What do ghosht (mutton) gulab jamun, ghas (grass) ka halwa and neem halwa have in common, apart from the unusual combination of flavours? All three originate from India’s royal kitchens.
These and other little-known dishes are featured in celebrity chef Kunal Kapur’s The Royal Palate, which traces the food that was born in the palaces of ancient India. Produced by TVFPlay, the seven-episode series follows Kapur, of Masterchef India fame, as he visits royal families in Kochi, Rampur, Lucknow and Jaipur and other cities to uncover the secrets and stories behind their centuries-old cuisine.
“The royal food of India is still hidden,” Kapur told Scroll.in during a recent media event in Mumbai. “The idea is to bring that out for the common man and make them understand the story behind such cuisines. It is a dive into the past and is much more than food.”
The first episode of the seven-part series was released on the TVFPlay website and the YouTube channel The Timeliners channel on May 16. New episodes are out every week. Kapur is joined on his culinary adventures by celebrity chef Sarah Todd and social media influencers Melvin Louis, Barkha Singh, Kunwar Kumar and Benafsha Soonawalla.
For Kapur, who has hosted various food travel shows including Pickle Nation, Utsav Thalis of India and Curries of India, The Royal Palate is his way of tracing India’s culinary heritage. “This show serves history with a lot of fun,” Kapur added. “We do not just scratch the surface. There are so many things in and around food that you discover.”
Each episode profiles one royal family. “We wanted to bring out contrast and make sure that every episode was not the same,” Kapur said. “We began our journey with Jaipur and then we went to Kolkata. These two cultures are poles apart.”
Sometimes, surprising links emerged between regions that were geographically and culturally distant, Kapur said, citing the example of the Sheherwali Jains of Bengal, who settled in and around Murshidabad in the 18th century. “The Sheharwali community from Rajasthan migrated long back to Bengal and settled there,” he added. “You do not really think about these connections, but that is the case.”
Recounting some of the memorable experiences he had on the show, Kapur spoke about his visit to Kochi, where he had a a traditional sadhya feast with dishes made entirely out of jackfruit. “There were almost 20 such dishes,” he recalled. “They did not allow me to cook before I took a bath. I had to wear a fresh dhoti and enter the kitchen without any footwear. We tried to understand the meaning behind some of these practices.”
To find out more about the food heritage of the royal families and verify the stories they were told, Kapur and team had to make multiple visits to libraries, including the 18th-century Rampur Raza Library in Uttar Pradesh.“The weakest thing about our cuisine is its documentation,” he said. “It is not documented and even if it is, they are destroyed. The royal cuisine is slowly dying.”
Occasionally, the camera turns away from the palaces and on to the streets, to see how elements of the royal cuisine trickled down to the masses. “Fish halwa might be found in a normal restaurant,” Kapur said. “We try to find out what is in their version as well as compared to the royal kitchens. A dahi kachori is sold by restaurants in the city. But where did it come from? We track it back to the royal cuisine.”
What was the most unique thing he ate on his culinary adventure? Ghas halwa, Kapur said. “I never even thought we could make something sweet out of grass,” he added. “It’s unimaginable how delicious it was.”