Tarana Husain Khan

Degh to Dastarkhwan: Qissas and Recipes from Rampur

From food researcher and writer Tarana Husain Khan, Degh to Dastarkhwan is a collection of essays which links history and memories around the theme of food. ­Tarana was an indifferent eater and an unenthusiastic cook until a chance encounter with a nineteenth-century Persian cookbook in Rampur’s fabled Raza Library started her off on a journey into the history of Rampur cuisine and the stories around it.

How can you explain the texture, taste and smell of something that has ceased to be? A sweet named ‘dar e bahisht’, which translates to ‘gateway to heaven’, was probably created in Rampur to be distributed on ‘chellum’ festival and prepared by special cooks till the seventies. Till a generation back Rampuri cuisine had a repertoire of dishes which could rival the fabled dastarkhwans of Mughal emperors. Most of these dishes have become intergenerational food memories- talked about but never experienced. Thus foods like dar e bahisht, kundan qaliya, hababi, the vast repertoire of biryanis, qormas and kababs, among others, became the subject of food nostalgia.

Part food memoir, part celebration of a cuisine, abbreviated and almost forgotten, the book answers the question- what constitutes and distinguishes the Rampuri cuisine? Each chapter takes the readers through different terrains, from the warm sweetness of childhood memories to the glamorous narrative of court life and the gritty reality of the humble street shops. Using food as an anchor, this book weaves through culinary memories and oral history of Rampur to reveal a vibrant culture with a grand past.The narrative also lends itself to a gendered retelling of Rampur by foregrounding the invisible women, the practitioners and keepers of food and culture and shares recipes from Rampur homes.

The book is peopled with compelling characters from all walks of life who narrate their stories. In an interview, Mahpara Begum, the nearly hundred-year-old dancer at the court of Nawab Raza Ali Khan, speaks of feasting on the leftovers from the Nawab’s table and the glamorous nightlife at the court. In a chapter on the sublime ‘gulathhi’ sweet, Munna Khansama shares the oral history of the creation of the unique dish. The spiritual ambience and langar at the Sufi shrine of Shah Baghdadi, bring to mind the qawwali mehfils at the author’s great grandfather’s grave. Thus connecting food memories, and oral history around the food culture of Rampur, each chapter ends with an authentic recipe from Rampuri homes, old khansamas and ancient cookbooks.

The memories and cultural practices around food form the core of the book. Each chapter unveils some aspect of cultural ethos, some quirky food traditions and the reader feels drawn into the intimacy of ‘Rampuriyat’ and the warmth of its cuisine. Food becomes a lens for viewing the city and its people, a metaphor for emotions lived and remembered.


Praise for Degh to Dastarkhwan

“Meticulously researched and written with a refreshingly light touch. A gem!”

––Pushpesh Pant, Food Critic and Historian

‘Peppered with food memories, anecdotes and unique recipes from Rampur and its largely forgotten, grand cuisine, this is the kind of culinary documentation that leaves you salivating on so many levels.’

––Thomas Zacharias, Chef and Founder of The Locavore

‘Beautifully captured the essence and contribution of Rampuri Cuisine. Rampur has a legacy of a very bold style of food by some legendary khansamas of the time. Tarana ji has brought to light the stories, recipes and the thought behind the cuisine of a bygone era.’

—Kunal Kapur, Chef and Restaurateur

“Tarana Husain Khan’s absorbing new book, Degh to Dastarkhwan: Qissas and Recipes from Rampur, is more than just a cookbook or a memoir. The collection of essays braids history and memories, stories of compelling people, migration, with food as the fulcrum driving the narratives.”

-The Hindu


Tarana Husain Khan’s ‘Degh to Dastarkhwan’ brings fables, flavours of Rampur

Tracing Rampur’s History from Degh to Dastarkhwan | Tarana Husain Khan

That the faculty of taste is fundamental to meaning making practices is now a commonplace idea. For instance, some food items make us salivate in desire, the consumption of which brings pleasure.

Writer and cultural historian Tarana Hussain Khan captures the lost culinary traditions of Rampur in her food memoir

An Extract

Pulao and Mourning

Pulao, an aromatic rice and meat dish, has a seminal presence in all traditional Muslim households. No feast, funeral or prayer meeting is complete without it. In Rampur, the timing of serving the pulao is crucial. The partakers are supposed to wait for it at the table while it is put on dum—simmering in a dough-sealed pot or cooker. The literal translation of dum is life. The pulao becomes lifeless when the dum steam escapes. It would be inconceivable for most people to associate the lavish pulao with mourning and remembrances. Pulaos take me back to Thursday fatihas (prayers) in my ancestral home in Aligarh. While growing up, we associated Thursdays with pulao lunch. My siblings, cousins and I could almost smell pulao as our rickshaw wheeled us slowly back from school. Lunch would invariably be served late, for several kilos of pulao had to be prepared in a large degh (large cooking vessel with a narrow mouth) over wood fire in the old kitchen, with Zarina Bua, our cook, muttering over the quality of meat or rice, ready to blame the lack of perfection on our old retainer, Khalil Khan. The pulao was distributed after remembrance prayers to the poor to invoke blessings for our ancestors. In the sixties, my grandparents with their brood of nine children had migrated from Rampur to Aligarh, where my grandfather had taken up an assignment as the university engineer at Aligarh Muslim University. Their taste buds were still Rampuri, and they created an ecosystem of foodways from Rampur—khansamas, rice, wheat, masalas and seasonal fruits.  My grandmother had banished all the Sufi practices from her house after the death of her mother-in-law—she came from a family that had a puritan Islamic belief system—but fortunately retained the reading of the Thursday fatiha over steaming dishes of pulao as remembrance- prayers for her husband and ancestors. It was one of the traditions she carried from her Rampur life. We—aunts, uncles, parents, cousins and siblings—would surround the dining table with our palms raised heavenwards, heads covered respectfully, stomachs rumbling as Nani Amma recited the Quranic verses and prayed for everlasting peace in Jannat for the dead buzurgs. We recited the prayers under our breath, at least I did; most kids just stared at the food. My grandmother believed that the spirits of the dead, particularly her husband’s, came down on Thursdays, and so prayers of remembrance had to be recited over a sample of steaming pulao dish before we began to eat. It always confused us as children—were the spirits hungry or did they just come down to eat pulao? We were not allowed to question our elders once we had passed a certain age. The prayed over and the now holy pulao was taken away and mixed into the degh (to make it all holy) and we finally got to eat, though not before a large portion was taken out for the maulvi of the neighbouring mosque and the poor living beyond our area of reference. Over the years, as Nani Amma became ill and passed the supervision of the kitchen to the daughters-in-law, the quantity of pulao reduced, the degh was replaced by a large pan, which could be used for cooking on the gas stove instead of the open wood fire in the courtyard. The fatiha prayer was still said over the pulao dish and a nashteydaan was sent to the maulvi of the neighbouring mosque. Nani Amma is no more with us; we still have pulaos on Thursdays, but there are no prayers for ancestors. Fatiha now belongs to a class of religious traditions which are declared ‘bida’ or innovations to be studiously avoided by those following the pure, unalloyed religion. My childhood association with pulao and prayers, the memory of pulao smells overlaid with incense scent, is reinforced by the serving of the dish at funerals. At a Rampur funeral, the timing of serving the pulao is even more critical. The funeral bier is borne out of the house on the shoulders of grim-faced mourners, leaving behind a gaggle of crying, wailing and sniffing women. When the men return from the close-by burial ground—there is a sense of calm resignation that borders on satisfaction if the dead person was old and ailing—and grief has subsided to a contained level, a cart bearing deghs of pulao trundles through the brick-laid lane, and pulao deghs are carried into the courtyard. Suddenly, there is a change in the tone of the day as morose-looking women get busy serving the piping hot feast to comfort the mourners. The perfect timing never ceases to amaze me; even in mourning it is crucial that the pulao should be served before all its steaming life, dum, escapes. Even in devastating grief one cannot serve cold pulao. Recently, the Rampuris have started spicing up the pulao with yellow chilli flakes and whole green chillies to suit the local palate. The old-timers (and I) still prefer the delicate redolence of the dish with a tiny amount of yellow chilli chutney and the occasional dahi phulki (fritters in curd).