As the aroma of biryani, pulao, naan and a wealth of dishes hits you, their spices and flavors perfuming the air, you begin to wonder. How were these dishes invented? Who was the first to taste them? Who decided what to add and what condiment should go with it? In an area as vast as the subcontinent, how was everyone’s diet different? How did such a richness of flavors emerge in the subcontinent?
The renown of the Indian subcontinent has always been its diversity; a diversity that transcends race, class, religion, tradition, as well as cuisine. The food we eat today took millennia to develop into the dishes that we love, with various influences coming from near and from afar to create something amazingly complex, rich in taste, and incredibly diverse. When listing gastronomic cuisines of the world, the subcontinent is never forgotten. For it is food fit for royalty.
The soil of the subcontinent is as diverse as its people and yields most crops known to humankind, and has always been much coveted by foreigners and outsiders alike. It produces rice, almost all varieties of lentils and pulses, as well as grains such as sorghum, wheat, and barley. But it also grows what is arguably the most quintessential feature of Indian cuisine, spices. Betel nuts, betel vine, asafetida, cumin, mustard, coriander, ginger, cassia, cinnamon, turmeric, tamarind, saffron, curry leaves, tulsi, cloves, sesame, and many more. Since the Indus Valley Civilization, land and sea routes have brought a treasure chest of ingredients, cooking methods, crops, and recipes from all over the Asian continent, including Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, China, the Middle East, Persia, and Afghanistan. During the European colonization, many new fruits and vegetables were also brought to India, resulting in a huge variety of ingredients and crops. Furthermore, religion and philosophy also play a major role, with Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and Muslims all contributing to the infinite layers of Indian cuisine with their respective eating habits and practices, such as vegetarianism arising from Jainism’s strict adherence to avoiding meat, eggs, and dairy; as well as the prevalence of lamb, beef and chicken rather than pork due to Muslim practices of haram and halal meat.
Since the Indus Valley, some form of bread and variations of the modern kebab have been consumed, including ginger, garlic, and turmeric as seasonings (all still used today). From then on, the age of ritual of the Indo-Aryans promoted vegetarianism, and details of their eating habits can be found in the Vedas. Another interesting feature of our cuisine lies in its inseparability from medicine, with the variety of seeds and spices present in the dishes providing various health functions. The practices of Ayurveda (traditional Hindu medicine) were said to impress the Greeks so much that Alexander the Great sent a number of Indian physicians to Greece.
The riches and opulence of the subcontinent acted as a magnet for invaders from Afghanistan and Central Asia, such as Mahmud of Ghazni and the Delhi Sultanate. It is from this time that Islam prevailed and several new dishes were introduced to the subcontinent. The sultanate’s emperors offered gifts and high salaries, attracting people from all over the world to their courts (notably the Middle East, Turkey, and North Africa), which led to a melting pot of flavors developing in India. The flavors of this time are well documented in Ibn Battuta’s book, Tahqiq-i-Hind (A History of India). He writes that the Delhi Sultans sought to emulate Persian Sultans and dined lavishly. Sultan Kaiqubad introduced the popular sharbat drink, made from flower extracts, herbs, and sugar, which is still drunk to this day. Naans were baked in tandoors and served with different fillings, with biryani also prevalent on the royal dastarkhan. Meat dishes such as leg of lamb, roast goat, chicken, and birds were also served. Samosa, one of the subcontinent’s favorite street food, also became popular during this period, as well as today’s most popular sweet dishes, firni and carrot halva. According to Ibn Battuta, chapatis or parathas were served with every meal, and rice and chicken were frequently eaten with these. Around the 1500s however, vegetarian tastes were developed, with Sher Shah’s Muslim guests dining on naan and meats, and the Hindu guests dining on lentils, dahi baras, and other vegetable dishes. Shami kebab, which is extremely popular today, was also introduced around this time, but its origins remain unclear as the name is Arabic but versions of it are also eaten in neighboring Iran and Afghanistan.
Paan, also widely popular even today, was introduced in this very period, and was eaten after meals to aid in digestion. It was consumed by both the elite and the commoners. Paan was used as a simulant, as well as to help gastric flow and to freshen the mouth. Indeed, paan was so popular that the famous poet, Amir Khusro, penned his Ode to Paan, christening it “Hindustan’s most beautiful delicacy.”
Central Asians and Persians who had arrived in the subcontinent, grew fruits such as dates, melons, pomegranates, and grapes, which were then incorporated into the local cuisine. Iranian and Afghan merchants also sold raisins, plums, almonds, and pistachios. Spices used in the Islamic style of medicine also gained traction, such as aniseed. The names of the dishes introduced during the Delhi Sultanate have predominantly Persian as well as Turkish names, such as shorba, pulao, kofte, etc., which gives an insight into the heavy Persian and Central Asia influence present at this time.
As the Delhi Sultanate declined, the Mughal Empire rose. When Babur came to India, he was disappointed by the food and it was only mangoes which appealed to him. It was during his reign that various gardens were built and planted with grapes, melons, peaches, apricots, pistachios, and walnuts. In the Ain-i-Akbari, the food is described in detail, divided into three categories; vegetarian, those served with grains and rice, and those made with meat. Further details are also given by European travelers who visited Akbar’s court. It is reported that the kitchen staff was enormous, with over four hundred cooks from India and Persia. The food itself was served in gold and silver crockery, and varieties of rice from all over the empire was used, and duck from Kashmir was specially ordered for the emperor. There was a huge garden which supplied the kitchen with fresh fruits and vegetables. The chickens they used were massaged daily with sandalwood and fed with saffron pellets. Horticulturists from Iran and Central Asia looked after Akbar’s orchids. This period was the height of opulent cuisine.
European visitors’ accounts also note a lively street food tradition that still prevails all over the subcontinent today. This is vividly described by the Portuguese priest Sebastian Manrique, who wrote about the bazaar of Lahore and its popular dishes and flavorful aromas.
As the Mughals declined and colonizers arrived in droves on Indian soil, new influences mingled with the previous layers of Indian cuisine. First to arrive were the Portuguese, who settled near modern-day Kolkata and the locals there mastered the art of their breads and pastries. Cheese is also a remnant of Portuguese influence. Some have argued that curd was also introduced by them. They also introduced potatoes, okra chilies, pineapples, maize, guavas, and custard apples, among others. Portugal itself was also influenced by India and that is still evidenced today by the use of fennel, allspice, ginger, pepper, coriander, cinnamon, and curry powder in Portuguese cuisine.
Next came the Dutch, but they left almost no mark on Indian cuisine. The British arrived and stayed the longest. When they first came, they ate like the locals and dressed like them during the eighteenth century. They also opened taverns, and the popular drink, Punch, was even named after the Urdu/Hindi word for five. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, habits changed and the English stopped adopting local customs, and French cuisine became more fashionable with the British. Queen Victoria, however, often ate Indian cuisine at her residence in England and employed Indian chefs. British cuisine itself was influenced by its Indian counterpart and curry is still widely eaten in Britain. The British also discovered that tea leaves grew in abundance in northeastern India and created a tea industry to rival the Chinese monopoly over tea trade. Vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage, and spinach were also introduced by the British and added to the local cuisine.
And thus, after tens of thousands of years, the cuisine of the subcontinent has developed into what we know and love to eat today. The unique diversity in every aspect of all that arises from the Indian subcontinent, including cuisine, is perhaps best described by Jawaharlal Nehru in his work, The Discovery of India. He states that “[India] was like some ancient palimpsest upon which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what and been written previously… Though outwardly there was diversity and infinite variety among our people, everywhere there was that tremendous impress of oneness, which had held all of us together for ages past, whatever political fate or misfortune had befallen us.”
Sen, C.T. (2015). Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India. Reaktion Books.
Alford, J. and Duguid, N. (2005). Mangoes and Curry Leaves: Culinary Travels Through The Great Subcontinent. Artisan.