Citizens – a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Joyous Kwanzaa, and Happy New Year to all – in honor of all these holidays, I give you today…a Muslim recipe!
Yes, our Muslim brothers and sisters don’t get the seasonal love the other faiths do at this time of year – so in the spirit of inclusivity, I am honored to share not just ANY recipe but one that is sadly almost extinct. I give you…Akhti!
As noted on the excellent website epicureandculture.com (lightly edited for length):
There’s been speculation in New Delhi, India that one of the ministers wants to ban momos (dumplings) in the city. Delhites’ obsession with this street snack has led to memes, jokes and status updates about the terror of a city without dumblings; but, don’t worry — there is an alternative. Though time-consuming, akhti, a traditional Mughlai dish of beef stew dumplings, will surely satisfy any momo cravings.
Though akhti is one of the most traditional Mughlai dishes, I’m afraid very few people are familiar with it. The reason seems to be the high-paced life where dinner can often be made out of a can in 10 minutes or less, while preparing akhti could be considered a laborious, even herculean, task.
This hearty stew is made in traditional Muslim families, popular mainly in the months of Ramadan. The recipe is passed on from generation to generation. Unlike the popular boeuf a la bourguignon, spezzatino and ragout dishes made with beef, akhti is made from mutton meat.
Dumplings in this recipe are not stuffed with any vegetable or meat. The only ingredients are flour, water, salt and butter. They are cooked in the stew, soaking the dough with flavors. The dumplings give body and personality to the dish, making akhti a complete meal.
Unlike biryanis, kebabs and kormas, this savory rustic dish won’t be so easy to find in restaurants or street shops to satisfy your palate and curiosity. Akhti evolved in the royal kitchens of the Nawabs of the Mughal Empire in medieval India.
The food has strong influences from the region where the Turco Mongol Mughal rulers initially came and now their splendor and style has influenced regional cuisines of Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.
The tastes vary from being spicy to mild and the cooking styles are complex, distinctive and luxurious. During the Mughal times every emperor had a Hakim (royal physician) who made sure that there was a use of medicinal herbs and spices like cumin, turmeric, saffron, cilantro and even rose water. Gold and silver pellets were fed to chickens and goats so the medicinal properties could also be passed to the person eating them.
Mughlai dishes have many layers and the eccentricity of this cuisine is seen in their culture. The food is not just about eating — it’s about customs, the eloquence of their language, table mannerisms and, most importantly, the majestic names given to the dishes.
Rather than greasy meals served in restaurants which are now called “Mughlai,” this rich culinary legacy had subtlety and sophistication to it. Sadly the traditional recipes like akhti are dying and, like my childhood flashback, I hope this forgotten dish doesn’t turn into only a memory.
TFD has always been exceptionally fond of royal Mughlai dishes, including this one, but to properly appreciate the subtleties and richness of the cuisine, it would help to first describe it in some detail. The observant amongst you who have a philological bent may have noticed that the name for this dish is not in any Indian dialect or language, but rather in Farsi, the language of Persia – and here is why!
Mughlai cuisine consists of dishes developed in the medieval Indo-Persian cultural centres of the Mughal Empire. It represents a combination of South Asian cuisine with the cooking styles and recipes of Central Asian and Iranian cuisine. Mughlai cuisine is strongly influenced by the Turko-Persian cuisine of Central Asia, the region where the early Mughal emperors originally hailed from, and it has in turn strongly influenced the regional cuisines of modern Northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The tastes of Mughlai cuisine vary from extremely mild to spicy, and are often associated with a distinctive aroma and the taste of ground and whole spices. A Mughlai course is an elaborate buffet of main course dishes with a variety of accompaniments.
Although the ruling class and administrative elite of the Mughal Empire could variously identify themselves as Turani (Turkic), Irani (Persian), Shaikhzada (Indian Muslim) and Hindu Rajput, the empire itself was Indo-Persian, having a hybridized, pluralistic Persianate culture. Decorated Indo-Persian cookbooks and culinary manuscripts adorned the personal libraries of the Mughal elite, serving as both culinary guides and for aesthetic value.
One example was the Ni’matnama, a 15th century work illustrated with Persian miniatures. This was commissioned by Sultan Ghiyas Shah, a sultan of Malwa in modern-day Madhya Pradesh, and features Central Asian dishes such as samosas (fried meat-filled pastry), khichri (rice and lentils), pilaf (rice-dish), sikh (skewered meat and fish), kabab (skewered, roasted meat) and yakhni (meat broth), as well as western and southern Indian dishes, such as karhi (yogurt broth mixed with chickpea flour), piccha and khandawi.
From the Mughal period itself, one popular culinary work was the Nuskha-i-Shahjahani, a record of the dishes believed to be prepared for the court of Emperor Shahjahan (r.1627-1658). This Persian manuscript features ten chapters, on nānhā (breads), āsh-hā (pottages), qalīyas and dopiyāzas (dressed meat dishes), bhartas, zerbiryāns (a kind of layered rice-based dish), pulāʾo, kabābs, harīsas (savoury porridge), shishrangas and ḵẖāgīnas (omelette), and khichṛī; the final chapter involves murabbā (jams), achār (pickles), pūrī (fried bread), shīrīnī (sweets), ḥalwā (warm pudding), and basic recipes for the preparation of yoghurt, panīr (Indian curd cheese) and the coloring of butter and dough.
I have chosen to slightly adjust the original akhti recipe with my preferred spicing ratios and the genius addition of a few drops of pandan leaf essence to the flower-shaped dumplings to color and scent them as well – I believe the Shahs would have approved. You can buy it here. I have also substituted 2 of the Bay leaves for the more complexly-flavored leaves of the cinnamon tree – you can buy them here.
It is very important that you use ONLY culinary-grade mustard oil in this recipe – the versions used for aromatherapy or massage contain compounds that can hurt you. This brand is totally safe. Lastly, the Kashmiri chili powder I like is here.
It saddens the Sultan of Sagacity to see an amazing recipe teetering on the brink of extinction – I hope you will see fit to try this delicious and historic recipe at your first opportunity, my most beloved members of TFD Nation!
Battle on – the Generalissimo
The Hirshon Indian Akhti Mughal Lamb Stew - خواهرم
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