And how has the Eid table changed over the years, and its little stories.

By Madhulika Dash; Picture courtesy Stock Images

It’s a ritual in our house, says Chef Nisar Ahmed (Corporate Chef, Mayfair Hotels), “that we celebrate the first meal of Eid – a day when namaz is often read after you have had something to eat – with the traditional nun chai (pink tea) or kounge Kahwa  and Kandi Kulcha. Also known as Kandur special Khatai, Kandi Kulcha is slightly bigger than the namkeen kulcha in size that usually is baked for breakfast but sublimely sweet. In a way that it seems like that little deserved reward after a month-long Ramadan. As a kid, it would be often made in our home or even brought from the neighbourhood bakery that would start making this slew of breads including a fresh stock of Kandi since dawn.”

The beauty of this dome-shaped Kandi and that rich buttery mouth-feel, continues Chef Ahmed, “often belies that it uses simple sugar, milk and sesame in its making. And is often made (and brought) in bulk because it is insanely addictive, and something that almost everyone in Kashmir loves to start their day of EID with. It is also the cookie that visitors are offered to with a cup of Kahwa or Nun Chai. In fact, in that sense, it almost stands next to the Egyptian Khak – a hiney and date filled cookie that is had with tea in the morning. The Yakhni Pulav, Biryani and Roganjosh are delicacies that are left from meals that either is had with the community of amidst the bevy of the friends and families.”

Unlike the common perceptions that people have of Eid today thanks to the numerous get togethers that happen on this day, says culinary and culture researcher Quddus Abdul, “the celebration of Eid is a very familial affair. According to the diktat mentioned in our holy books, the day is spent mostly giving back to the community, praying and meeting family and relatives. There isn’t any invitation for a meal – but given paucity of time, one is allowed to host a meal for the immediate of kin. And thus, the Eid table, especially in this one, is often replete with dishes that are a favoyurite of the family. Like in our house, there is a tradition of making Mutton Biryani and Korma along with seviyan – and any of my friends visiting me today would be treated to the classic Old Hyderabad style Biryani that is known for its generous use of spices.”

Concurs culinary expert Zamir Khan, who has grown up celebrating Eid-ul-Fitr on a generous helping of Biryani and a rich mutton curry (often korma) and of course some kebabs, “especially the Patili Kebab if I am in Lucknow because that is a kind of Eid special there where a patili is used to make this amazing version of kebab that are know  both for its bite and that fragrant spice that has just the right amount of heat.” Khan who by virtue of being born into an officer family has been able to see quite a few Eid celebrations and how the table is set, and finds the inclusion of Biryani everywhere one of the fascinating things about the festival. Many believe, says the brand specialist, “that an Eid feast is about this gourmet extravaganza, which it is not. Yes, there is a lot of good food but nothing that is over the top or outlandish. It is a well thought of collection of dishes made with ingredients that a person can afford. After all, that is what the diktat says to have.”

Hence, say the experts, “you would find very familiar dishes on the table. In fact, much of the tables are a showcase of a family’s culinary legacy and often showcases some of their signature dishes with a few that are a common favourite – or have become a standard favourite like the Biryani.” And this, says Nizam cuisine expert Chef Pradeep Khosla, “the case with royal tables as well, which today would be this beautiful array of dishes – some common, some traditional and a few that is a house signature. In fact, most of the community Eid tables are even today set on the same lines as the Emirati Fowala, which even back in the day was the gold standard of good food. And the reason for this were that it was designed by the Arab merchants who could bring some of the finest, sought-after ingredients from across the world.”

Of course, says Quddus., “the idea changed over the years with each powerful dynasty adding their little new or favourites to the table along with local favourites. Like here in Hyderabad, the Salan and Chota Tala Hua Gosht is a part of the celebratory tables, especially those that are laid out for all the relatives to come and have food in one place.”

It was a tradition that is said to have been adopted by Emperor Humayun thanks to his second wife, Hamida Banu Begum, who also introduced the culture of using Saffron in the food. It was under her aegis that the Eid (and Nauroz) table saw the inclusion of kormas, shebets, halvas and of course the Yakhni Pulav as part of the meal. During the reign of Emperor Akbar, vegetarian food too was made part of the meal. The reason for this was the emperor’s friendship with Birbal, who was often part of the celebration. With Emperor Jahangir, the table flourished with not just fruits, sweets, Iranian dates but also a variety of sherbets that many believe would be specially made under Empress Nur Jahan’s supervision, who was a master in purfemery. In fact, many believe that the Empress may have been the reason for standardising much of the food that made it to the Eid Table including the Aam Pulav, which had candied mango pieces as garnish. When did the Biryani make its debut into the Eid table however still remains a mystery? Some believe it was the work of Emperor Shah Jahan, given that Mumtaz Mahal is given the credit of creating the dish, others bet on Emperor Aurangzeb, the last of the Great Mughals, to have introduced it as it is a frugal way to turn a simple table, festive. What however can be said with much certainty, says Khan, “is by 19th century, Biryani became a standard practice because not only it could be made by everyone (and relished too), it gave enough time to indulge in other rituals and pursuits. In the Mughal court, which was known for its generosity this meant more time for fitra, visiting your ancestors and of course dedicating an evening to mushaiyra.”

Such was the effect of Biryani and its festive mouthful that by the time the chapter of new kings begun, says Quddus, “the dish was not only a standard practice, but also had become the finest example of the new culinary heritage. The rest as they say is history.” And thanks to the many versions and the constant evolution the one pot meal had over the years that today, says Chef Khosla, “it is considered not just a good meal, but a feast in itself.”