Nawab Jaffar Imam of the Durbar of Kamadhia in Surat and wife Anees Begum serve a meal at their magnificent Apollo Bunder residence, says the author, that establishes the Gujarati saying, “Surat nu jaman ane Kashi nu maran” (to dine in Surat and die in Varanasi, is the way to heaven)
Being a port town with the river Tapti flowing through it, the traditional Nawabi Surti cuisine incorporated several seafood recipes in its main course. Sea fish was preferred to river fish. Tiny delicate prawns were cooked to perfection in the pulao. Traditional Mughal recipes using mutton were adapted to seafood.
Here again several Kathiawari influences can be found in some of the recipes, like machli ki bhajia, which is very much like the regular Gujarati bhajia, vegetables mixed with a spiced batter and deep fried, but has finely cut pieces of Bombay duck (a variety of fish) instead of vegetables. Similarly, mudfish, or nevte, that was washed ashore and picked up while still squirming, is marinated with red chilli powder, a very important ingredient in Kathiawar cuisine, along with garlic and ginger, and then deep fried.
Tali machli, usually surmai or pomfret, is marinated, then coated with red chillies and deep fried. While the machli ki bhajia and tali machli are usually eaten as snacks, nevte is served as a side dish with the main course.
Traditionally, meals were often eaten by hand and the spices and seafood left a strong fragrance on the fingers. In an effort to counter that, a battery of royal retainer walk to each guest at the table with the chilamchi aftaaba (washing bowl and jug) and a monogrammed towel.
One would hold the bowl while another would pour rose-fragrant water from the jug for the guests to wash their hands, careful not to splash, the third brought the towel to dry their hands. After the meal, several attars, natural perfume oils derived from botanical sources, were offered on a silver tray to the guests to choose a fragrance and smear a tiny drop on the back of their hand, the most popular being rose which represents the fragrance of Prophet Muhammad’s family.
Excerpted with permission of the publishers from Dining with Nawabs by Meer Ali and Karam Puri; Roli Books India