Begum Nur Jahan, the wife of Mughal badshah Jahangir, is known for many things, not least among them her impeccable aesthetics. She had an eye for the sumptuous detail that found expression in the timeless architecture she commissioned, the gorgeous textiles she patronised, and especially the exquisite recipes she bequeathed. Under her creative supervision, the royal matbakh khana made an array of imaginative dishes, including a yoghurt dyed with fruit juices in the colours of the rainbow and set in moulds. It is said she used to garnish dishes with ornate motifs made with a powdered and glazed rice paste that was infused with natural dyes. Seeing the vivid colours on the plate, the eater couldn’t help but be reminded of the brilliant hues of Mughal jewellery or the parchin kari embellishments of Mughal monuments.

Nur Jahan’s contributions to Mughal gastronomy, although distinctive, form a part of a culinary continuum that can be traced back to older times. Long before her, across cultures, colour was being added to food to manipulate or enhance its appearance. The Arabs did it. And taking a cue from them, mediaeval Europeans did it. “A colour craze swept through Europe in the wake of the Crusades to the Holy Land and other contacts of European Christians with Arabs notably in Sicily and Southern Spain,” writes scholar Melitta Weiss Adamson in her book Food in Medieval Times.

For the Arabs in mediaeval times, the practice of adding colours – particularly red, white and yellow – was rooted in medicinal and alchemic reasons. Any number of dyes would be used to get the desired effect. Ibn Sayyar Al-Warraq’s 10th-century cookbook Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchen lists recipes with dyes made of everything from wine lees and houseleek to verdigris (bluish-green copper-based pigment), madder and cinnabar (mercury sulfide), a substance of great significance to Arab alchemists. Up north, when Europeans began dyeing food, they drew on colours extracted from plants and animals, such as golden yellow from saffron or egg yolks; green from chard, spinach, basil and other herbs; blue from orchil lichen and woad; red from dragon’s blood and sandalwood; and dark brown from animal blood and cooked chicken liver.

Eclectic palette

In the 17th century Mughal kitchen, saffron was one of the cornucopia of colourants employed by cooks for dramatic effect. For a deep shade of red they used pomegranate juice, and when a grape-like green was called for, they used a spinach extract. At a dinner hosted by Shah Jahan’s grand vizier Asaf Khan for English diplomat Sir Thomas Roe and his chaplain Edward Terry, a multi-coloured assortment of rice crowded the table: a natural white version along with yellow, green and purple varieties.

Saffron was one of the colourants used in Mughal kitchens. Credit: Marlik Saffron/Unsplash [Unsplash Licence].

A handy set of Mughal instructions for colouring dough and butter can be found in The Mughal Feast: Recipes from the Kitchen of Shah Jahan, historian Salma Husain’s 2019 transcreation of Nuskha-e-Shahjahani, a manuscript of recipes from the time of emperor Shah Jahan. A transportive read, the book features little-remembered recipes like Nakhudi Pulao wa Kofta (coloured meatballs nestled in a bed of rice and lamb) and Saaq-i-Aroos (leavened bread rolls stuffed with nuts and sugar, tinted with saffron, spinach extract and cinnabar). An opulent pulao recipe in the Mughal repertoire called for each grain of rice to be enrobed in silver varq – gossamer-thin edible foil traditionally made by skilled workers who manually beat silver dust for hours together. Although devoid of flavour, the varq is primarily added to make food look rich but also, in part, for its supposed medicinal and aphrodisiacal properties.

With recipes like Saaq-i-Aroos, the Mughals took the art of colouring food to an unprecedented pinnacle. Before them, the practice had existed in India, albeit perhaps in a less ornate form. The 15th century Ni’matnama (Book of Delights) – compiled by the Sultans of Mandu, Ghiyath Shah and Naseer Shah – offers vibrant recipes such as saffron-dyed rice fried in ghee and finished with rosewater; parts of sheep cooked with potherbs in a broth coloured with saffron and mangoes; and green shoots covered in gold leaf and dyed with saffron. Earlier still, in 12th century, Chalukyan king Someshvara recorded in his tome Manasollasa vivid dishes such as ghee-fried meatballs flavoured and tinted with saffron, and intoxicating drinks tinted with flowers or roasted ripe tamarind.

After the Mughals, the European kitchens of colonial India expanded the range of food colourants. By the second half of the 19th century, synthetic dyes had started to gain currency, although there were still several champions of natural colours. Arthur Robert Kenney-Herbert’s Culinary Jottings for Madras (1880), for instance, describes gravies tinted with caramel besides custards coloured with spinach-greening and cochineal (a red dye derived from an insect native to Central and South America). So delighted were the colonialists with Mexican cochineal, in fact, that the East India Company tried to replicate its production in South India and Bengal, albeit unsuccessfully.

Credit: Sara Marlowe/Flickr [Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)].

In The Indian Cookery Book: A Practical Handbook to the Kitchen in India, the author identified only as “A Thirty-Five Years’ Resident” dedicates an entire section to “Colouring for Jellies, Creams, Ices, and Cakes”. One recipe in the chapter recommends creating a red dye by boiling “trains of cochineal” in water with “the same quantity of alum and cream of tartar” and then straining out the liquid. Another way to create a red dye, the book says, is by steeping red sandalwood powder in spirits, darkened with a pinch of sub carbonate. “Pink icing should be made by adding cochineal syrup; blue, with indigo; yellow, with saffron or gamboge [a yellow gum-resin produced by species of Garcinia in parts of Asia]; green, with spinach syrup or sap green; brown, with chocolate,” the author writes.

Hue and fry

The distance of time has not dampened the preoccupation with food colouring in the country. Turmeric – the subcontinent’s oldest and best known colourant – remains the preferred spice to impart a distinct bright yellow colour and also to fortify food with its curative and anti-microbial properties. Aside from that, there are panoplies of ingredients across regional cuisines to enliven dishes.

Krish Ashok, the author of Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking, points out that seasoned cooks often drop a teabag in the pressure cooker while making Punjabi chhole in order to give it a brown tinge. The darker the brown, the tastier it is considered to be. “Browned food is typically perceived as tastier due to the Maillard Reaction, a complex set of chemical reactions set in motion when food is browned, enhancing the flavours,” said Ashok. Old-timers, however, say the use of tea bag to colour chickpeas is a relatively recent phenomenon. The traditional choice is dried amla. “My grandmother typically used dried pomegranate peel to give the dish a rich, dark colour,” said chef Sherry Mehta, a champion of the cuisines of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, where she has roots.

Down south, in Kerala, Theeyal, a savoury curry, gets its name meaning “burnt dish” from its chief ingredient – coconut toasted to a dark brown. “In Himachal Pradesh, walnut shells, charred and pounded, are added to dishes like renta (a curry made with Bengal gram) and khatta meat (a tangy goat curry soured with amchoor) to give them a dark, almost black, colour,” said Mehta. Another traditional colourant in Himachal, Mehta says, is ratan jot or alkanet root, which gives off a deep crimson hue when bloomed in oil. Despite its wider use, ratan jot is most commonly associated, at least in popular imagination, with Kashmiri cuisine since it is ratan jot that gives the state’s Roghan Josh or Dum Alov their signature red colour. The velvety, plume-like inflorescence of cockscomb, called mawal (Celosia Cristata) in Kashmir, is also a treasured reddener.

Credit: Pranav Kumar Jain/Unsplash [Unsplash Licence].

The ruddy hue that some communities get with chillies and caramelised onions is achieved by others with animal blood. The Goan sorpotel, a zesty dish of pig innards, for instance, is traditionally finished with a swirl of fresh pig blood that gives it its signature colour and an earthy depth of flavours. Another blood-infused dish in Goa is the Cabidela – a dark stew of meat and offal. Across the country, in Meghalaya, some versions of jadoh, the most iconic Khasi dish made with joha rice and pork, attain a dark hue from fresh pig’s blood.

Perhaps few preparations typify the theatricality of food colouring as paan, the betel leaf chew layered with slaked lime and kattha (an astringent tannin) that oozes out blood red juices. Thirteenth century poet Amir Khusrow said it best when he wrote:

Full of veins with no trace of blood,
Yet from its veins blood races out,
Wondrous plant, for placed in the mouth,
Blood comes from its body like a living thing.

Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a food and culture writer, based in Kolkata. She is a Kalpalata Fellow for Food Writings for 2022.