Chef Vincent Marques waxes eloquent on the phenomenal Begum Cuisine of Bhopal and the journey that transformed him from a chef to a culinary custodian – and its many lessons in sustainability and beyond.
Thanks to his quiet demeanor and penchant for keeping a low-profile, Chef Vincent Marques is a name not many are familiar with – except for his peers in the hospitality industry, denizens of Bhopal and guests at the breathtaking, boutique resort Jehan Numa Retreat and the heritage property Jehan Numa Palace. He has held two profiles at these places since 2013. Chef Marques joined the Jehan Numa Palace as an Executive Chef and eventually took over the managerial reigns of the retreat. The resort is known not just for its beautiful ambience – 12.5-acres of lush greenery with a boundary shared with Van Vihar Urban National Park – and eco-friendly architecture – a combination of mud used to make the property keeps it naturally cool. It’s also a frontrunner in regenerative farming. “In fact,” says the slow food advocate, “the organic land around the retreat has helped us grow almost 70 per cent of our daily produce needs in our farm itself that is strewn all over the property and also has a green house.”
But to the food world, the Goa-born chef is the ultimate guide to knowing, understanding and even sampling the famous Begum cuisine. Among the few fortunate to be trained by the Banu Rashid, mother of Faiz Rashid (descendant of Gen Obaidulla Khan of the Bhopal royal family) and the last custodian of their amazing cuisine and culture, Chef Marques today is among the few who are privy to that food culture and its finer nuances. Not just that but also the ingenuities that make it a more “functional cuisine” vis-a-vis other royal cuisines such as that of Rampur and the Nizams that developed around the same time.
“The beauty of the cuisine developed by the Begums of Bhopal is in its simplicity and lightness. The richness is often from the kind of vegetable or meat parts used and the medium of cooking, which is either ghee or mustard oil. There are very few spices used in the dishes, but what is interesting to observe is the way they are added to get the best of flavouring and aroma.”
“How basic each dish is,” continues the OCLD graduate, “is what really makes the food culture here so inspiring, and, is the key to why the cuisine has survived for such a long time without any new addition made by generations. Chances are, what you eat today is what would have been had by any of the nawab begums who ruled the modern kingdom of Bhopal.”
Fascinatingly enough, Chef Marques admits, “Despite its simplicity, most dishes in the Central Asian food inspired ledger call for no more than five spices and herbs and this includes a good amount of coriander. Mastering each needs a certain amount of maturity, knowledge about meat, produce, spices, weather and even the water of Bhopal that has this interesting sweet pattern that lends brilliantly to the dish and the produce that grows here, especially beetroot.”
All this needed him to first unlearn what he knew about food, and then restart on fresh grounds, recalls the alumni of Academy of Culinary Education (Goa). He had joined Jehan Numa Hotels (then a one hotel property) after garnering a generous amount of experience working across brands such as Oberoi, The Leela and Carnival Cruise Lines, among others.
“Until then, I thought I knew much about food, but the first week in Jehan Numa Palace changed my perception completely.” Much like his predecessor, Chef Marques’ first few months were spent mostly between two kitchens – one of the palace and another at Rashid’s home. Here, under the supervision of Banu Rashid and her cooks, who have been with the family for generations, the European and Goan food specialist began to learn not just about food and the Central Asian lineage that was the biggest influence on the food, but also how newer dishes were added to their traditional ledger courtesy the British who were regular guests at the Begum’s table.
“The evolution of the Begum cuisine through the years is one that is most engaging. Given that the begums are the direct descendants of the Afghans of Muradabad – and Bhopal remained, much through its existence, a popular hunting retreat for royalty and the British, the food is an interesting blend of the rustic hunting cuisine and of Central Asia with a peppering of local ingredients, spices, and local produce. Since Bhopal wasn’t on any trade route like Lucknow and Delhi and was a kingdom under Colonial powers, the food was designed with cleverness. Special attention was paid to each and every ingredient in the basket and how to use it to get the best of aroma, taste and goodness. The Afghan roots added its own little challenge as the royal family wasn’t too fond of cream or extra richness.”
“This,” he continues, “is why most of the dishes that made it to the formal table – except for the ones that were borrowed from British cooking as was the tradition then – is an elevated format of the rustic hunting dishes and is the best showcase of how cooks approached their ingredients.”
An excellent example of this prudence is the Kachche Keema Ki Tikki. Made from coarsely ground meat, this feast special has its roots in hunting cuisine and uses spices and flavourants as sparingly as one would when travelling with a hunting party. The tikki uses chopped onion, chillies and coriander along with rock salt to get that amazing meaty flavour and taste. Likewise, is the case of Filfora – the piece de resistance of any Bhopal royal table – which uses slivers of meat and basic spices with yogurt to get its unforgettable palate play, bite, and taste. The brilliance of the dish comes not as much from the rest of the spices but the quality of meat and the amount of coriander that is used in the recipe.
“Coriander in Begum cuisine,” adds Chef Marques, “is as quintessential as mustard in Bengali food or malt vinegar in Goan Christian food. It is used in every popular dish and is the main herb that we play around with thanks to its abundance here. It is in fact coriander that gives the Bhopali Rizzala its trademark fluorescent green colour, taste and lightness, distinct from the Dhaka or Awadhi version, which has better spice play.”
Another remarkable dish from the Begum’s table is the Chukundar Gosht which is an ode to both their love for red meat and the beetroots of Bhopal that are, adds the chef, inherently darker and sweeter than the other varieties available across the country. Legend has it that when the Nawab of Bhopal established his capital in Bhopal, while he found the meat there gamey, he was astounded by the hue and taste of the beetroot, which grew in abundance around the vacant land. The dish was first devised to mask the gaminess of the meat but eventually turned out to be a favourite treat that was loved both by the Sultan and the Nawab Begums who held court in later years. In fact, it was one of the dishes that made it to the formal tables as well as to other royal families and even the British took a fondness to it.
“What’s peculiar about the dish, aside from its lovely hue,” says Chef Marques, “is that while the beetroot is sweet, when it is paired with the meat, it gives it that interesting earthiness that elevates the taste of the meat.” In fact, Chukundar Gosht is among a selection of dishes, including Junglee Maas, that was devised for hunted meat and has since been tweaked for more popular meats such as goat and chicken. One thing that hasn’t changed, according to the culinary custodian, is the beetroot that is still grown in the retreat gardens that was once a place that housed the stables, a small farm and the route to one of Bhopal’s many royal hunting reserves.
While it is true that the Begum’s cuisine has been inclined towards carnivorous ancestry, the food does have some fascinating vegetarian dishes that are devised in the same vein as their meat peers. Such as the Kachche Baigan Ka Bharta that is made Baba Ghanoush-style albeit flavoured with the regular onions, coriander, salt, and served cold. The other dish is Karela Ka Kachumber where roundels of tender bittergourd are fried and then served tossed in sliced onion, coriander and chaat masala.
This brilliance of turning some of the unconventional ingredients worthy of a royal table extends to the sweet corner as well that, while limited, has its own unmatched charm and distinction. The Shahi Tukda, for instance, has the use of mawa which is flash baked to give it that distinct caramel layer and crunch.
Chef Marques, whose own style of cooking dishes has transformed immensely thanks to his tenure at the Jehan Numa Palace and now Retreat, now focuses on making his entire F&B offering at the hotel more “functional”. “By that,” he adds, “I mean food that is cooked with the freshest of ingredients and with techniques that can reduce the use of cream or any other processed food wherever it is not required without compromising on the taste or goodness of the dish.”
“This dual ability of taste and sustainability,” concludes the hobbyist Sunday farmer, “has been at the foundation of the Begum’s cuisine that while remaining true to its Central Asian roots continued to be the finest showcase of how food culture evolves, limited resources notwithstanding.” Much like their glorious reign itself.