Home / News / The Scent of Flavour – a peek into the Mughal art of using perfume in food.
  • The Scent of Flavour – a peek into the Mughal art of using perfume in food.

    I want you to close your eyes and take a deep breath. Now, imagine a resplendent garden bursting with the vibrant colours of the Damask rose. Take another deep breath as the intoxicating sweet and floral aroma imbues your soul, whisking you back in time 500 years to the time of Nur Jahan, the queen of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. The queen, for whom the Taj Mahal was built, stood in this rose garden and upon being overcome by the heady aroma of the roses, requested her physician to concoct a sherbet so that she could savour this ethereal aroma whenever she wished.

    The scent legacy of the grand Mughal Empire is as timeless and majestic as their cuisine. Long before the advent of technology, Mughal kitchens perfected the art of slow and intricate cooking that reflected the finest produce across the empire. There are accounts of rice being boiled in rose water before adding spices, jasmine flowers and copious amounts of silver leaf to make the show stopping biryanis and pulaos; whole game birds would be coated in a sandalwood paste and Fuller’s Earth to clean and scent them before marinating further with saffron, lime and spices. Whilst the queens bathed in rose water, the courtesans adorned their necks with bejewelled vials of gold &silver filled with various attars.

    The third Mughal Emperor, Akbar the Great (16th c) was known to be a connoisseur of fine food with Turkish, Persian and Indian flavours gracing his table. He even had a department in his court responsible for developing scents for culinary purposes. In deference to his various Hindu queens, Akbar became a quasi-vegetarian and his alliances saw many regional influences work their way into the palace kitchens such as Paneer Naranj, a paneer kofta with nuts and spices bathed in a rich onion & yoghurt gravy scented with saffron & screwpine. The Portuguese had, by then, introduced potatoes and chilli to the Indian culinary spectrum and both find their way into this recipe, one of my favourite vegetarian dishes from the Mughal repertoire. Here the richness of the kofta with it’s delicate fragrance of cardamom and cloves is accentuated by a cashew gravy bursting with saffron and brightened with a top note of kewda or screwpine. A floral water obtained from the production of screwpine attar, kewra is reminiscent of rose, hyacinth and honey with a sparkling crispness.

    Best eaten with rice, you can add a whiff of decadence to this dish by adding a  splash of rose water to the rice during cooking.

    Spiced paneer & nut dumplings in a fragrant saffron & screwpine sauce

    Ingredients (Serves 4)


    Paneer, grated – 250g

    Pistachio, chopped – 35 g

    Ground Almonds – 40g

    Cloves – 3, ground
    Green cardamom, ground– ½ tsp

    Potatoes, boiled whole, chilled and grated – 150g

    Raisins – 25g

    Ground black pepper – 1/2 tbsp

    Gram flour, lightly toasted in a pan– 1.5 tbsp

    Ground asafoetida– pinch

    Salt – 1 tsp


    Spice paste

    Onion sliced – 1

    Cashews – 1/2 tbsp

    Cloves – 3

    Cinnamon – 1/2 inch

    Pepper – 1/2 tsp

    Green Caramom – 2

    Black Cardamom – 1

    Ghee – 1 tbsp

    Ginger, finely chopped – 1 tsp

    Fennel seed, ground – 1/2 tbsp

    Coriander seed, ground  – 1/2 tbsp
    Jaggery or soft brown sugar – 1 tsp

    Natural yoghurt – ½  cup whisked with ½ tbsp gram flour

    Deggi Mirch chili powder (or any mild chilli powder) – 1 tsp
    Turmeric – ½ tsp

    Saffron strands– 1/2 tsp

    Kewda/Screwpine water – 1 tsp (available at all Indian grocery stores and many supermarkets)

    Single cream – 300ml

    Garam masala – ¼ tsp
    Salt – 1 tsp


    To make the dumplings, mix and knead all the ingredients in the dumplings section until thoroughly mixed. Divide the mix into 10-12 and shape into balls, making sure to squeeze and pack the mix as you shape them. Chill the dumplings for an hour before deep frying them until golden. Drain on kitchen paper and reserve.

    To make the spice paste, heat the ghee in a pan and add the whole spice in the spice paste section. When they start to crackle, ad the onion and fry until the onion is browned. Add the ginger, turmeric and yoghurt and cook for a further 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the deggi mirch/chilli powder, single cream, sugar, salt, saffron, fennel coriander, and a splash of water. Bring the mix to a gentle simmer and then blend until you get a smooth sauce. Strain the sauce through a sieve and return to the pan. Add the garam masala and kewda water. Before serving, add the fried dumplings to the sauce and gently warm through. Adjust the seasoning if necessary. Finish with a squeeze of lime and freshly chopped coriander.