Filfora: A Hunter's Delight

Made from slivers of freshly hunted warm meat, this signature dish from the Begum’s Culinary ledger is a fine showcase of the magic great knife skills, a cook’s ingenuity and simple flavourings can bring forth.  

By Madhulika Dash; Image courtesy: Jehan Numa Retreat

A few years ago, when Chef Vincent Marques (Manager Retreat, Jehan Numa Retreat) was asked in a forum of that one aspect of their food culture that is dear to most royal families today, he said, “the Game Cuisine.” Understandably so. Chef Marques is among the few fortunate chefs to have not only worked at the Jehan Numa Palace – an address synonym to the finest Begum Cuisine of Bhopal – as the Executive Chef, but also be trained by Banu Rashid, the direct descendant of the royal family and the last custodian of the 157 years legacy of the Nawab Begums. A time when Bhopal rose to become not just a powerful kingdom under the aegis of its Queens but also as a state known as much for its hunting reserves as for its sublime, sophisticate cuisine and lifestyle. Fascinatingly, while  Begums of Bhopal were not the first queens to turn rulers in the history of India, they were of course leaders who were forward in their style of rule and the manner they went about putting together a riyasat that in infrastructure, education, liberal thinking and lifestyle was way ahead of its peers of the time. They were the rulers who set the new era of Monarchy in India. A revolutionary streak that showed in their food as well – which unlike the Awadh, Rampur and Nizam side was rather subtle, functional and an ode to their Central Asia roots. Not many know that the royal family of Bhopal bears its lineage to the Afghan warriors who settled in the erstwhile state of Muradabad, and had these distinct broad shoulder, fair complexion, tall, well built persona that made them ideal for the core team of protectors for the Emperor – much like the head janissaries of Ottoman Empire. In fact, it was what they were initially before the clan was promoted and given a land to supervise.

It was their style of work that often involved travelling with the Delhi Sultans and later the Mughal Emperors to their hunting trips, leading expedition and even guarding the borders of an empire that influenced their food – which for a long mirrored the food of Central Asia, which was known for using few ingredients and spices in their food. So when Bhopal developed as a riyasat post the downfall of the Mughal Empire, explains Chef Marques, “that streak of doing more with minimum resources continued as Bhopal, even though a prominent state by then, was not on any trade route and the food here was made mostly of the local produces with influences from the different ruling dynasties that came before the begums.”

And by the time the Nawabs and eventually the Begums came to power, they had the same limited resources to work around to develop a cuisine that would be a high point of their rule. Remember this was the time when bereft of any real power and any wars to fight (aside the two world wars), cuisine took precedence not just as something one could highlight but also by which the royalty was defined by. So while the Awadh went for, adds the culinary specialist, “the spice play and dum technique with tales extolling the finer nuances of a dish and Nizams along with Paigas (their minister and culinary custodian) took coconut, curry leaves and black pepper to gourmet heights; Bhopal – a state blessed with some of the finest hunting grounds in India – decided to create a culinary folio that was built on the rich game cuisine legacy they already had thanks to their ancestors.”

This is the reason that Bhopal ka khana isn’t either on the sour side (like the Niam) or the spicier side (like Mughlai) nor is it as elaborate like that of Lucknow, Instead, he continues, “it is a masterclass of how simple, good quality ingredients peppered with a brilliant cook’s ingenuity can create. The Begum Book of Food is full with such amazing examples whether it is Ghost Ka Pulao, which appears to be a Biryani but is more of a light, fragrant absolutely delicious pilaf; or the Shahi Tukda that takes on a different flavour profile once slathered with a generous layer of mawa that is salamander baked for their nice caramel layer on the top, or even the Chukundar Gosht that everybody gets enticed with courtesy its beautiful pink-closing to-merlot colour and earthy lusciousness.”

But the one dish that stands as the crowned jewel is the Filfora, a meat dish that began its journey most likely as a game cuisine before it became the pièce de resistance on the royal tables of Bhopal, loved and patronised immensely by the guests which included other royalties and the Britishers as well.

What is filfora? Filfora, says Chef Marques, “is a dry dish made from silvers of meat that is tenderised using a wooden mallet and then cooked traditionally over stone with few basic flavourants like ginger garlic, chillies (dry red) and salt. But when it was adopted to the Bhopal royal ledger, other tastemakers like coriander, green chillies, mint, yogurt and a few masalas were added in stages to make it worth the table instead of the rustic first dish served to the hunting party using the warm meat as soon as they arrived in the camp.”

Back then, it was a dish that was revered not only because it was a fine showcase of the culinary prowess of the royal kitchen but also their skills with a knife. In fact, in that period when the feast table played a significant role in diplomacy and politics, having cooks who could carve and create dishes using their craft were worth their weight in gold, and often worth poaching. In the case of Bhopal, much of the food culture was developed not just by these highly skilled men but also the Begums who knew their food, and how to cook it.

“The Filfora in this case was a dish that was a masterpiece that paid ode not just to the quality of game meat that was available in the hunting reserves but also brought forth the ingenuity of clever cooking.  Filfora, as a matter of fact, was often referred to as the ceviche of Bhopal – the finest of ways to taste some great meat, especially when it is still warm.”

While the dish tasted like a million-dollar, Chef Marques continues, “the making process showed how good the understanding of meat was. To make Filfora, the meat is first thinly sliced then hand-hammered into bacon like thinness and then cooked on the hot stone with its own juices and fat with flavourings added as the meat gets cooked to create a layer of deliciousness. Often the best hand in butchery and meat making – often the senior most staff of the kitchen brigade were given the task of preparing the dish purely because the slivers had to have the right ratio of meat and fat so that once cooked while it has that pull and is moist enough in spite of the fat being completely rendered out. This was important as there was very little oil used and the flavourings were there only to mask the gaminess and get that meaty taste enhanced.”

Over the years, with availability of other ingredients, hunting becoming a repast of the past and changing palate, the dish was adopted to including other tastemakers, says the chef, “like tomatoes, papaya for tenderising, yogurt and a little garam masala. The one we make at Jehan Numa Palace and Jehan Numa Retreat uses both the dry and fresh green chillies to get the heat right to enjoy the meat.”

That and the change of meat – the original version used game meats that ranged from wild boar to deer to any form of ghost - aside, the rest of the preparation for filfora remains exactly the way it was served at the many hunting expedition that the Sultan Begum would host in a year.

And even today, concludes Chef Marques, “it is the finest way to taste meat – and is every carnivore delight.” Of course, the kind of cuts that the modern interpretation aids in using makes Filfora, one of the few sustainable dishes that aids in no meat going to waste.

For a royalty that believed in making the most of limited means, the Filfora undoubtedly is the right showcase not just of their philosophy but culinary ingenuity too.