On a breezy evening in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2022, moments before sunset, a tornado warning amid heavy rainfall was in effect. In the wedding catering world, even a 45-minute delay can signal Armageddon, but Moghul Catering, the Edison, New Jersey-based Indian catering company, took a more sanguine approach. A handful of Moghul’s employees had flown down to the state’s Great Smoky Mountains three days before the wedding, and brought in local labor to build tents, a water supply, and electricity atop a cliff. Its kitchen team sourced Moringa, uncommon in American Southern cuisine, and flew in more esoteric ingredients like hing (or asafoetida) and amchur (dry, raw mango powder). On the day of the warning, the planner guided more than 100 guests into a makeshift bunker before the rain passed and the Telugu feast commenced.
The catering business is not for the faint of heart, but catering for Indian weddings — with the country’s roughly 30 regional cuisines and sizable guest lists — make it an Olympic-level feat of its own. Moghul, though, is well prepared for this unique undertaking. On a more typical wedding day in April, Moghul’s team will feed more than 800 dishes over four meals to what they regard as a relatively small number of about 250 guests. “It’s only the first week of [Indian] wedding season,” Moghul senior manager Dimple Laikhuram Pingle tells me, adding that they had seven weddings this “slow” week and about 22 per week during peak season in May.
Now in its 40th year, Moghul is a popular choice for all kinds of Indian celebrations, with 30 cooks catering to as many as 5,000 guests. The operation started in 1983, when Sneh Mehtani opened her first restaurant, the Moghul Room, in New York City’s Hotel Pennsylvania. At the same time, she and her husband, Satish, a couple who had emigrated from Delhi in north-central India to New Jersey, started catering dinners for their acquaintances from the community. New Jersey was then a burgeoning haven for South Asians; now it’s home to more South Asians than most other U.S. states.
Through the 1980s, as word spread about the Mehtanis’ stellar cooks and ever-growing menus, so did their business. In 2002, they opened their first restaurant in Edison, named Moghul. The Edison location began catering elaborate Indian buffets with a lofty number of regional dishes that were hard to come by outside of India. The couple would go on to open Ming, an Indian Chinese eatery, and a handful of other restaurants. But Moghul Catering as it is today really took off in 2007, when Kamal Arora bought the wedding business from the Methanis after initially joining as a catering manager in 2005. As CEO, he brought in new culinary talent from India and expanded the number of locations in the restaurant group into the double digits.
At 5 a.m. this April morning, Moghul’s executive chef, Thomas Rodriguez, hands the day’s itinerary to his cooks to study. The 116-page menus begin with breakfast, a cornucopia of usual suspects like parfaits, sculpturally carved fruit, and welcome snacks like tangy, Indian Chinese water chestnut chaat and jalapeno samosas. From there, following the wedding ceremony, the caterers will serve lunch, a cocktail hour spread, a reception dinner, and finally, dessert.
The team gets started in the kitchen of Moghul’s Edison headquarters by frying up samosas and finishing up any curries left simmering overnight. By 5:45, Pingle and Moghul’s sales manager, Neeraj Shokeen, stack extra large Tupperware boxes of curry bases and unassembled dish components they’d prepped the night before into a truck. They drive to Shadowbrook at Shrewsbury, the coveted Indian American wedding venue reminiscent of a Bridgerton set and the backdrop of the Desai-Singh wedding.
At 11 a.m., wedding guests wearing pastel-colored sherwanis and lehengas line up for breakfast. The Sikh groomsmen wear powder pink paghs, or turbans, often donned as a sign of respect. Lunch will follow only an hour later.
Moghul shares the kitchen with Shadowbrook’s in-house catering company, which is prepping food for an event the following day, and the two remain siloed at different ends of the kitchen. Both groups, dressed in the same black uniform, cook two vastly different menus in tandem. Hulking tomahawk steaks sizzle away on a grill while dal makhani simmers inches from the vegetarian-only lunch. Ramisha Patel, the Gujarati food chef, pours cauldrons of homemade ghee into a giant vat, an act she will repeat throughout the day. She then tips fried cheese koftas, resembling deep-fried gnudi, into a creamsicle-orange butter sauce. These are pillars of Indian wedding food, or shaadi ka khana, where indulgence is not only accepted but encouraged.
Patel begins prepping for undhiyu, a Gujarati staple. The comforting dish, packed with sinus-clearing spice, is traditionally made upside down in an earthen pot (“undhu” is Gujarati for “upside down”) with winter vegetables like purple yam and snap peas, plus potatoes, green beans, eggplant, peanut and sesame powder, an herb paste, and muthia (golden-fried fenugreek and chickpea flour fritters). The herbaceous concoction then slowly simmers, indicating its doneness when the oils separate. While those in India wait all year for undhiyu, owing to the availability of its winter ingredients, Moghul doesn’t face that problem with New Jersey’s sprawling root vegetable farms.
Patel, who has worked at Moghul for 22 years, won’t be cooking her version upside down in an industrial kitchen, either. Instead, she cooks it in a vat with an oar-size spatula. She stirs in a green paste of blended green chiles and herbs, and adds it to an array of vegetables that she’s fried in batches. About 40 minutes later, once the dish finishes cooking, Patel garnishes the dish with fistfuls of cilantro and grated coconut. Behind the divider, a Shadowbrook chef fillets a 5-foot halibut.
Outside in the camellia-dotted corridor that leads up to the mandap, or altar, a giggling toddler in a lehenga scurries past a giant, garlanded statue of the elephant god, Ganesha. As the Hindu priest performs orisons and blesses the couple, Pingle calls the kitchen to say that the ceremony is delayed by 15 minutes.
One wedding consultant estimates that a 300-guest Indian wedding in a major metropolitan area like New Jersey will set you back between $225,000 and $285,000, while the average American wedding costs about $51,000 in New Jersey, and with about a third the average guest list. Shokeen says that while Moghul earned north of $70,000 for the Desai-Singh wedding, including two days of pre-wedding events, the profit margin is slimmer than it would seem, with the company shouldering the complex logistical costs needed to pull everything off.
The noon buffet-style lunch is a balancing act of two menus representing the couple’s respective home states — “Chalo Gujarat” or “let’s go to Gujarat” for the bride and “Punjabi Tadka” or “Punjabi flair” for the groom — laid out on opposing sides. The Punjabi menu boasts vegetarian mainstays from the state’s spicy cuisine, such as chole bhature, which is made with chana masala and scooped up by airy flatbreads called bhature. In the kitchen, Patel fries up the bhature, rolling out 300 of them from cookie dough-size balls she made the night before and splashing them with oil as they inflate like balloons. The cooks also prepare forest green sarson ka saag (mustard greens), paired with a griddled cornmeal, or makki ki roti. On the Gujarati menu, there are peas pulao, undhiyu, and Gujarati-style kadhi. The kadhi — a sponge-yellow, thick stew of yogurt and gram flour, speckled with mustard seeds — is both a common denominator and a point of contention; there is debate over which region makes it better. Punjabi kadhi is thicker and a brighter yellow, and includes onion fritters, or pakoras, while Gujarati kadhi is thinner, sweet-spicy, and broth-like, served in soup bowls.
I notice a woman in a saffron and hot pink sari head toward the Punjabi kadhi after eyeing the Gujarati one. “I’ll get into trouble for this,” says Shilpa Gujarat, a New Jersey-based physician, when I ask which she prefers, admitting that she enjoyed the Punjabi kadhi more. Anita Mehra, the groom’s mother’s best friend, tells me that her family has used Moghul Catering for their celebrations for more than 15 years. She then reluctantly admits that she, too, prefers the Punjabi kadhi. “They are both unique,” another guest chimes in.
As with any Indian meal, where carbs are sacrosanct, an abundance of breads make an appearance. Moghul designated a server to flip piping hot rotis, naans, and parathas on a small induction stove, smearing them with even more butter. Later at dinner, a man named Devinder will make fresh naan from a tandoor, an earthen clay oven. While Moghul brought in today’s staff from Edison, when the team travels for its events, it often needs to hire servers and kitchen help locally. In the kitchen, as men shape makki ki roti, Shokeen tells me that finding cooks familiar with that style of bread are easy to source during events in Mexico, owing to their preexisting knowledge of masa harina and tortillas.
Over at the lunch’s “Italian station,” guests queue up for fresh pasta and garlic bread. Such inclusions are common at weddings in India too, with guests riveted by the spectacle of chefs tossing pasta, likely Indianized with Amul cheese and chiles aplenty. “Honestly, pasta salad kinda slaps,” says a teenager wearing a hoodie over a plum lehenga. Next to the pasta station stands a DIY-chaat table, with chaat condiments, pickles, and papad. A 1-year-old wearing a lime-green sherwani puts multicolored, cylindrical papad around her fingers like Froot Loops before eating them.
As lunch nears its end, cooks set up a kulfi, or Indian ice cream station, plopping a log of kulfi flat on a surface smoking with liquid nitrogen. They cut the kulfi into slices, adding falooda (jelly noodles) laden with rose and kewra (pandanus flower) syrups.
After lunch, the catering staff breaks out cauldrons of chai in ritualistic fashion. Once guests leave Shadowbrook for a moment of reprieve and an outfit change, the Moghul staff eat their lunch of kadhai paneer and plump mini samosas before prepping the remaining two meals.
Around 6 p.m., half an hour before cocktail hour, the temperature in the room begins to drop. Planners unveil an ice sculpture bearing the couple’s initials, under which tubs of clams and oysters are nestled over ice. At many Indian weddings, cocktail hour is rather a misnomer. Moghul’s cocktail hour has enough stations to pass for a food festival. Dim sum stations sling gyoza, a raw bar displays clams and oysters, and at a “kebab corner,” cooks grill chicken tikka. Meanwhile, servers pass around bites of sushi and sashimi. Another station serves quesadillas filled with chile paneer, an Indian Chinese classic, and at Shadowbrook’s own Peter Luger station, a server carves steak au poivre and doles out thick-cut bacon. An open bar ensures that Champagne flows freely.
The groom and bride, now husband and wife, appear in new outfits, snacking on baos. “We wanted to get a bit of everything, things we know our friends and family love,” says the bride, Natasha Desai. “So lots of Indian Chinese and lamb, since Indians are die-hard lamb fans.”
Around 7:30 p.m. — far too early for Indian dinners, which rarely begin before 8:30 p.m. in India — Bollywood music remixed with Drake starts pumping through the room. The guests, now dressed in evening wear, move from a dining hall to a ballroom. After speeches from the bridal party, guests make toasts to the newlyweds, once college sweethearts. Dinner, a conservative affair compared with the rest of the day, is tucked away in the back of the room, the Kashmiri lamb rogan josh, butter chicken, and dal makhani ignored for the most part, or pecked at out of curiosity by guests with Old Fashioneds in hand as the sounds of dholwale, or Indian drummers, calls them to the dance floor. This final meal of the day is more of a courtesy than a necessity. As the cooks know, the guests filled up on steak and kebabs hours earlier.
At around 9:30 p.m., a ballroom wall opens up, revealing a dessert buffet with sparklers erupting from tables. Moghul’s Edison bakery had prepared Viennese-style desserts inspired by Indian classics: think rasmalai (sweet paneer dumplings) tres leches and chai-spiced tiramisu. Guests also line up for jalebi prepared on-site, the fluorescent-orange fritter doused in sugary rose syrup.
Back in the kitchen, Moghul’s staff begin to pack up and congratulate one another. They take a group selfie and wash the dishes before leaving Shadowbrook just past midnight. They’ll head to another venue tomorrow at 5:45 a.m. and do it all again.
A popular Sanskrit saying goes, “Atithi devo bhava,” or “a guest is a god.” With its umpteen offerings and attention to detail, Moghul substantiates this — sending its “gods” home with full bellies and memorable meals that sing of celebration.
Mehr Singh is a food and culture reporter based in New York. Her work appears in Bon Appétit, Food52, and other publications.
Roshni Khatri is a documentary photographer based in New York City covering stories on culture, gender, and identity.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein