In a country whose area spans 1.24 million square miles, it is a foregone conclusion that there have been, and continue to be, a multitude of influences from outside the country as well as from within, in terms of ingredients, preparations, vegetables, meats, combinations, spices and cooking methods. Furthermore, in our ancient civilization, the notion of record-keeping of cooking methods never went mainstream as it did in other cultures. The reason? There are many. According to some culinary researchers, it was the impossibility of painting more than one section of a region with the same brush. After all, the diet of the Brahmin community in one part of India was remarkably different from his counterparts in another part, to say nothing of the dietary rules of all the other communities living around the Brahmins, all of whom had their rigidly enforced injunctions, making it impossible for a single narrative to encompass all of them. Corporate Chef Vijay Nagpal of ITC Hotels has studied literature from the Chola age during his long stints in Tamil Nadu and says that food in Ancient India was a function of Ayurveda, never of gastronomy! The other reason is that cooks and chefs were never graded according to their skill and were anonymous workers in the background. Many, if not most, did not have the benefit of education and could not write, so recording their own recipes was another reason why there is no culture of recording food habits.
Today, we look at the vast panoply of ‘Indian’ food without differentiating between what is truly indigenous and what came from outside our borders. There is a hypothesis that the idli, the quintessential breakfast item in the five southern states, acquired its present form in South East Asia, when the Chola kings travelled to Indonesia, Cambodia and other countries of the region where controlled fermentation was practised. This, however, is not a theory that finds universal favour. Chef Nagpal wonders aloud how, in a tropical country, unused rice batter would not ferment in the heat and become the idli as we know it today, quite by happenstance. The fact is that all these theories are flung around today precisely because we don’t have written records of something as elemental as the origin of the idli.
A more definitive clue to what ingredients are indigenous to India and what have come from outside its borders is the strict tradition in Tamil Nadu of shradh cooking, immediately after a person dies. Food has to be cooked using only indigenous ingredients like black pepper and turmeric: the two spices that are native to Indian soil, many of the others having come from other parts of the globe. Even the vegetables have to be carefully chosen, avoiding those that have crept in to Indian cuisine from elsewhere. As the Tamil Nadu dos and don’ts traverse culture, death and religion, the rules are very strictly observed indeed, making it immediately apparent what ingredients are indigenous: tomatoes and cauliflower are not native species, and so, are never used in shradh cooking. Lentils, let it be said, have been part of our diet since recorded history. With very few exceptions, our preparation and spicing of lentils has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years, throughout the country.
Think of celebration, on the other hand, and jelabis and samosas come to mind, immediately. Well, they’re not exactly indigenous either, having come from the countries to our west! Jelabis, always stained saffron, are found all over the Middle East and North Africa and are thought to have originated in Iraq. In the case of samosa too, the very name sanbosag is Persian. There was a 9th century poem in praise of the sanbusaj as it was referred to by Ishaq al-Mawsili, a poet in the court of Harun al-Rashid. Indeed, recipe books from the 10th century onwards provide instructions on how to make these crescent-shaped pockets of dough filled with minced meat. By the time the sambosag travelled to India and became the samosa, it underwent a few changes. Its shape has remained determinedly triangular, with nary a local flourish to round off the corners, but the filling became the humble potato, seasoned with the merest whisper of turmeric and cumin. The potato filling seldom changes, no matter where within the country the samosa travels, except that in a few cities like Hyderabad, potato becomes minced or chopped meat.
The Sultanate period, followed immediately by the Mughal era had a series of rulers, most of which had origins from outside India ruling over large tracts of the country. It was during this time that written records began to be kept, which, after all these centuries, makes for fascinating reading, because there is a clear sense of what is indigenous and what came from the ruler’s country. Reading through accounts written in the Mughal period by the emperors themselves or their court diarists, we note that the melons from Samarkand and pomegranates from Persia in the time of Babur, gave way to mangoes from Peninsular India by the reign of Jehangir and Shah Jehan.
The greatest disservice that can be done to the Great Mughals is to dismiss the food of their empire in one word: Mughlai. There is absolutely no parallel between what Babur (1483-1530) craved for, and the regular diet of his grandson, Emperor Akbar (1556-1605). Babur spent much of his time pining for the fruits of his Central Asian home. Melons, grapes and icy cold running water was what he used to dream about; his grandson Akbar, having been born in the sub-continent, in what is now Pakistan, had very different tastes in food and was fond of khichdi, that elemental rice and dal preparation that takes us back to the nursery. Akbar – and later his descendants – enjoyed experimenting with various iterations of the dish, from elemental and earthy, and suitable to be eaten when the emperor was feeling in need of comfort food, to a sumptuous preparation of rice, lentils, saffron, aromatic spices and dry fruits. By the time Emperor Jehangir ascended the throne, the version of khichdi that he favoured was rich, spicy and studded with pistachios, says food writer Sanchari Pal. And, in a twist of delicious irony, the version of khichdi favoured by Emperor Aurangzeb – containing fish and eggs – became the prototype of the British kedgeree that they took back to England and that endures till today.
The Dutch and the Portuguese may have entered India in search of spices, and they managed to acquire cardamom and black pepper to their hearts’ content, but they never took the Indian expertise with using spices in cooking back to their home countries. The lone exception was black pepper that has traditionally been used as a preservative rather than a flavouring agent. And whereas the Dutch have not seemed to have left a trace of their culinary prowess anywhere in the country, the Portuguese undoubtedly have. For one, they harnessed Goan toddy vinegar, which is considered to be an indigenous product, to make bread rise. Today, Goan artisanal bread is unique throughout the country and when toddy tappers plied their trade, toddy provided the traditional warm scent of freshly baked bread.
Traditionalists did not, initially, take to leavened bread because using vinegar to ferment ingredients seemed not quite kosher, and so, the bread that the Portuguese introduced, was eaten largely by the Catholic community of that state, and later by Catholics of Mumbai and Mangalore. It was the same case with the Portuguese splitting milk in West Bengal. At first, the delicate sweets made with split milk that Bengal is so famous for, could not be used as offerings to a temple deity because of the impression that the milk was ‘spoilt’. Today however, the Kali Temple prasad – makha sandesh – is the most simple preparation of hand mixed (makha) split milk, fit for a goddess.
By the time the British became well and truly entrenched into India, we acquired a new branch of Indian cookery. It was a hybrid. Not quite English and not entirely Indian, it lay on a continuum between both. The Lucknow istoo, for instance, is a local interpretation of Irish stew, but certainly few Irishmen would be able to see the similarity. However, both feature less-than-premium cuts of lamb, one cooked in stock, potatoes and an onion and the other in a fistful of spices that do not add colour to the final product. The British may have entered India during the time of the Mughal emperors. They had their eye not only on spices, but on trading rights. They certainly became richer for their experience in India. Worcestershire Sauce was an Indian recipe, based entirely on spices, that they have successfully integrated into their own culinary repertoire. That apart, English food has incorporated several elements that they have taken from India and integrated into their own cuisine, and we have warmly repaid the compliment.
Once the British established households in India, an unique interaction started taking place between English memsahibs and their Indian cooks. Much hilarity ensued at the hits and misses (usually the latter) between the memsahibs instructions for dinner in English and the cook’s less-than-perfect understanding of what she said. And that tenuous conversation was the starting point of a cuisine that has established itself in two countries, across two continents. When one refers to a ‘chop’ in the context of the Raj in India, it is not a lamb chop but a potato or vegetable or minced meat patty, also known as a cutlet – not to be confused with a lamb or veal ‘chop’ of the same name. Terminology was invented just as effortlessly as entire preparations, and so, we had jhalfrezi and mulligatawny; kedgeree and railway curry. They were neither English nor Indian, but a delightful fusion between the two and were symbolic of a mutually beneficial interaction between two races who benefitted from the association.
It was the same thing that the Portuguese had started in Goa: their vindaloo, now a bonafide Goan preparation, was originally stew of pork in wine vinegar (vinho) and garlic (alho). Or the Persian food of the Zoroashtrians who came to coastal Gujarat to escape religious persecution in the 9th century. Today, their food is an amalgamation of Indian ingredients and the trademark sweet and sour taste of much of their original cuisine, with texture (crisp-fried potato straws are a favourite) and low spice levels, but it is a comfortable sub-set of Indian regional food. As is our version of Chinese cuisine, where the brilliance and nuances of that vast country has been reduced to chilli chicken and hot garlic noodles on our collective psyche.