Many Indian dishes can be traced back, indirectly, to a 16th-century, food-obsessed ruler of the Mughal Empire named Babur (r. 1526–1530).
Babur Being Entertained in Ghazni, from the Persian-language Baburnama, the memoirs of Ẓahīr al-din Muhammad (Source: Public Domain).
Zahir al-Din Muhammad, the 16th century Central Asian prince better known as Babur, is renowned for his fierce pedigree and proclivities. Descended from both Timur and Genghis Khan, he used military genius to overcome strife and exile, conquer northern India, and found the Moghul dynasty, which endured for over 300 years. He was a warlord who built towers of his enemies’ skulls on at least four occasions. Yet he was also a cultured man who wrote tomes on law and Sufi philosophy, collections of poetry, and a shockingly honest memoir, the Baburnama, in which he appears to us as one of the most complex and human figures of the early modern era.
Through the Baburnama, we learn that Babur was versed in courtly Persian speech and custom, yet nonetheless a populist who built strong ties with nomads and championed the vernacular Chagatai Turkic tongue in the arts. He was a pious man, but was also given to libertine escapades, including massive, wine-fueled parties.
But the first—and arguably one of the most culturally consequential—personal details he reveals is that he was a food snob. Babur loved the foods of his homeland and hated those he found when he had to reestablish himself in India, which to him was mostly a way station on the bloody road back to the melon patches of his youth. He didn’t just whinge about missing foods from home, though. He imported and glorified them in his new kingdom, laying the groundwork for his descendants to warp Indian cuisine so profoundly that they redefined that culinary tradition, as many know it worldwide, to this day.
A depiction of Babur meeting Sultan ‘Ali Mirza near Samarqand, from the Baburnama (Public Domain).
The Baburnama opens with a description of Ferghana, a region now split between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, where Babur grew up. Known then and now as the breadbasket of Central Asia, it follows that Babur would touch on agriculture. But in introducing his hometown of Andijan, Babur opens with a note on the quality of its grapes and melons before turning his attention to its layout and fortifications. He then ducks back to praise its game meats, especially its pheasants, which “are so fat, that the report goes that four persons may dine on the broth of one of them and not be able to finish it.” Only then does he tell us of the people who live there.
Almost anytime he describes a place back home, he starts with vittles. Margilan is known for its dried apricots, pitted and stuffed with almonds. Khojand’s pomegranates are proverbially good, but they pale next to Margilan’s. And Kandbadam is tiny and insignificant, but it grows the best almonds in the region, so it’s worth mentioning. Fabrizio Foschini, in a report on Afghanistani melons authored in 2011:
“Early sections of his Baburnama really sound like a consumer guide to the fruit markets of Central Asia.”
A detail of date trees illustrated in the Baburnama (Public Domain).
Babur doesn’t forget food once he gets into the meaty war stories, either. He breaks one narrative to note that the area around a castle he just besieged grew a unique melon with puckered yellow skin, apple-like seeds, and pulp as thick as four fingers.
The Baburnama is not solely concerned with food. The bulk of it is a painstaking record of families and feuds, and Babur dwells on other seemingly random details that tickled him, such as a courtier’s talent at leapfrog. Since we don’t have a similarly honest accounting from his peers, it’s hard to say whether Babur’s epicureanism was atypical.
Given the chaos he grew up in, though, it’s incredible that Babur could spare any thought for food. Thrust to power at age 11 (by the Gregorian calendar), in 1494, he had to navigate bloody infighting among his relatives. Known as the Timurid princes after their conqueror-ancestor Timur, they jockeyed against each other for regional control. Babur became an active participant in this Central Asian game of thrones—he seemed particularly obsessed with taking the regional cultural capital of Samarkand. While he seized it in 1497, he lost the city almost immediately, as well as Ferghana, and (a very long story short) spent the rest of his teenage years reclaiming or losing bits of territory, fleeing into exile with remote nomadic tribes, and trying to court new followers and surge back. Although he never stopped trying to reclaim Samarkand and his homeland, by 1504, at age 21, he’d effectively been forced out of the region for the rest of his life.
A portrait of Babur (Source: Public Domain).
That year, he pulled off a fantastic feat of warlord jiujitsu, flipping a rival’s forces into his service and marching on Kabul, which was vulnerable after undergoing its own contentious power shift. Babur took the city, and, naturally, set to cultivating its produce scene. In and around the city, he built at least 10 grand gardens that included a fair number of fruiting plants.
While Babur’s writings suggest a personal obsession with food, it’s hard to disentangle this obsession from homesickness. There were also political reasons for him to pay so much attention to cuisine: Food snobbery was a standard way for a Timurid prince such as Babur to make his mark and prove his elite bona fides in a new land. “The Timurids, while ethnically Turkic, based their legitimacy to a large extent on their being champions of Persianate ‘high’ culture,” says Central Asian historian Richard Foltz, “which included taste in food.”
Kabul proved ill endowed to support a successful campaign back to Ferghana, though. So Babur turned his attention to neighboring India. He got a lucky break when a new king—an inept man who clearly had dissenters and rebels in his ranks—came to power in the northern Sultanate of Delhi. Babur struck at this weakness, invading the region through the early 1520s. Despite being out-manned by a ratio of perhaps five-to-one in his final standoff with the sultan, he usurped the throne in 1526.
Babur entering Kabul (Public Domain).
According to Foltz, Central Asians mostly looked down on Indians, who were neither Muslims nor Persianate. Babur, his recent biographer Stephen Dale notes, was also still deeply homesick. These factors, and possibly personal tastes, led him to dismiss his new territory, and especially its food: “Hindustan is a country that has few pleasures to recommend it. …