Sarabhendra Pakasasthram - Part I

May 2, 2013

Sarabhendra Pakasathram, a publication of Saraswathi Mahal Library is a compilation of two valuable manuscripts in Marathi language from 1816 AD and 1825 AD. These hand-written manuscripts are literal documentations of oral statements by Raja Serfoji’s palace cooks Narayana Ayya and Chimnu Appa and Butler Venkataswami of his English kitchen. The publication was edited by A. Krishnaswani Mahadik Rao Sahib, a descendant of the Thanjavur Maratha kings.


The Maratha dynasty ruled Thanjavur from 1674 to 1855 AD. This period was the golden age in the history of Thanjavur. The Maratha kings did not superimpose their native culture on the Tamil people of the region; instead they adopted and patronized the culture, arts, literature, music, dance and cuisine of the Tamils as their own and contributed to their advancement. They worshipped at and endowed south Indian temples generously. All the rulers identified themselves with the people of the region and took pride in taking titles such as Cholarajendadu and Chola simhasanathipathi (one who sits on the throne of the Cholas).


Raja Serfoji (1798–1832) maintained three different kitchens at his palace – one - purely non-vegetarian kitchen, two - Brahmin vegetarian kitchen, and three- English kitchen. There were large store rooms called kottiyam for storing grains, oils, condiments and groceries, which procured the choicest and unadulterated culinary ingredients. In addition to the three main kitchens there were also three separate smaller kitchens – sherbet khana, obdhar khana and thattimahal khana - for sherbet, water and milk. The palace maintained strict watch over the quality and purity of these liquid ingredients. The Raja also employed a taster who tasted each and every dish before it was sent to his dining table. The tasting was to verify if any dish was poisoned or unhealthy for the Raja’s consumption. Cooks in the English kitchen were sent to Fort St. George military kitchen for training. In 1801 the Raja also sent two of his proficient cooks to the British governor’s kitchen to prepare Thanjavur Maratha dishes for the Governor’s table.


Raja Serfoji was a true gourmet and he employed several scribes to manually write down the recipes and statements of his numerous palace cooks. These documents written in ancient modi script used for Marathi language include details such as names, salaries and specialties of each cook under his employment. Detailed information on royal household ceremonies, festivals and the food prepared at these events were also recorded in detail by the scribes. The Raja also collected several old works on cookery in English. Although the Raja had employed a master sweet maker, the recipes for both sweets and savory snacks were not documented. Collectively these five hundred plus document bundles are called Modi records and are stored at the Saraswathi Mahal library. Sarabhendra Pakasathram is based on only two such records from the Modi records collection. Because of the scarcity of people proficient in the Modi script, several more Modi documents remain at the library waiting to be deciphered.


According to A. Krishnaswani Mahadik Rao Sahib the Maratha rulers did not introduce Maharashtra style food in their realm. Calling the food prepared in the palace kitchens “Thanjavur Maratha food” is in a way a misnomer. The food preparations of Maharashtra region are quite different from the Thanjavur Maratha food prepared at the palace kitchens. Thanjavur Maratha dishes are all of Tamil Nadu origin, prepared with local ingredients, by ingenious Tamil cooks under watchful supervision. The only one thing they have in common with Maharashtra food is their Marathi names. Although the non-vegetarian kitchen was also called Maratha kitchen, it prepared rare Thanjavur style meat and seafood dishes practically unknown in the Maharashtra region. Some of the Thanjavur Maratha non-vegetarian preparations have more similarity with Mugalai dishes. During later years this type of Thanjavur food was served at restaurants called “Military Hotels” in south India. These recipes used rather expensive ingredients. Over time with the high cost of ingredients, many owners of such restaurants closed their establishments. Unlike in Maharashtra cuisine, the typical south Indian souring agent tamarind was used liberally in various dishes. (This makes me wonder about the validity of the articles and statements about the south Indian staple sambar being Raja Sambaji’s amti made with tamarind instead of traditional Maharashtrian ingredient kokum. More about sambar in another post).


Sarabhendra Pakasathram is divided into three parts. Section one non-vegetarian dishes, section two- vegetarian dishes, and section three- English preparations. Recipes and culinary techniques described in Sarabhendra Pakasathram coming up in the next segment.


Resources

Achaya, K.T. Indian Food: A Historical Companion. Oxford University Press 1994

Rao Sahib, A. Krishnaswami Mahadik. Sarabhendra Pakasasthram, Saraswathi Mahal Library, Thanjavur

Photo of Thajavur Palace
By http://www.flickr.com/photos/melanie-m/ [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

AMMINI RAMACHANDRAN