Monday, January 21, 2013

Dining with the Maharajas

I recently received a review copy of a very interesting new book, Dining with the Maharajas: A Thousand Years of Culinary Tradition. Written by Neha Prasad and with photographs by Ashima Narain, this book delves into the rich culinary history of India, specifically the cuisine and feasts that were prepared by royal Indian kitchens. Each chapter profiles a different royal family (of Indian states such as Udaipur and Jammu and Kashmir, amongst others) and explores not only the history of their family's royal banquets but their style of entertaining today, too.

Although it seems that many of these royal families still live quite well today, there was a time not so very long ago when maharajas and their families lived most extravagantly.  The book's introduction includes a quotation from the late Dowager Maharani of Gwalior Vijayaraje Scindia that sums up this extraordinary lifestyle quite nicely: "It was a fantasy world, Byzantine in its splendour with more in common with the French kings of the grand Siecle than with the world of today. Who after all can count his servants in thousands, or the tigers in their hunting preserves in their hundreds, maintain half a dozen enormous palaces and a dozen or so hunting lodges or country houses, give sit-down dinners for a hundred and fifty guests on special family plates that had been used for the banquets in honour of at least three British monarchs and one Czar?"  A fantasy world, indeed, but one which has provided the author with a wealth of anecdotes pertaining to the maharajas' lavish way with food.

Not only is it fascinating to learn of these families' culinary traditions, but it's also interesting to see the way in which they live today.  There are numerous photos (quite beautiful, I might add) that show their magnificent palaces, the antiques and relics with which they live, and the style in which they entertain today.  Although there is still emphasis on a well-set table (much of the china and table accoutrement are stunning), their entertaining seems to be far more relaxed than that of their ancestors.  The bonus to each chapter are recipes that are enjoyed by current members of these royal families.  As much as I love Indian food, I don't cook it at home because many of the ingredients are hard to find in my area, something which might dissuade me from attempting many of the book's recipes.  However, if you enjoy cooking Indian food at home, then I think you'll be very tempted to prepare some of these delicious looking dishes in your kitchen.

And I must say that this is one of the prettiest books that I've seen in a while.  The book, completely covered in purple velvet, is a tri-fold book that, when open, boasts end papers that depict an antique Indian textile.  And not to worry about getting the velvet cover dirty in the kitchen should you attempt one of the dishes as the book contains a soft-cover kitchen copy of recipes. Very clever.

The book includes a charming replica of a fill-in invitation as well as a soft-cover book of recipes.

Esra Jah and Shekyar Jah of the royal family of Hyderabad, sitting at their famous dining table which can seat up to 101 people. Tsar Nicholas II, King George V, and Franz Ferdinand all dined at this table.

The Jammu and Kashmir royal monogram.

Guchchi Pualo (Mushroom rice)

Maharaja Gaj Singh II at the Umaid Bhawan Palace.

Kundan Kaliya (Rich lamb curry with wholemilk fudge balls)

Book photos from Dining with the Maharajas: Thousand Years of Culinary Tradition by Neha Prasad, Ashima Narain photographer.


  1. A fairy tale. Incredible riches amongst immense poverty.

  2. A few years ago, I traveled India with a friend. We visited the Umaid Bhawan Palace which was probably the most breathtaking palace I have ever visited. The photo above doesn't even begin to give you a glimpse of what is inside. Built in the style of India-meets-Art-Deco, the elegant travertine marble walls and staircases are judiciously punctuated with hunting trophies of leaping leopards. while I have visited many gilt embellished palaces around the world, this one (in it's relative simplicity) stays in my memory.
    During our visit, my friend and I had dinner. Seated outside on the terrace and watched fireworks in the distance celebrating a marriage in the town. We felt like we were dining with maharajas!

  3. Jennifer,

    Beautiful post, I've never been to India, but Tom Britt has, many times, and I think he even did some work for the Maharani of Jaipur. Amazing, no?

    Dean Farris

  4. A most elegant and picturesque lifestyle! We can imagine the aroma of the exotic cuisine.