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A look at the history of Indian cuisine before some big Influences
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A look at the history of Indian cuisine before some big Influences

The article was originally published at BBC Hindi. If you are interested in reading it in Hindi, check this link.

Tandoor came from Persia, Momos were introduced by Mongols, steaming vessels were a gift from Indonesia and sauces came with the British, so what was India before that?

Circa 1335: A week after Ibn Batutta had met Muhammad Tughluq, he was invited to be a part of the royal game and feast. Post which, the Moroccan traveler wrote about the feast: bread (which is thin round cakes); large slabs of meat (sheep); round dough cakes made with ghee (clarified butter) which they stuff with sweet almond paste and honey; meat cooked with ghee, onions and green ginger; “sambusak” (triangular pastries made of hashed meat and cooked with almonds, walnuts, pistachios, onions, and spices put inside a piece of thin bread fried in ghee – like our modern samosas); rice cooked in ghee with chickens on top; sweetcakes and sweetmeats (pastries) for dessert. They drank sherbet of sugared water before the meal and barley-water after. Then they had betel leaf and areca nut. On the food existed then , he also wrote: best fruits in India”; tandu (fruit of the ebony tree); sweet oranges; wheat, chickpeas and lentils, and rice which was sown three times a year! Sesame and sugar cane were also sown.

If one has to contemplate Indian cuisine today – at least the one we all are familiar with – there is a good chance that one would come across many references – like tea, samosa, saffron and such – that though now are an integral part of the cuisine, aren’t Indian in origin. Take the case of the quintessential chillies. An essential spice Pan India, chillies were introduced to Indian cooking by the Portuguese between the 13th and 14th century. Likewise for spinach that came from the court of Darius with pista, rosewater and almond. Of course the mangoes: our most prized variety, Alphonso, was also a gift of the Portuguese. And filter coffee, which was invented only after Baba Budan brought the seeds back India from Mecca and began cultivating.

So is it wise to assume that Indian food minus all these influences would have none of the complexity and flavour mazes it has today? If culinary legends Jiggs Kalra and researchers like Chef Arun Kumar are to be believed than it wasn’t the case. Our ancient temples built around the 10th century and before showcase how food was still delicious and could be spiced with pepper and soured with leaves, when lime and chillies weren’t a part of the Indian spice dictionary. In fact, says Jiggs Kalra, “When it comes to the culinary techniques we still had the know-hows to do it. Like for instance, grilling or close pit cooking, which took place even before it was called Dum by the Mughals.” Agrees Chef Kumar, who believes that while the term ‘vinegar’ was indeed introduced by the Portuguese, cooks back then knew about souring agents like kanchampoli and kokam, that was mixed in water and reduced by boiling before adding it to the dish. By nature, it was a kind of vinegar that was used in dals and fish preparation.

Here’s a look at some of the facets of Indian cooking, which wouldn’t have happened if not for the invaders and traders, and a few that they helped improve


If there was one cooking technique and apparatus that led to a 1000 dishes and a culinary branch too, then it has to be the tandoor or tonir as it was called back then. And there is no denying that tandoor was popular in India by the Mughals – and especially Jahangir who developed the portable tandoor. But were they the first to introduce tandoor in India. Not really. The first tandoor that finds mention in ancient travelogues and books is an underground variety that was used in the Tugluq kitchen to prepare the kebabs, which was introduced by Chengis Khan to the Turks and Arabs and eventually came to India, and other breads including the naan. The underground tandoor resembled the Armenian Tonir, which was an ode to the setting sun and had a hood that worked much like the modern day oven. In that sense, it wasn’t the mughals but the Armenians who gave us our tandoor. But old scripts found in Langudi often talk about kandu or earth oven that was used by Buddhist monks to make the food with Khandagiri caves boasting of a pit that could well be turned into a tandoor to cook food. So can there be a possibility that we would have had tandoor style food without knowing a tandoor. There is a good possibility given that open fire grilling/open fire cooking (Bhramagiri temple close to Puri still grills the fish it serves as Prasad) and pit cooking still existed in India before the Mughals bought in. Of course there is no denying that the Mughals did refine it further with the Afghan tandoor and help create the sanjaa chulha, which is a Punjabi tandoor.

Dum Cooking

It’s true that the Mughals and Nizams are credited for popularizing Dum cooking (essentially slow cooking), and coining the term. But does that mean, they were the creators of the slow cooking or for that matter even pit fire cooking. Curiously not. Slow cooking, as ancient temple cuisine would prove, was an ancient art that came to Indian with the Dravidians and Aryans who practiced it to make food, which back then was void of any oil and most spices. In fact, early on text defines slow cooking as: a pot of meat and spices are placed inside a dug earth warmed by fire created by wood and dry leaves. The mouth of the pot will be sealed with a dough and white charcoal thrown over it. The pot would then be covered with dry leaves and left in the scorching sun to be cooked till the last hour of dawn. Slow cooking in fact was extensively used by the Nagas and Ahom Kings to make their food. So what was the Mughal contribution? The finesse, says Kalra. “They introduced the art of infusing the smokiness into a dish by placing the coal with the food instead. And using the art of slow cooking effectively to make pilaf and biryani, which is their contribution because rice till then was first boiled and then steamed cooked.

Panir and Cheese

It’s a common believe that the art of making panir or paneer was taught to us by the Portuguese. They did, at least the art of curdling milk with lime and vinegar, and turning it into a block with the earlier characteristics of a mature cheese. Paneer made by the Portuguese was a little salty compared to the slight sweet chenna that was used to making sweets like sandesh and rosogulla till then and used sour leaves and wild lemon to make it. The popular Bandel Cheese is in fact the result of the Portuguese style of curdling milk. However old records show that Paneer arrived in North India much earlier than the Portuguese with the Arabs who travelled from Iran into India searching for spices. Called Panir Tabriz, it was very much the Feta of the culinary world back in time. Why then paneer dishes do not find mention till Akbarnama in the history pages, is as good a mystery as to why Saffron use in the kitchen came during the time of Jahangir, when it was introduced by Alexander The Great to King Porus.

Sauces and thickening agents

If you looked at the puree and wondered when it came to India or the cornflour in the kitchen cupboard and wondered who and how it reached to India, then you may want to thank the Brit and partly the French for that, who bought the art of creating sauces – not chutneys that existed in India and was refined in the Mughal court – to India. Till then Indian cooking was done mostly with whole spices. Grinding spices or using a mortar to turn it onto a mish mash was still a privy of the court kitchens. But nowhere was there a puree or the use of cornflour to thicken a curry – that would be done with rice powder or pumpkin that would be boiled and mashed and added to the curry. The use of sauces came into the foreplay when French emissary joined the royal court and brought the technique along with them. And later was used by Mogs (Buddhist tribes in Assam) who were employed to create a culinary branch that eventually gave way to Dak Bangla cuisine, and also inspired (somewhat) the Anglo Indian cuisine. In Eastern and North East states like Odisha and Assam, till date rice flour is used to thicken curry.

Wine and other drinks

As much we would like to believe that it was the French and the Portuguese who introduced wine to the Indian culture, it isn’t entirely true. Beverage making was an art that existed in India pre Nanda times. In fact, a chronicle of the Chandragupta Maurya and Helen wedding talks about a tribe Sunri who were masters of wine (called Soam then) and beer making in India. In fact Pliny’s account of India speaks about the existence of Tadi (palm juice), rice wine and a popular beverage at all travel routes called the Fugga – a highly intoxicating drink made of barley through fermentation. What of course the French and especially the Portuguese (who taught us Port Wine) did was helped cultivate grapes for wine purpose and not only table ones, which was used by Noorjahan to create Jahangir favourite drink sherbet (basically fruit juices and a Mughal gift to us) laced with opium.

The Art of Sorbet Making

Ice was always there in India, but it took the Mughals to finally work a system where the ice from Himalayas were bought down to the plain and use for refrigeration purpose as well as keeping the royal quarters cool during peak summers. But the use of ice wasn’t just to give the fruits a shelf life or protect Nurjahan’s favourite roses, it eventually was used to turn fruit pulp into mini popsicles that was served with cream that was stored between the slabs. In fact, it was the start of what eventually became fruit cream – our first iteration of icecream and gelatos – where cold cream (or yogurt) was churned with fruit pulp to create a dessert that chef William Harold defined as “fruit cream” because of its crude texture. This in fact was a technique that didn’t exist in India, and was a gift from the court of Darius.

The Famous Curry Powder

There is a good chance that if the British didn’t help put together the curry powder by mixing spices they brought with those existing in India while trying to develop a culinary branch that suited their sensitive palate, the garam masala powder – or any of the spice powder – would not have been a part of our spice glossary. But we had the potli masala that was used in Bhopali cuisine and others extensively? True but the originally potli masala was designed mostly like the paanch Phoran to enable a balance the flavours while being healthy and was whole spices.


The art of baking breads wasn’t Indian, and there is a good chance that the Chappati wouldn’t have come if it wasn’t for the Armenians who introduced the art of baking in India, and the Dutch who helped improve it by introducing baking powder and use of fresh yeast into it. And while India grew wheat as early as the Mohenjodaro civilization, the use of wheat was more for making puris and the like rather than bread.

Art of Stuffing

Potol tolma or parinde pe parinda or roast – these may be classics of their respective cuisine today. But it was thanks to the Arabs, Armenians, Parsees and the Turks that the art of stuffing vegetables, fish and meat to create dishes was inducted into the Indian cuisine, and popularized too. But does that mean stuffing as an art wasn’t a part of ancient culinary technique? Clearly not, says Chef Kumar. It was a style of cooking in coastal areas where fish was stuffed with herbs, berries and raw turmeric before it was grilled on open fire basted regularly with ghee to keep it moist.

Cold cuts & Fruit Preserves

If you loved the Goan sausage, you do need to thank the Portuguese. They were the ones who introduced cooking meat with vinegar to give it that sour taste and shelf life. Remember the Sorpotel? In fact, they were the ones who refined the technique of meat curing – even before the silk route flourished, India knew the art of preserving fish through drying and pork by smoking (a still practiced Naga technique) – by adding spices, blood and vinegar. So if dried fish and cured pork was our definition of ready-to-cook meal, Portuguese made it ready-to-eat too. In fact, thanks to them the art of pickling that initially used turmeric and salt finally evolved into the one we know today.

The other invention that perhaps the traders and invaders are to be thanked for especially the Turks and the Mongols is the making of fruit and vegetable preserves, which they named as Chutney. Yes, we had the red ant and egg chutney in Meghalaya and Karnataka, but not the chutneys, jams and murabas that the Timur’s successor got us from Persia. One reason for this was India had very limited fruits – the now popular watermelon too came to India because of Babar – and limited spices too, especially those that are now used in making the preserve.

Steaming vessels

Idli today may be the sum total definition of the food down South, but the all favourite dish first appeared in the scene only after 1250 CE. Giving credence to this is K.T. Achaya’s book which speculates that the modern idli might have come from the Indonesia, which has had a long tradition of fermented food. According to him, cooks employed by the Hindu kings of the local kingdom may have invented the steamed idli there, and brought the recipe to India during the period 800-1200 CE. However, old port records mentions the consumption steam rice ball (the probable godfather of idli) by the Arabs, would chose it for religious reason and would eat it along with curries prepared by them. So could there be a possibility that steaming existed before idli’s big arrival? There is a good chance that there might be. In fact, says Chef Kumar, pancakes made around Andhra and Kalinga belt around Vijayanagara dynasty used the art of steaming – so did cooking of the rice back then.  What however didn’t exist were the steaming vessels, which arrived from Indonesia along with version of Idli (made of rice and lentils and not rice, millet and lentils) we see today.

0 10 February, 2016 Food Xplorer February 10, 2016

About the author

A writer by profession and foodie by heart, Madhulika spends her time romancing restaurants and hospitality when not learning about the new and old stories behind the Indian cuisine. A seasoned food appreciator, she writes on Indian restaurants, home appliances and ready to eat meals.

View all articles by Madhulika Dash

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