The Sultan Missed a Delight
The Nimat-Namah, known as The Sultan’s Book of Delights, is a late 15th Century book inscribed in Persian, for the Delhi Sultanate represented by Sultan of Mandu, Ghias ud-din Shah and completed under the reign of his son, Sultan Nasir ud-din Shah. Bearing the son’s seal, this gem is housed at the Oriental and India Office Collections of the British Library, containing page after page of fifty intricate miniatures, painted in the distinctive Shirazi school style in jewel-like tones.
Miniature painting from the Nimat-Namah, British Library.
As important, if not more, I believe, was his desire for The Culinary Pleasures. Sultan Ghias ud-din Shah had a coterie of women swirling around him, serving him delicacies of flaky, musk-spiced deer meat samosas and puddings steeped in essence of rose. The Sultan’s kitchen was heavily influenced by the cuisine of the Persian courts.
Regrettably, there are no capsicum-based recipes in the The Sultan’s Book of Delights. The Sultan Missed a Worldly Delight: the capsicum. This bell pepper only came to India in the 16th century, at the tail-end of Sultan Nasir ud-din Shah’s rule. The red capsicum is one of my favourite vibrant vegetables, adding a candy-like vibrancy to a salad, with it’s china-red glossiness or adding a sweet, caramelised note when impaled on a skewer alongside glistening onions and chicken kebabs.
Dolmeh Felfel is an Irani dish of Basmati rice, verdant herbs and fragrant savoury mince, encased in a bell pepper, with the scarlet version being my preferred choice. I have steamed, rather than baked it, in a tomato sauce, in order to preserve the integrity and shape of the capsicum, and perfumed it with delicate emerald leaves of mint.
When served, all this dish asks for is a slathering of creamy, milky yoghurt.
A few cooking notes:
- Please do use the scarlet version of the bell pepper, or even the buttercup-yellow or orange ones. Perhaps one should veer away from the green variety; it has been rightly said that green bell peppers are “merely unripe red peppers”, to which I agree. They impart a sour taste, which in my humble opinion, would not meld nicely with the subtly-spiced stuffing.
- I prefer steaming the pepper to baking it in the traditional manner. I feel this helps the pepper maintain its shape, rather than slumping down over itself with the papery skin escaping from its tender flesh.
- Insert the blade of a sharp knife to test for doneness; if it glides through, it is ready.
- Feel free to use leftover Basmati or savoury mince.
- Mint is a favourite herb in our kitchen, but you can play around with other herbs in this dish; parsely, dill, chives or tarragon.
- I do not use lean meat to prepare this dish. Because of the fat-content of the meat, I do not add any oil when preparing the savoury mince.
Preparation time: 1 hour (includes cooking time for the mince, rice and tomato base.)
Active Time: 30 minutes
*4 red capsicum
*1 lb minced beef or lamb
*1 + 1/4 tsp salt
*1 + 1/2 garlic clove, minced
*1 small onion, finely chopped
*1 13 oz can tomato sauce (set aside 2 tbsp tomato sauce for savoury mince)
*pinch chili pepper
*1 cup water
*2 cups cooked Basmati
*Bushel of fresh mint, in chiffonade form
*Yoghurt for serving alongside dish
Step 1: Prepare the savoury mince:
* In a heavy-bottomed pan add beef (or lamb), 1 tsp salt, 1 minced garlic clove, minced onion, 2 tbsp tomato sauce, a pinch of chili pepper and turmeric, 1 cup water. Stir, cover and leave to cook on a low-medium flame for one hour. Stir/check every 20 minutes;
*When the meat looks ready, turn the heat to medium-high and stir till the water has evaporated;
Step 2: Prepare the tomato base:
*In a pan with a large surface area (this pan will be used later for steaming the peppers), fry on a medium flame, 1/2 clove of garlic till golden and fragrant, add the canned tomato sauce, 1/4 tsp salt and a pinch of cinnamon. Stir for 5 minutes. Leave to rest;
Step 3: Prepare the Basmati
*Here is the link to the earlier post on how to prepare Basmati.
Step 4: Assemble
*Once the rice has cooled, add the savoury mince and toss lightly with a fork, so as not to break the delicate Basmati grains. Add the mint chiffonade;
*Cut carefully around the bell pepper’s stem to create a lid. Remove it, and slice the thick white skin underneath it. Wash the inside of the pepper, removing any seeds;
*Spoon the stuffing into the pepper and replace the lid.
Step 5: Steam
*Place the capsicums upright in the pan with the tomato base, add half a cup of boiling water, cover with a lid and let the peppers steam for 25 minutes over a low- to medium-flame.
*Serve with lashings of creamy yoghurt.