Rewa in Madhya Pradesh used to be a hunting ground for maharajas, but few were privy to its recipes involving game meat. As the royal cuisine adapts to the times, our contributor samples its flavourful offerings. By Geetika Sachdev
Madhya Pradesh is a treasure trove of stories, and if you dig deep enough, you might find previously untold tales of its rich history. Rewa, a city in the northwestern part of the state, is one such chapter. On the surface it might resemble any other hotbed of industrialisation, but its heart overflows with myriad legends.
The kingdom of Rewa was home to the blue-blooded Baghels, descendants of the Solanki clan, who ruled Gujarat from the 10th to the 13th century. A string of rajas and maharajas ruled this erstwhile princely state, the last being Maharaja Martand Singh Ju Deo, who was most famously known for capturing Mohan, the white tiger.
In fact, the now-popular Bandhavgarh forest once served as the private hunting ground of the royals of Rewa. They would organise shikar, and the men would match their wits and courage with that of their quarry. After striking down their targets, the royals would boast about their records over slow-cooked game dishes prepared by their khansamas (royal cooks). It was this tradition of feasting and feeding others that gave birth to the glorious culinary heritage of Rewa. Maharaja Pushpraj Singh, the royal scion of Rewa says, “Earlier, the royal dishes were mostly non- vegetarian and revolved around game meat. So, an alternative was needed in this day and age. But the spices, style of cooking, and herbs used have been retained. Such delicacies are best served when their original flavour and style are not compromised.”
From soil to stomach
The region of Baghelkhand, where Rewa sits, is a fertile and arable land, criss-crossed with rivers Son and Tons as well as their tributaries. This supports the growth of a variety of cereals, dals, and leafy vegetables that form an indispensable part of Bagheli cuisine.
“River Son is an important tributary of River Ganga, and it flows through Sidhi and Shahdol, both of which are rich in black soil, sal forests, bamboo, and even mahua. River Tons flows through the lime belt of Rewa, known for its yellow cotton soil, which is conducive for the growth of wheat and other millets. On the last leg of its journey, it falls from the Vindhyan Plateau, traversing through the tip of the Northern Plains that grow the best varieties of rice,” adds the Maharaja.
The star dish from the royal kitchens of Rewa is Indrahar, loosely translated as ‘food of the gods’. A culinary masterpiece, it is prepared using five lentils—arhar (pigeon pea), masoor (split red lentils), chana (split chickpeas), moong (yellow lentils), and urad (split black lentils) dal—coarsely ground using a silbatta (stone grinder). This mixture is then peppered with a variety of spices, including coriander powder, salt, turmeric, and garam masala, and left undisturbed to ferment overnight. The magic unfolds when these protein cakes are steamed and deep fried, before they are dunked in a curry whipped with gram flour. This delicacy can also be enjoyed as a cocktail snack—minus the gravy.
Noted food critic Marryam H Reshii says of Rewa, “Their vegetarian dishes are exalting to the next level, Indrahar for instance. The royal family came seven centuries ago from Patan, Gujarat, so there’s a visible link between their vegetarian food. All over Gujarat, vegetarian food is very advanced; in fact, all the princely families, including the Muslim ones, prepare vegetarian dishes that are very sophisticated. Even in the case of Indrahar, the process is painstaking, much more than non-vegetarian dishes.”
Another original delicacy of the region, Bagheli chicken, contains generous amounts of khada masala. It is made by dry roasting the spices and grinding them into a fine powder. The chicken dish is marinated in this and cooked low and slow. “We need to understand that most of the ingredients that are used as part of Bagheli cuisine are locally sourced and grown. Originally, the vintage recipes did not have use for chicken, because it wasn’t even available. It is the use of masalas like cardamom and cinnamon, which are found locally, and the technique in which it is cooked that makes the chicken different,” says Sonal Saxena, co-founder of Eat with India.
A typical Bagheli thali boasts an eclectic mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes that might look simplistic but taste unique. The confluence of different cultures— Rajputana, Gujarati, and Afghani—is what makes the royal cuisine of Rewa singular. Whether it is the Son ki macchi (fish), Bagheli chicken, chane ki sabzi (vegetable made from chickpeas), aloo ka chokha (a spiced mashed potatoes dish), or laal saag (red spinach) enjoyed with missi berri roti, the flavours are sure to take your taste buds on a rollercoaster ride. The chutneys and other condiments are also prepared from farm-fresh ingredients such as flaxseeds or chana leaves.
“The food of the royals in Rewa is nutritious and offers several health benefits. In any other royal kingdom, the richness of food is more important, whether it is the gravy or the overuse of dry fruits. In this part of the world, the simplicity of food is what stands out,” says Saxena. For Maharaja Pushpraj Singh, who is at the forefront of popularising the cuisine, it is important to preserve both tradition and taste. He doesn’t want a mishmash of vintage and contemporary dishes; the focus is on homegrown ingredients that are readily available, and on adding a unique quality to the dishes.
Promoting culinary heritage
The royal spread of Rewa might have once been a well-kept secret, but today, consistent efforts are being made by Madhya Pradesh Tourism and the Maharaja of Rewa himself to take Bagheli cuisine to every nook and cranny of India.
In the early part of 2020, two spectacular feasts were organised—one as part of MP Tourism’s The Royale Cuisine Festival in Bhopal, and the other in the heart of Delhi in association with Eat with India. Although they displayed a sharp contrast in setting, what stood out was the finesse with which the Maharaja of Rewa and his khansamas presented the vintage recipes in their (almost) original form.
“There was a lot of curiosity and inquisitiveness in people, because they had never sampled anything of this sort before. Bagheli cuisine has not been heard of much, and it will take some time for it to get popular. The journey has begun, but there’s still a long way to go. It’s certainly a positive start,” adds Saxena. Rewa’s royalty is deeply entrenched in its unique cuisine, and the only fitting tribute would be to consume their edible stories.
The airports closest to Rewa are in Khajuraho (167 km), Prayagraj (171 km), Jabalpur (229 km), and Varanasi (231 km). You can hire a car or take a bus from any of these to reach Rewa.
Hotel Rewa Raj Vilas, owned by the Maharaja of Rewa, is situated in the heart of the city. Maharaja Suite from INR 3,500;