ROHINI RANA’S RECIPES FROM THE PALACES OF NEPAL
Her unwavering dedication and passion for preserving centuries old culinary traditions of Rana palaces culminated into the recently unveiled ‘Rana Cookbook: Recipes from the Palaces of Nepal’ comprising 136 recipes. In the book, Rohini Rana documents the signature styles of cooking, presentation, and culinary tips of Rana palaces.
The book attempts to showcase the extraordinarily rich culinary traditions of the nine Rana Prime Ministers who served the country and in the process presents the variety and distinctness of royal cuisine.
Much to the delight of food lovers, the original royal recipes featured in the book unfold the exotic traditional creations from the royal Rana kitchens. Some of these are secret recipes that have never been published before.
Rohini was born in Agra to the Indian royal house of Awagarh and is married to Gaurav SJB Rana who went on to become Nepal’s Army Chief from 2012 to 2015. In this edition of WOW she talks to Ankita Jain about the making of the cookbook, the detailing, the influence of Indian flavours and her research on a second cookbook. Excerpts:
Your quest for Rana cookbook started 28 years ago. Tell us about it.
I was living in an army barrack in a quaint bungalow built by the Ranas in Suparitar Army Base in Hetauda. My husband was the Colonel and busy with his soldiering while my two daughters were in boarding school. I often used to go for long walks and the idea of a cookbook germinated during one of those walks. With time heavy on my hands, I wrote the introduction to this book 29 years ago and even today the introduction is untouched. I even outlined the book and drafted the recipe list then. I divided the book into segments. I also noted down the names of the people in the family who are good at cooking; the people I would be contacting for recipes. There are nine Rana Prime Ministers and the idea was to get at least one recipe from each.
Unfortunately it was put aside for a good 29 years since familial priorities stepped in. Dealing with other things, as a woman you always tend to put yourself last. Finally, after my husband retired from the Nepal Army six years ago, I resumed my research of old recipes and completed the quest I had started years ago. But many of the people, who were supposed to contribute to the recipes, had passed away.
How did you fill that gap of the people who were supposed to contribute the actual recipe and had passed away?
There were people in their respective families who passed on the recipes. Each house in the Ranas has a specialty of its own. Singha Mahal is famous for its mutton pie; Kaiser Mahal for aloo tareko and Baber Mahal was famous for fusion food named charamacroni- a fusion of chicken and macroni. My grand-mother in law used to cook it with all Nepali spices and that was very special and different. Another specialty of her was fish bake.
Can all royal recipes be recreated in today’s time?
Very easily it can be recreated. I have got feedback that these recipes are not at all complicated and can be followed with ease. There are a few exotic recipes, the wild boar and kacho bari which are way too intensive and time consuming.
Earlier people had a lot of time, ladies didn’t go out for work and they could easily devote all of their time in the making of these exotic recipes. For instance, kacho bari is pieces of meat which is hand pounded and hence consumes a lot of time. I have also given alternatives and suggestions in the book to make it easy.
With an Indian background, how was your transition to a Nepali way of life?
Our cultures are so similar, the religion and even the script is the same. At home everyone speaks English so it wasn’t a hassle in the beginning. The big things are all the same, it’s the little things that make the difference. For instance, the style of eating. Here, lunch was at 9:30 am and this came as a huge shock to me as I used to love my breakfast and suddenly I realised there is no breakfast happening.
In some ways it was very open and modern and in some ways it was very strict and conservative. So, it is very similar yet very different.
Your thoughts on the cross fusion that took place in royal kitchens
When I did the research for the book, I found that during the regime of Jung Bahadur in 1857, Muslim khansamas (cooks) from Mughal India were brought in Nepal. These cooks were given a separate kitchen, somewhere in the lawn in the Rana palaces. The food cooked by the khansamas was never served when people were eating rice. It used to be served during khaja.
Talking about the main kitchen, the Rana house kitchens were very traditional and ritualistic. And only the lady of the house or Brahmin lady or gentleman (baje and bajai) could cook. They would cook in the special bhanchas and no one could touch the food especially the rice.
During this period, these Muslim chefs worked with the baje and bajai in the Rana palaces in their separate kitchen. They worked together and created what we called today’s Rana fusion.
The book speaks of culinary influences from the British as well as the Mughals…
In one of the houses in Singha Mahal, there used to be a Goan cook. This way the pies and sandwiches also got incorporated. That was the only British influence otherwise it was more of Mughal India.
What were the utensils used for cooking and serve ware in traditional Rana palaces?
I researched not only about the food but also about how they ate. They used to have huge family kitchen with sittings on the floor or on a wooden pirka (stool) and the food used to be served by the Brahmin cooks. My husband often remembers how they used to sit for meal earlier, seniority wise.
The crockery used for lunches and dinner was invariably silver, because the belief was that it had antibacterial properties. Well, it was all scientifically thought out. The silver platters called chapris or thaals were locally crafted. Crystals were used for tea-time snacks and imported from Czechoslovakia. The cooking utensils were crafted with brass, copper and iron by local craftsmen. Kalo dal was always cooked in the iron pot to get that colour and it also used to be nutritious.
What further research took place during the making of this book?
I cooked a number of times to get the exact taste and measure right and then the photography.
Your signature dish…
In Nepali cuisine, I am known for wild boar sekuwa, tareko bandel and momos. And jangali maas among Indian dishes. Jangali maas comprises meat, salt, ghee and green chilies. The four ingredients are what it takes to make this mouth-watering dish.
My husband and my son-in-laws are fond of my cooking. Earlier, I never used to cook Nepali food because when we were in the joint family, the baje and bajai used to cook so much better than me. However, for parties I used to cook Indian or continental dishes.
Now that I have come up with the Cookbook, everyone expects me to cook a Rana meal. Besides, I have a book that I follow for Indian cooking. The book is from the House of Maharajas. When there’s a big party, I like to look back at the book and do the magic. I also have a collection of cookbooks.
You are further working on your second book which revolves around recipes of different tribes, would you like to share any anecdotes?
The Rana Cookbook was supposed to be launched last year on May 15. I was really upset about the delay. However, utilising my time during the lockdown, I started outlining my second book. I am planning to have recipes from different ethnic food communities of Nepal. My husband often says that for the first book I was the official taster which made me put on ten kilos and for the second I am going to be her official driver and drive her all around Nepal.
How healthy are these recipes in the modern context of eating healthy?
These aren’t every day recipes. Once in an occasion, these recipes can be cooked and enjoyed.
How important is presentation of food?
It is indeed very important. When I did a course in America for cooking, the teacher there said cooking is an art; it should appeal to all your senses. I abide by it.
Who has been your greatest influence in the kitchen?
My husband’s nanny, Chiniya Champa didi has been my greatest influence in the kitchen. She came as young as 16-17 years old to Baber Mahal and got trained under my grand-mother in-law and all the senior members of the house. Whatever I know about Nepali cooking, I learnt from her. She was a good cook and knew everything.
Three of your most favourite spices: Chilli, timur, til (sesame)
Personal favourite recipe from the book: Bandel sekuwa, it’s my brother-in-law’s specialty and it melts in the mouth. Among the vegetarian food, I love the aloo tareka.
Qualities of a good cook: Patience, imagination and dedication
Non-negotiable in the kitchen: Taste
An absolute no-no: Unhygienic practices