Mir Taqi Mir’s Jasmine Pilaf

While reading the memoirs of Mir Taqi Mir, a great Indian poet who lived in 18th century Delhi, I came across a charming anecdote about a jasmine pilaf. Once you read it, you’ll know right away why the description captured my attention.

“They used to prepare a fine jasmine pilaf at the house of A’zam Khan Sr. They would put jasmine flowers in some oil and let it sit for a few days so it would absorb the fragrance. Then they would use the oil to cook the rice, which gave it a fine aroma. Burhan-ul-Mulk heard its praise and made a request to A’zam Khan Sr., who then had some prepared and sent over in several big platters. Burhan-ul-Mulk ate it with relish, then remarked in a jocular vein, “It’s not a platter of pilaf; it’s the blessesd grave of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya.” The remark was greatly enjoyed, for people in fact used to bring jasmine flowers in great quantities to cover that revered person’s grave. It would then look like a heap of flowers, and their fragrance would transport passersby even at some distance.”

As was customary among the literati of his time, Mir Taqi Mir wrote his memoirs in Persian. His most celebrated poetry, on the other hand, is in Urdu, and Mir’s is some of the most beautiful and mellifluous writing in that language. He possessed a gift for what is called in Urdu as ravani, or flow. If he writes about the sea, for instance, one can feel the undulations of the waves in the melody of his language. That being said, Mir didn’t hesitate to touch upon earthy topics. He also wrote several poems dedicated to his cat. (And if you must know, “heaven’s pale cat” was his metaphor for the sun, demonstrating that the internet-age obsession with felines is nothing new.)

Mir’s memoirs likewise touch upon a wide range of topics, from cerebral to raunchy. In fact, some anecdotes he shares are so racy that they haven’t been shared before. This year, Harvard University’s Murty Classical Library of India published Mir’s original Persian memoirs and Urdu ghazals along with excellent English translations.

Even if Mir’s Delhi is now a different city, one can still find jasmine garlands covering the grave of the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya so thickly that at certain times of day their scent overpowers the aromas of biryani cooked in the lanes nearby. Mir would have been delighted.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

 

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33 Comments

  • Tourmaline: Dear Victoria,

    Thank you for this interesting post about Mir Taqi Mir. The only Mir I’d heard of before was the space station! What were you going to say about Mir’s original Persian memoirs? You began, “It’s a heady melange of poetry,…”.

    For Christmas in 1975, when I was 14, my father gave me a very large, hardback book about Persia – “Persia, The Immortal Kingdom”, from 1971, by Roman Ghirshman.

    https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/51liqkMlhjL._SX218_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_ML2_.jpg

    It comes in a sturdy slip case. It has many interesting and beautiful photos, along with information. You might have it yourself. (If not, and you are interested in acquiring it, there are copies available at Abe Books.) Sadly, I think some of the buildings and monuments shown in the book might since have been destroyed.

    By the way, I currently have an unopened pack of jasmine rice. Could you recommend a simple recipe – perhaps one that involves eggs, if they go well with jasmine rice? You might be able to refer me to a recipe that you have posted previously.

    Thanks again.

    With kind regards,
    Tourmaline September 28, 2020 at 9:13am Reply

    • Victoria: I cook jasmine rice in water (1 c rice, 1.5 c water), no salt, no oil, just plain. That’s the best way to enjoy its scent. Then you can just top with a fried egg and serve with a side dish of green vegetables. That’s my comfort food.

      I’m not familiar with that particular book, but I have a few others that are similar. If it features historical buildings, they should still be standing. Iran is an incredible place to explore for its architectural heritage–much of it well-protected. September 28, 2020 at 9:34am Reply

      • Tourmaline: Thank you for that recipe; it will be tomorrow’s lunch!

        I’m glad that the historical buildings are probably still standing in Iran. I must have been thinking of the destruction of statues and carvings that occurred in Iraq. September 28, 2020 at 9:44am Reply

        • Victoria: Iran never willfully destroyed its historical buildings and monuments. Like I said, its architectural heritage is generally well-preserved. I spent most of my time in Iran exploring it, since there was so much to see. It’s a land with almost 10,000 years of documented history! September 28, 2020 at 10:21am Reply

          • Tourmaline: Yes, but I was just mentioning the damage that occurred in Iraq (not Iran). September 28, 2020 at 11:02am Reply

            • Victoria: I forgot to mention that I’ve read other books by Roman Ghirshman. He’s one of the most famous specialists on Iranian history and has a number of excellent books and articles. He’s originally from Kharkiv, Ukraine, and in 1917 he moved to Paris to study archaeology and ancient languages. Then the Bolshevik Revolution broke out and he stayed in France. His own story is quite incredible. September 28, 2020 at 2:40pm Reply

              • Tourmaline: That is so interesting! Fancy him being from Ukraine… I must read about him sometime. Wiki has hardly anything on him. September 29, 2020 at 1:35am Reply

                • Victoria: The sources on him might be mostly in French, since he made his career there. September 29, 2020 at 4:46am Reply

                  • Tourmaline: Well then, at the moment I could probably read about every second word. More incentive to improve my French! September 29, 2020 at 4:52am Reply

    • Silvermoon: Hi Tourmaline!
      So when you mentioned jasmine rice, it made me think about perfumes with a rice note. I thought of three that I have, although the rice note is more in the impression one gets rather than based on rice (Victoria might better explain it, because I am unsure).

      My three rice note perfumes are Fils de Dieu (ELDO), Champaca (Ormonde Jayne) and Regina (Farmacia SS Annunciata). September 28, 2020 at 2:38pm Reply

      • Victoria: I love Fils de Dieu and Champaca for the rice note. September 28, 2020 at 2:41pm Reply

      • Tourmaline: Hi Silvermoon,

        That is so interesting! I’ve never smelled any of those fragrances and will be interested to do so sometime. September 29, 2020 at 1:31am Reply

      • Fazal: I don’t think I have tried a perfume with a prominent rice note yet but among milky compositions, I love Le Feu d’Issey. September 29, 2020 at 4:55am Reply

        • Silvermoon: Hi Fazal, rice notes are as much in the mind as the nose in some ways. It’s almost like you smell a hint of it, teasing at the edge of your senses. I don’t think of any of the three perfumes I mentioned as having a prominent rice note. It’s subtle and hovers in the background, yet is definitely there. September 29, 2020 at 3:23pm Reply

  • L Singh: How very beautiful, thank you for highlighting the nuances of fragrance in food September 28, 2020 at 9:20am Reply

    • Victoria: My pleasure! I liked that passage very much. September 28, 2020 at 9:28am Reply

      • Silvermoon: Victoria, what an amazing recipe idea! Let flowers lie in oil before cooking them. That jasmine pilaf sounds yummy(actually smells yummy)! September 28, 2020 at 2:43pm Reply

        • Victoria: In Sicily they still use a similar technique to perfume almonds before using them for marzipan. And in Thailand, jasmine is steeped in water and then this water is used for desserts or for savory dishes. I hope that my jasmine will bloom sufficiently for me to try this out. 🙂 September 28, 2020 at 2:50pm Reply

          • Silvermoon: Yes, indeed, I love Sicilian perfumed almond cookies. And all the other ways flowers can enhance food. I hope your jasmine plant cooperates 😊 September 28, 2020 at 2:53pm Reply

            • Victoria: My favorite is watermelon jelly flavored with jasmine. September 29, 2020 at 4:47am Reply

  • L Singh: You are welcome, your website is an instant restorative! recommended you to friends as a fragrant interlude September 28, 2020 at 9:35am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you so much! 🙂 September 28, 2020 at 9:37am Reply

  • Fazal: You are right about Mir’s Urdu poetry. I had forgotten his name but as soon as I saw your post, I recalled about Mir Taqi Mir as one of the poets we covered in Urdu classes in high school. September 28, 2020 at 6:12pm Reply

    • Victoria: His ghazals have such beautiful melody and rhythm. September 29, 2020 at 4:51am Reply

  • Peter: Mahalo Victoria for another evocative post. It sounds like Mir shares the gift of word-imagery with your Ukrainian Johansen.

    Years ago, I had a Persian friend who made a wonderful rice mold with saffron. This jasmine soaked pilaf sounds equally delicious. September 28, 2020 at 10:41pm Reply

    • Tourmaline: It would be nice to have a mould in the shape of a jasmine flower to use for jasmine rice! I’m off to prepare a late jasmine rice lunch with egg, as per Victoria’s recipe… September 29, 2020 at 1:37am Reply

    • Victoria: I also like Persian rice dishes, perfumed with saffron and rosewater. September 29, 2020 at 4:51am Reply

  • Marium: What a lovely post as usual .
    Mir Taqi Mir is one of my favourite Urdu poets
    گل کو محبوب ہم قیاس کیا
    فرق نکلا بہت جو پاس کیا

    It means
    I assumed my lover was like a Rose, but she was so different when I met her in person

    Of course , this verse is from a Ghazal so it may not make sense in isolation .In Urdu poetry , most poets refer their beloveds as a rose flower ! Fragrant but with thorns. 😊 September 29, 2020 at 12:11am Reply

    • Victoria: My other favorite ghazal by him is
      us ka bahr-e-husn sarasar auj o mauj o talatum hai
      shauq kee apne neegah jahan tak jaave bos-o-kanar hai aaj
      (Apologies, I don’t have the Urdu keyboard on my computer, so I can’t type it out properly.)

      The beloved’s beauty and passion of encounters are compared to the waves of the ocean, rising and falling. And the melody of the poem in Urdu seems to contain that sound of the waves. He’s a genius. September 29, 2020 at 4:56am Reply

  • Marium: In Pakistan, Jasmine is a very common plant and one can find it in any garden. We had one in our house and my mother used to make a gajra (a flower bracelet ) to wear . I can not forget it’s aroma , it was just divine .
    We use rose water to add fragrance to our pilaf rice . September 29, 2020 at 12:22am Reply

    • Victoria: I still have chameli gajra that I brought from Pakistan. I’ve dried it, and while its color is lost, the scent still lingers. September 29, 2020 at 4:45am Reply

  • OnWingsofSaffron: Thank you, Victoria! My heartfelt thanks for bringing exceptional culture from far and wide to the foreground! I don‘t want to sound overly politically correct and likewise I don‘t want to be divisive but the overwhelming Western ethnocentrism often eclipses other countries to such a degree that their culture is more or less erased from general perception.
    Your posts pull back those blocking curtains: a mere mentioning that while writers might pen their biography in Persian they’d write poetry in Urdu—how exquisitely elegant! Probably like some Russian artist writing in both French and Russian.
    Or the age old culture of Persia: I still can hardly believe visiting a whopping big and impressively intact ziggurat in Iran (Choga Zanbil) and being able to stand next to and actually touch bricks from around 1250 BC with each 20th brick or so with inscription in cuneiform characters: 3250 years old! How very humbling!! September 29, 2020 at 4:15pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, I’m glad that you’ve enjoyed it. I find that there are so many beautiful works of literature that gets missed unless one is part of that culture or studied it. I find it interesting to know how different people, different artists around the world responded to the same universal themes. And then you discover gems like rice scented with jasmine flowers. September 30, 2020 at 10:48am Reply

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