The UK’s Queen Elizabeth celebrates her Diamond Jubilee – aka 60 years on the throne – this weekend. But what does the rest of the world’s royalty consider to be food fit for a monarch? The recent opening of a regal new restaurant in Dubai presented the perfect opportunity to find out.
Shahjahan at the Habtoor Grand is an Indian venue – something we’ve no shortage of in Dubai. Yet this restaurant raises the stakes with an unusual speciality: Mughlai cuisine, known in India as the food of emperors. Shahjahan’s demi chef de partie, Ranveer Singh, has been working as a chef for the past four years, two and half of which he spent at the original version of Shahjahan (in the now-defunct Metropolitan Hotel). The mughlai cooking style, Ranveer tells us, began with the Mughal emperors. The Mughals were descended from the Mongols and took power in India via an invasion in the 16th century. Shahjahan, from whom the restaurant takes its name, was the fifth ruler in the Mughal empire (and arguably the most famous). It was Shahjahan that built India’s most iconic monument, the Taj Mahal, as a memorial to his wife, Mumtaz Mahal.
Ranveer describes mughlai food as ‘rich, fragrant and palatable’. ‘We only use whole ground spices – the food is creamy and mildly spiced, using rich ingredients such as saffron and cashew nuts,’ he explains. Mughlai specialities cover a broad range, similar to other Indian cooking styles, including tandoori kebab (cooked in a tandoor oven) and curries.
Labbadaar sauce, Ranveer explains, is a common starting point for many mughlai dishes. It involves blanching onion, poppy seeds and cashew nuts (for an atypical curry base), which is then ground and cooked for one and a half hours before being used as a base for several dishes. This sauce is often used in onion- and tomato-based dishes, Ranveer says. He adds that key dishes in Mughlai cuisine include murgh shahi korma (a mild chicken curry), and gosht kheema mattar (a famous dish made with minced lamb and green peas). Although not on the menu at Shahjahan, Ranveer explains that another famous Mughlai speciality is shahitokda, a dessert made from bread dipped in milk and syrup.
Ranveer says that centuries ago, Mughlai food was only prepared for royal families and rich people. ‘Chefs who worked for these royal families decided to make their own fortune, and they are the ones who developed this cuisine outside of the royal court.’ Gradually, the appeal and accessibility of the cuisine began to trickle down to other sections of society. This process has happened over many centuries, yet Ranveer argues the character of modern Mughlai food is still very similar to when it was first created.
‘It will never change,’ he explains. ‘It has been a tradition and will always be an authentic cuisine.’
Even so, Mughlai food retains its high-end reputation throughout India: according to Ranveer, all premium hotels in India offer the Mughlai style of cooking. It is partly for this reason that Shahjahan decided to focus on Mughlai food. According to Paul Hage, executive chef for Habtoor’s 19 restaurants, the hotel was looking for ‘traditional, authentic Indian food’, and Mughlai was not only ‘the premium choice of food in India’, but also represented the regions of Kashmir, Punjab, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.
Mughlai food is ‘the number one choice in India’, according to Ranveer, although he explains it is most often aimed squarely at tourists, rather than local people. Perhaps, however, this is connected to the price point at which it is offered in restaurants in India.
Meanwhile, across town at the Dusit Thani is another restaurant specialising in royal food: this time the cuisine of Thai royalty. At Benjarong, head chef Naruemol Poolkuan runs an all-Thai kitchen, and has been working in the kitchens of Benjarong restaurants in Bangkok and Dubai for 18 years. In fact, she was part of the opening team for Benjarong Bangkok, the first branch of this restaurant in the world.
Naruemol explains that royal chefs in old Siam (later known as Thailand) were influenced by the Khmer and Indian civilisations. ‘The royal kitchen of King Narai’s court had an Indian chef, who introduced Massaman curry to him,’ she explains. ‘Portuguese traders introduced chillies to Siamese cuisine, and fresh and dried chilies have since become regular ingredients in Thai recipes. During the reign of King Narai the Great (1657-1688), because of the influence from western cultures and diplomatic cultural exchanges with western nations, the royal kitchens were a congregation of foreign chefs, each having an influence on how dishes were cooked.’
Like Mughlai food, royal Thai cuisine is partly defined by its premium status. In royal Thai cooking, you may come across many familiar dishes (common to Thai cooking in general), but the emphasis is on the very best quality ingredients, and presentation. Naruemol emphasises the importance of choosing premium ingredients, and has all her ingredients imported from Thailand as a result.
But there are also several other considerations involved with preparing royal cuisine. ‘In my mind, the first thing with food is you look with your eyes. If it looks nice, then you’d like to eat it, and the taste must be good. But for royal cuisine we have to do more than that.’ In fact, presentation is one of the most significant aspects of royal Thai cuisine. The chefs carve vegetables into intricate designs, including roses, leaves and fish. This is done by hand, using only one tool and at an impressive speed. Hard vegetables are best suited to this task, such as carrots and turnips; they are sometimes carved before cooking, and sometimes left raw depending on the shape and dish.
Pleasing the individual is also a key element of this cuisine. ‘If I cook for royalty, I have to know their taste,’ explains Naruemol. She has had many opportunities to cook for Thai royalty, including Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, often here in Dubai. In fact, she explains that when the prince is in transit at Dubai airport, he arranges for Naruemol to bring food for him to his plane. He apparently has a personal preference for egg, so she often uses eggs when sautéing his vegetables.
Naruemol has also cooked for Queen Sirikit, for whom she prepared tum yum gaem pla chon (tom yum with snakehead fish) and nam prig kapi (shrimp paste dip), and Crown Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn at the Holiday Inn in Beijing, whom she remembers being very easy-going and happy to eat most things.
Shahjahan, Habtoor Grand Beach Resort and Spa (04 399 5000). Benjarong, Dusit Thani Dubai, Sheikh Zayed Road (04 343 3333).