Bhopal Institute of Hotel Management while they prepared their dishes. Ravi Pratap Singh Ranawat from the Sarwaniya Royal family was preparing an intriguing family speciality called Chicken Sula. First the chicken was marinated overnight, then it was covered in a secret masala spice mix, then cooked and wrapped in overlapping chapatti and tied into a parcel before being cooked in a pit in the ground. Ravi was adamant that the recipe was secret but the Royal house of Garha in the nearby kitchen was equally adamant about the importance of sharing so the recipes and techniques would be passed on to the next generation. He told me that recipes had been lost in the past because they had ‘died with the cooks’, who have refused to share their legacy. Many of the royal families are now impoverished but some like the Holkar Royal family of Indore and Maheswar has embraced the hospitality business and have restored some of their palaces, as with Ahilya Fort, on the banks of the River Narmada in Maheswar. Prince Richard Holkar, a descendent of Queen Ahilya Bai who ruled from 1755 to 1795. Richard, a superb cook, divides his time between India and his second home in Paris. His cooking maintains the authenticity of the Holkar flavours using beautiful fresh produce from his organic farm and gardens. Guests come from all over the world and return over and over again to this hidden gem well off the beaten track. His chef Krishna, cooked three dishes, stuffed baby aubergines, Batteyr Survedar Quail Curry and Rosso Golla Espresso, Krishna was super excited when the first minister Kamal Nath personally complimented him on the Quail Curry and asked for a tiffin box of it to take home.

Students from the Bhopal school of hospitality were honoured to have the opportunity to participate in the event, they were stirring huge metal kari’s of masala, making chapatti on a stone in the gardens and most exciting for them was having their photos taken with Indian celebrity chef, Harpal Singh Sokhi in his turquoise and orange turban. I did so many spontaneous interviews for Indian TV and my photo appeared in several Indian newspapers.
In most people’s mind, the city of Bhopal, where the festival was held, is firmly connected to the Union Carbide Tragedy of 1984, when a gas leak was responsible for the deaths of over 15,000 people. The incident understandably decimated the tourist industry both in the city and surrounding area. This was my first visit, to what is a truly beautiful city, built around two large lakes with two outstanding museums, the Tribal Museum and the Museum of Man as well as an unforgettable Chowk (bazaar).

The Royal Cuisines Festival was a brilliant excuse to visit, otherwise I might never have gone, but if you are planning a trip to India, add Bhopal to your itinerary, it won’t be inundated with tourists. Meanwhile here are some of the recipes from the Royal Cuisines Festival.

Small Stuffed Baby Aubergines

Sounds like it could be a bit of a fiddle to make but once again the end result is super delicious.

Serves 12

1 kg (2 1/4lbs) small black aubergines, the size of a really large egg

350g (12oz) finely chopped onion

350g (120z) finely chopped tomato

4 tablespoons ground fresh ginger,

4 tablespoons ground garlic.

1 teaspoon whole cumin seed

125ml (4floz) vegetable, groundnut or sunflower oil

3 teaspoons turmeric powder

3 teaspoons red chili powder, medium heat

3 teaspoons garam masala

3 tablespoons coriander powder

100g (31/2oz) fresh green coriander

2 tablespoons Mango powder (Amchoor)

2 teaspoons salt

3 Indian dried bay leaves or 1 fresh

Cut the aubergines, from the bottom to the top in a cross. The aubergines should not come apart. Steam them for 10 minutes, untill they are half tender.

Masala stuffing for the aubergines:

Heat the oil.  When nice and hot, add cumin seed , bay leaf and finely chopped onion. Sauté, stirring till the onions become light golden brown. Add ground Ginger and Garlic. Reduce heat to medium and  Sauté till the masala and oil separate, adding a little water from time to time to prevent sticking cook. About 10 minutes. Add chopped tomato and cook for 5-7  minutes,  till the tomatoes are well melted. Check the seasoning and add more salt if required. Raise the heat, and add the rest of the ingredients,  except the garam masala, and sauté  till the liquid from the tomatoes is largely gone. Add the garam masala.

To assemble the dish, insert as much of the masala as you can into the cut aubergines. Add the stuffed aubergines and half a cup of boiling water to the remaining masala, and cook, covered, over medium heat, till the aubergines are meltingly tender. The masala should not be runny. Serve in a large platter and garnish with the green coriander leaves.

Quail Survedar (Maharaja YeshwantRao Holkar’s favourite).

This quail dish was one of the stars of the Royal Festival, do try it. You can source Irish quail in Coolnafearagh in Monasterevin (

Serves 10 (1 quail per person)

1 kg quail (about 10 quails)

6 tablespoons clarified butter

2 tablespoons onion paste

2 tablespoons garlic paste

2 tablespoons ginger paste

1 teaspoon turmeric powder

1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon poppy seeds

20 cashew nuts

450mls (16floz) coconut milk

Heat the clarified butter in a pan on a medium heat. Add onion, fry till translucent.  Add ginger, garlic, salt, poppy seeds and turmeric powder, Stir fry, adding water from time to time, till the sharp smell of the masala (spice mix) is gone and the oil separates and  masala comes together in the pan. This is an essential cooking technique for Indian masalas. This will generally take 10 minutes or so. The masala should neither boil nor fry.

Add the freshly ground black pepper, reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Increase heat to medium and add the quail and the cashews. Stir, and sauté for 5 minutes ensuring the masala coats the quail,

Add coconut milk. Check the salt. As soon as it starts to bubble reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. There should be a good quantity of gravy. If necessary add more coconut milk. The quail will be done when, with a gentle tug, the leg and thigh will come away from the body.

Serve with smoked pomegranate riata and spinach with yoghurt.

Smoked Pomegranate Raita

Serves 12

1.5 litres (2.4 pints) whisked Greek style yoghurt

4 tablespoons roasted cumin seed

2 tablespoons Sea Salt

12 cloves

3 small pieces Charcoal (like for a barbeque)

350g (12oz) pomegranate Seeds

2 tablespoons finely chopped green coriander

1 tablespoon ghee (clarified butter)

Heat three walnut size pieces of charcoal on a gas jet, until glowing reserve.

Toast, the cumin seed in a dry pan until fragrant.

Roughly crush the cumin seeds in a pestle and mortar and set aside.

In a serving bowl whisk the yoghurt till smooth. Add toasted cumin seed and salt. Mix thoroughly. Check the seasoning.

Prepare a piece of tinfoil large enough to cover the serving bowl tightly. Shape a smaller piece of tinfoil to hold the charcoal. Put the small piece of foil into the middle of the yoghurt. Put the burning charcoal in the tinfoil.

Put the cloves on the burning charcoal. Drizzle the ghee (clarified butter) over the hot charcoal, taking care not to smother the coals. The coals will start to smoke. IMMEDIATELY cover the bowl tightly with large piece of tinfoil to form a tight fitting lid. Don’t let the smoke escape!! Let this sit for about half an hour. The longer it sits the more smokey and clovey the flavour.

Remove the foil and the coals. Add the pomegranate and the chopped coriander to the yoghurt, stirring well. Serve at room temperature.

Ahilya Fort Spinach with Yoghurt

A superb spinach dish made from freshly picked leaves from the Ahilya Fort organic vegetable gardens.

Serves 6

500g (10oz) natural yoghurt

1 tablespoon rice flour

15 cloves roughly crushed in a mortar

8 tablespoons clarified butter

2 teaspoons ginger paste

2 tablespoons garlic paste

50g (2oz) onion, separated into rings

500g (10oz) spinach, chopped

2 teaspoons fresh cinnamon powder

10 green cardamom (seeds only) crushed in a mortar

2 teaspoons salt

Add rice flour to the yoghurt and hang it for 4 hours in a muslin bag and allow to drip. The result should be thick but pourable.

Toast the cloves until fragrant. Heat 2 tablespoons clarified butter in a pan and cook the ginger and garlic paste together for 10 minutes on a low heat, stirring until the oil and the masala separate. Add 4 tablespoons of clarified butter to a hot pan and fry the onion until light brown. Turn the heat down to medium and add in the cooked garlic and ginger paste, spinach and salt. Mix well, the spinach will release a lot of liquid which should be cooked back into the mixture.
When the mixture is cooked and dry add the yoghurt, cinnamon and cardamom, mix well and remove from the heat. The consistency should be like heavy yoghurt, if it is too dry add a little milk.

Heat the remaining clarified butter and add the toasted crushed cloves until fragrant. Add to the yoghurt and spinach mixture and mix well. If necessary, this is best re-heated in a warm oven or a very low flame stirring. High heat will curdle the dish.


Serves 8-10

2kg (4 1/2lb) thick homemade yoghurt or Greek yoghurt

generous pinch of saffron strands

1 tablespoon warm water

1/4 teaspoon roughly crushed green cardamom seeds

175g (6oz) caster sugar

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped pistachio nuts


Put a square of muslin into a bowl.  Pour in the yoghurt, tie the ends and allow to drip overnight (save the whey to make soda bread).  Transfer the dripped yoghurt into a clean bowl.  Infuse the saffron in a tablespoon of warm water in a small bowl.  Stir into every last drop into the yoghurt.  Remove the seeds from the cardamom pods.  Crush lightly, add to the yoghurt with the caster sugar, mix well.  Turn into a serving dish.  Chill.  Sprinkle the top with roughly chopped pistachio nuts and serve.  Delicious on it’s own but also memorable with Summer berries.


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