A fantastic conglomeration of Neo-classical and Mughal architectural elements and references, Bari Kothi is a beautifully restored, late 18th century mansion that looks across the swift-flowing waters of the Bhagirathi river. Home for over 250 years to a family of immensely wealthy merchants, part of a tightly knit community of businessmen who migrated from Rajasthan, attracted like so many others by the fabulous wealth of Murshidabad, the old capital of undivided Bengal, Bari Kothi is one of the few places in the world where you can savour the history and cuisine of the Sheherwali community.
‘The city dwellers’, as they were known, migrated from arid Rajasthan to what was a thriving, cosmopolitan commercial hub – a confluence of Afghan, Mughal, Awadhi, British and multiple European presences – where cultures mingled, stimulated by the richest economy of the time.
Neo-classical Greek-style pillars, capitals and stucco work co-exist with a Durbar Hall, part Mughal-inspired, part European, with its 18-seater dining table and glass door panels exquisitely hand-painted with flowers and birds, and its ceiling hung with chandeliers. This is where 18th century royalty, nobility, and East India Company officials were entertained, and where you can now sit down to enjoy the most refined and unusual offerings from a cuisine which is difficult, if not impossible, to find outside the homes of Sheherwali families.
Sheherwalis, quick to embrace the times, willing to adapt to new cultures, created enormous businesses in banking, finance and textiles across international borders. Their affluence was reflected in the extravagant mansions they built in the twin cities of Azimganj and Jiaganj. As bankers and financiers to the Nawabs of Bengal, European traders and the East India Company, they wielded
tremendous influence and political power. Immense fortunes and leisure brought time and money to spend on patronizing the arts, building temples and educational institutions, philanthropy, and creating a distinctive cuisine to suit their new and influential identity.
The inherited cuisine of everyday and courtly Rajasthan which the Sheherwalis carried with them, used pulses, gram flour, red chillies in abundance, milk products and ghee, in harmony with the arid climate of the region, which demanded a certain frugality.
Bengal, lushly fecund with rivers and lakes, offered an entirely different culinary landscape. The Sheherwalis welcomed the new produce and created a hybrid cuisine, one they could claim as uniquely their own. While they maintained their Jain, vegetarian heritage, a number of new ingredients made their way into their dishes: Water chestnuts (paniphal) were substituted for root vegetables in the unusual Paniphal ka Samosa; cucumbers figured frequently on the menu in dishes such as Khira ka Kachori, where kachoris were stuffed with grated cucumber and hung curd, and then fried. The riverfront mansions, with their multiple storeys and extensive rooftop terraces, provided ample and idyllic surroundings in which to savour these feasts in a festive atmosphere quite different from that of formal dining rooms.
Vegetarianism may have dictated the limits of a meal, but subtle influences were incorporated from the multiple cultures that surrounded them — Milao ki Tarkari, a combination of green banana, gourds and cucumber uses the typical Bengali panch phoran spice mix in tempering the dish. Milao ka Missa is a rich, compact flatbread, made by blending three or more types of flour — the surprise is that it is griddled with a quintessential Bengali ingredient — mustard oil. The subtle use of rosewater and screwpine water (kewra) in various sweets reflects borrowings from the elaborate Nawabi and Mughal court cuisine that flourished in Murshidabad. The use of expensive dried fruits, nuts and precious saffron, referencing Mughal culinary traditions, appears in Chuware ka Goli, a rich, slow-cooked, bullet-shaped confection made of dried dates, reduced milk solids (khoya), sugar, milk and rosewater. Saloni Mewa ka Khichdi, a dish of sweetened rice and dried fruits is liberal in its use of saffron.
Sheherwali dishes are frequently time consuming to prepare and elaborate, despite their apparent simplicity of appearance. An afternoon spent at a cooking class with the head chef at Bari Kothi convinced me that it would take many months to reach the basic proficiency in knife skills that the cuisine requires! Time and attention were lavished on the preparation of vegetables, each recipe demanding a particular style of cutting and slicing, such as Parwal ka Dabdaba, a delicate stir-fry of pointed gourds. The elaborate Borey ki Boondiya is a sweet made from black-eyed bean flour fried into tiny, translucent beads, soaked in sugar syrup scented with kewra. Essential Bengali dishes such as pitha are given a little twist with a filling of sweetened khoya, and local ingredients such as lotus pods find their way into Chaata ka Tarkari.
One of the highlights of the Sheherwali world was the cultivation of mango orchards, in which they took their cue from the Mughal emperors. Travelling the roads that crisscross Murshidabad, particularly through the towns of Azimganj and Jiaganj, it’s still possible to see sprawling mango orchards edging vast, crumbling mansions. At one time, it was estimated that over 100 superior and exclusive varieties of mangoes were cultivated and eaten through the season which, in the heyday of the region, were sent as gifts to the Queen Empress of India!
By the mid-18th century, Murshidabad’s fortunes began to wane, eroded by local politics, strangled by the East India Company’s rise to power, and crushing taxation. Calcutta became the new hub of commerce and political power, and Murshidabad, with its distinctive culture, slipped slowly into oblivion. It’s hard to associate the decaying ruins of magnificent mansions, taken over by vegetation, with the elegance and luxury of its heyday. The Sheherwalis retreated too; most families are based in Kolkata, although they retain their family homes. Bari Kothi is a recent revival of a culture that emerged from unique historical circumstances. You might catch a glimpse of it while floating down the Bhagirathi on a barge set out with mattresses and silk cushions, eating a Sheherwali meal that has been prepared for you.