The Complete History of Indian Food

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India is a land that is enriched with culture and vast heritage. This is reflected in the diversity of food that has emerged throughout the country through the ages. Indian food is well celebrated for the use of spices like saffron, coriander, ginger, cumin, cloves, and several others that enhance the taste in every morsel. A variety of herbs and locally found elements have tied together different kinds of recipes that can be seen in the form of a globally famous cuisine today.

The history of Indian food ranges right back from the Pre-Harappan times. Let’s explore.

The ancient Hindu text Mahabharata mentions rice and vegetables cooked together – the modern-day ‘Khichdi’ has its roots in Mahabharata. The word “pulao” or “pallao” refers to the dish in ancient Sanskrit works, such as Yājñavalkya Smṛti. Ayurveda, the ancient Indian system of wellness, deals with a holistic approach to wellness, and it includes food, dhyana {meditation} and yoga.

Around 7000 BCE, agriculture spread from the Indian Fertile Crescent to the Indus Valley, and barley and wheat began to be grown. Yes, the grain on your plate is 9000 years old. Mehrgarh, from Ancient India, is one of the earliest sites with evidence of farming and herding in the world. By 3000 BCE, turmeric, cardamom, black pepper and mustard were harvested in India.

From Around 2350 BCE, the evidence for imports from the Indus to Ur in Mesopotamia have been found, as well as Clove heads which are thought to originate from the Moluccas in Maritime Southeast Asia were found in a 2nd millennium BC site in Terqa.

During the excavations in the Indus Valley regions, comprehensive platforms and flat metal and clay plates, similar to the present-day ‘tava’, have been found. This suggests the earliest hints of some form of chappatis being cooked as wheat was known to be an agricultural staple. Various boiling vessels were also discovered, suggesting rice and barley could have been common foods in the era.

Several citruses and other wild fruits were used to add flavor in that era. The widespread use of cinnamon can also be dated back to these times. Ancient Indians made the grains into stews or soups in which cinnamon was used. Eventually, grain was baked into flat loaves of bread, popularly known as chapatis or naan.

The Hindu culture under numerous dynasties drew away from the cycle of animal sacrifices. They took to the notions of vegetarianism. Thus, several of the vital Hindu meals are cooked using regionally available fruits and vegetables and an array of flavorful spices. People paired the staple such as rice or millet with a variety of lentils like masoor, moong, tur, urad, etc. Thus, the ‘dal’ of our everyday meals became an essential part of the culture.

In the Gupta period, around 650 AD, vegetables, bread and milk were an integral part of the diet. This is where satvic food became popular to gravitate towards an ideal healthy diet. It consisted of whole grains, fruits and dairy products. Some bent more towards a rajasic diet which incorporated the use of onion, garlic, eggplants, mustard oil, and sweet puddings made of rice. Thus, the concept of a balanced diet that would include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and soy, nuts, seeds, dairy products complemented with some sweets was adopted.

Towards the eighth century, more refined ingredients began to be used. The garam masala is popularly used in several Indian dishes. It is a mixture of Dalchini or cinnamon, Laung or cloves, jeera or cumin, Dhaniya or coriander, Elaichi or black cardamom, black peppercorns, and star anise. The use of leaves in Indian cooking is another factor that contributes to the unique flavor. Corriander leaves, fenugreek leaves, and mint leaves are used to enhance the flavor of dishes.

All these were used to prepare flavorful curries, which have evolved in the subcontinent since the early times. The sweet dishes were seasoned with saffron, cardamom, and nutmeg for an added flavor. Tambol or betel leaves in the form of the ‘pan’ were used for refreshing the palate after the meal. By this period, Indian food had several elements, and the flavors of the land seeped through in each recipe that was used.

Globalization of Indian Cuisine

Thai cuisine was influenced by Indian cuisine as recorded by the Thai monk Buddhadasa Bhikku in his writing ‘India’s Benevolence to Thailand.’ He wrote that Thai people learned how to use spices in their food in various ways from Indians. Thais also obtained the methods of making herbal medicines (Ayurveda) from the Indians.

Filipino cuisine, found throughout the Philippines archipelago, has been historically influenced by Indian cuisine. Atchara of the Philippines originated from the Indian achar, which was transmitted to the Philippines via the acar of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. Indian influences can also be noted in rice-based delicacies such as bibingka (analogous to the Indonesian bingka), puto, and puto bumbong, where the latter two are plausibly derived from the south Indian puttu, which also has variants throughout Maritime Southeast Asia (e.g., kue putu, putu mangkok).

The Islamic invasion of India led to the adoption of the tandoor in the Middle East, which originated in northwestern India.

The British East India Company came to India as traders in spices, a vital commodity in Europe back then as it was used to preserve meat. British Invaders stayed back and introduced numerous new veggies like the Cauliflower. In the late 18th/early 19th century, an autobiography of a Scottish Robert Lindsay mentions a Sylheti man called Saeed Ullah cooking a curry for Lindsay’s family. This is possibly the oldest record of Indian cuisine in the United Kingdom.

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