A royal blend of sugar, apricot and cream, Khubani Ka Meetha, the sweetest food connection to the Nizam and the city of Hyderabad, is the simplest of desserts. Its striking plainness is in great contrast to the high on drama preparations and culinary techniques that royal India has given us, including the 'asarfi dal' and 'santre ka keema'. It is hard to understand how royalty, which fed saffron soaked pellets to their poultry to get fragrant meat, would settle for something so simple in desserts. Khubani Ka Meetha earmarked a new chapter of Indian cuisine -- an interesting paradox of dishes with drama, and dishes with sophistication. It is said to have spearheaded the latter. In many parts of the world, it is still considered one of the finest odes to the Persian love for apricots.
This particular “pudding” was a pleasant deviation from the usual that had held the attention of the royal court, right from Persia to Mughals, and even the early Nizam. Back then, puddings usually had a cornstarch-thickened base ('judabh'), eggs, and were mostly served in a manner that resembles the modern day pie. An excellent example -- the Delhi Pudding -- a compote of apples boiled for two hours with black currants and served in a pastry case (a roux’s pastry most likely). Older books like Mirzanama and Kitabh al Tabikh reveal details of the various sweetmeat techniques that were popular during the time, including the trick of making marzipan by pounding soaked de-skinned almonds into milk till they had a dough-like consistency. This led to the creation of the other sweets of the Nizam’s table, like 'badam ki jali' and 'asarfiya', which replicated the gold coin in use then.
One of the explanations given for the simplicity of the dessert is the many European influences that the Nizam court saw during its golden years. The Nizams, one of the richest in the world, were capable of employing jobless khansamas after the Mughal dynasty was over, and some of the great chefs from across the world too. Clearly, it was a kitchen that was high on experiments. The other reason for this could be the Nizam’s need to create their own cultural identity, which included a distinct food culture that did not look like a spillover from Mughal cuisine or Awadhi. The early Nizam along with the Nawab of Lucknow and Rampur organised Khansama competitions. It was a conscious attempt to building a legacy.
Khubani Ka Meetha isn’t a pudding – it is a dessert that laid the path for future variations. In fact, there is a similar preparation for banana as well. It is said to be a breakfast favourite of the Nizams. Another reason why khubani or dried apricot was given lot of importance was the timeless obsession that the Persians and Arabs have had with the fruit, which in ancient times was referred to as the “eggs of the sun.”
Though the ancient world loved its fruit fresh, apricot was an exception, given its delicate nature of ripening too soon. Soon after the fruit arrived in the Persian and Roman court, roughly around the 4th century, the technique of drying was developed and used to preserve this amazingly sweet-and-slightly-sour fruit. Such was the demand for this exotic fruit that it was used as a currency by the Arab merchants – and was a privilige of the rich and wealthy only.
Khubani was introduced in the Mughal court by Humayun’s Persian-Iranian wife, Hamida, who gave the rustic cooking a sophisticated flair. It was with Hamida that the emperor could enjoy quite a few delicacies, including the Turkish and Persian puddings. It is said that Hamida’s khubani gave sustenance when Humayun had to flee to Kabul. The khubani thus became a highly-valued fruit in the Mughal dynasty. Any food that incorporated khubani was considered exotic. Even when mounds of refined sugar appeared on table during Jahangir's time, who insisted on having a little mound placed on his dining table along with a food store present around the dining area, the idea of having sweet was having the fruit of the season. The only other way fruits were consumed from the abdar khana was in form of rice pudding, halwa, as stuffed pie or sherbet, or as part of an elaborate dish where the fruit would add a new taste dimension. Aurangzeb’s Quboli was one such example. It took the biryani and turned it gourmet by adding Bengal gram, khubani, basil, almond and curd.
The best use of khubani in Asaf Jahi's times was in kheer, and as sherbet. It was even soaked in saffron- infused milk, much like Nurjahan’s favourite anjeer and Kashmiri alubukhara.
What made khansamas try boiling the soaked khubani instead of pounding it could be a possible French influence, which made its debut into the British-siding Nizam court by the sixth Nizam, known for his food-loving nature. He would patronise cuisine as much as architecture and culture, the addition of cold cream ('balai' fresh cream gathered from boiled milk whisked into a cloud like lightness and cream like richness) seems to be a traditional influence. Many in the know explain the coming together of milk and apricot for this pudding as the Nizams' love for both 'balai', and khubani. It could have been also inspired by the 'shahi tukda', which was among the more popular desserts that combined something warm with cold to create the heavenly feel. What could have happened behind the closely-guarded kitchen doors to lead to such a combination that did not need any nuts or other embellishment is still a mystery to most.
It has that perfect sweetness. Arriving at that perfect sweetness is the biggest challenge even today, where much of the pudding flavour works on two factors -- the time until the khubani is cooked, and the making of 'balai'. Both these things need such mastery, that even today, those in the know have their own shops from where they pick the ingredients, especially the balai, which comes out best only when done on ice bath.
You could make a Khubani Ka Meetha on how your mood is. That combination of delicate taste profile along with the liberty to customise made Khubani Ka Meetha one of the most sociable desserts, and eventually, the must-be-there dish on every menu that was even remotely connected to the Nizams, and Hyderabad.
(Image credits: Radisson Blu Koshambi)
Madhulika Dash is a writer with over 13 years of experience writing features from tech to cars to health. She is also a seasoned food appreciator who writes on Indian restaurants and cuisines across different platforms. She has also been on the food panel of MasterChef India Season 4.
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!