Indian cuisine reflects a 5000-year history
of intermingling of various communities and cultures, leading to diverse
flavours and regional cuisines. The arrival of the Mughals, the British,
further added variety to Indian cuisine.
The consequent fusion
in cuisines resulted in what is today known as ‘Indian Cuisine’. Indian cuisine also means a wide
variety of cooking styles. Sometimes it seems referring to it as Indian cuisine
is a misnomer, since regional dishes vary tremendously from region to region.
Indian cuisine has also shaped the
history of international relations;
the spice trade between India and Europe
is often cited by historians as the primary catalyst for Europe's Age of Discovery.
Spices were bought from India and traded around Europe and Asia. It has also
influenced other cuisines across the world, especially those from Southeast Asia,
the British Isles
and the Caribbean.
As food influences travelled to India,
so has Indian cuisine travelled abroad. Particular dishes have gained popularity or
subtle influences through spices have seeped into cuisines the worldover.
There is no concrete record of the food habits of the Indus
civilization. With the coming of the Aryans around 1500 BC, literary sources reveal distinct dietary
behaviour. The food was simple as the early Aryans were semi-agriculturist,
semi-nomadic people. As they began around 1000 BC to settle down in the fertile
Gangetic plains their food became more complex and elaborate.
Barley and wheat seem to have been the chief produce of the
field, and consequently the principal articles of food. Various kinds of cakes
were prepared from these grains and used as food and offered to the gods. Frequent
allusions to animal sacrifices and to the cooking of meat, roasted and boiled,
meant that the early Aryans were non vegetarians.
As the agrarian economy grew, cattle and other domesticated
animals became more useful in agrarian and related food production activities;
it became increasingly expensive to slaughter animals for meat. This was the
beginning of vegetarianism in India. With the rise of Buddhism and Jainism in the
6th century BC, the doctrines of non-violence took religious connotations and
meat eating became taboo in the Aryan culture.
Till early medieval times, vegetarianism was the mainstream
food habit of the Aryan people; they ate grains, fruits and vegetable and milk
products. A warm climate and cultivation of a large number of herbs and spices,
the preparations became more complex. This
remained for two thousand years as the main food habit with large sections of
traditionally vegetarian Indian families – particularly in North India.
During this period, Indian cuisine gained immensely from
interaction with foreigners who came to the subcontinent as migrants, traders
and invaders -- making it a unique blend of various cuisines.
India’s first taste of
foreign flavours came with the Greek, Roman and Arab traders who used many of
the important herbs and spices, and most importantly, saffron.
Another important influence from a different culinary world
was from Arabs traders who introduced coffee. The Arabs also left an indelible
mark on Kerala’s cuisine now known as Kerala Muslim (or Moplah) cuisine. Syrian
Arab Christians fleeing persecution at the hands of the Muslims took refuge
under the King of Kerala and also left a heavy influence on the cuisine of
Persian Zoroastrians arrived next and gave to India what is
known as Parsi cuisine. Some believe that it was the Zoroastrians who first
brought biryani to India, before the
Mughals made it popular.
The Mughals revolutionized Indian food with their penchant for
elegant dining and rich food with dry fruits and nuts, a style which eventually
came to be known as Mughlai cuisine.
Tomato, chilli, and potato, which are staple components of
today's Indian cuisine, were brought to India by the Portuguese. The Portuguese
also introduced refined sugar, before which only fruits and honey were used as
Hindu refugees from
Afghanistan brought with them a style of an oven, which led to an entirely new
stream of dishes – tandoori.
The British infused in Indians their taste for tea. With an
ideal tea growing climate, India rapidly joined the ranks of tea lovers of the
world. The British not only influenced what Indians ate, they also changed
"how" Indians ate. For the first time Indians used knives and forks.
The dining table replaced the kitchen floor.
Flavours of India
Herbs and spices, or masalas, play a vital role in Indian
food. Masala means a 'blend of
several spices’ which varies from dish to dish. Garam masala is the most important blend and an absolute essential
for an Indian preparation. Each state in India has its own particular blend of garam masala.
The role of spices and herbs, in fact, goes beyond just
cooking. Ancient Ayurvedic texts prescribe them for curative and therapeutic
functions. Though knowledge of the
medicinal properties of herbs and spices
have been lost to most of today’s generation, with flavor and palette becoming
dominant but the fact remains that locked in traditional wisdom are age-old
secrets of the benefits of herbs and spices.
story of Indian spices is more than 7000 years old. Centuries before Greece
and Rome had been discovered, sailing ships were carrying Indian spices,
perfumes and textiles to Mesopotamia, Arabia and Egypt. It was the lure of
these that brought many seafarers to the shores of India.
Long before the Christian era, Greek merchants thronged the markets of
South India, buying many expensive items amongst which spices were included.
It is believed that the Parthian wars were being fought by Rome largely to
keep open the trade route to India. It is also said that Indian spices and
her famed products were the main lure for crusades and expeditions to the
It was in AD1492, that Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. Five
years later, under the guidance of Captain Vasco Da Gama a new route to the
spice lands of Asia was being searched. While Columbus failed to achieve
this goal, Da Gama succeeded. The ships brought back a cargo of spices and
other products worth 60 times the cost of the said voyage. Da Gama`s
successful voyage intensified an international power struggle for control
over the spice trade. For three centuries the nations of Western Europe --
Portugal, Spain, France, Holland, and Great Britain -- fought bloody
sea-wars over the spice-producing colonies.
By the year AD1000, Arabians had conquered the Indus valley. They brought
cumin and coriander that was mixed with Indian pepper, ginger and turmeric,
that centuries later British sailors spread throughout the world as curry
powder. In India, Arabian traders got rare and exotic spices of the Far
East from local spice merchants. India had spent the previous two millennia
spreading its culture to the Spice Islands of the east.
Cuisine differs across India's diverse regions
as a result of variations in local culture, geographical locations and
economics. It also varies seasonally.
This cuisine is perhaps the most popular and widely served in
restaurants around the world. It is broadly characterized by meats and
vegetables cooked in the tandoor
(coal fired barbecue), use of cream in dals
and yogurt in marinades.
Wheat is produced in the north and therefore a range of breads
- naan, tandoori roti, chapatis or paranthas are traditionally eaten with
foods of this region.
The best known North Indian food is Mughlai cuisine. Mughlai
cuisine is a style of cooking developed by the imperial
kitchens of the Mughal Empire
and broadly non-vegetarian in content. This cuisine is
characterized by the use of yogurt, fried onions, nuts and saffron. There are
tender kebabs, creamy kormas, rich pasandas….
The most notable ingredient in Kashmiri cuisine is mutton, of which there are
over 30 varieties. Traditional Kashmiri cooking is, almost
like an art called Wazwan reflecting strong Central Asian influences. The Wazwan
experience means primarily non vegetarian dishes, each aromatic with herbs and
the fresh produce of the region. The unique feature of Kashmiri cuisine is that
spices used are boiled rather than fried,
which gives them a unique and distinctive flavour and aroma.
Punjabi cuisine is not different from other cuisines in the sense that most of
the cuisine is inspired by the Central Asian and Mughlai cuisines since it was
the entry spot for Muslim invaders. Punjab has also bequeathed
the institution of dhaba, a wayside
eating joint, especially on highways. Mah ki Dal, Sarson Da Saag and Makki Di
Roti, meat curry like Roghan Josh and stuffed paranthas are some of the popular
dishes of this cuisine.
Awadhi cuisine bears similarities to those of Persia,
Punjab and Hyderabad.
and rakabdars of Awadh gave birth to
the dum style of cooking. Dum, i.e., the art of sealing ingredients in a large handi and
cooking over a slow fire, which relates very well with the relaxed outlook and
attitude of the people of the region. The richness of Awadh cuisine lies
not only in the variety of cuisine but also in the ingredients used like mutton,
and rich spices including cardamom
In South India, food is characterized by dishes cooked on the
griddle such as dosas, thin broth like dals
called sambar and an array of seafood. The region is also known for its heavy
use of 'kari' leaves, tamarind and coconut.
Andhra Pradesh is known for its Hyderabadi cuisine which is
greatly inspired by the Mughlai cuisine. The wealthy and leisured aristocracy
of the erstwhile Nizam State as well as the long peaceful years of their
dominance contributed largely to the development of this cuisine. Some of the
most traditional Hyderabadi dishes are biryani, chicken korma and sheer khurma.
Varieties in the cuisine of Karnataka
has similarities with its three neighbouring South Indian
states, as well as the states of Maharashtra
and Goa to its North. Karnataka has two main styles of
cooking, the Brahmin cuisine that is strictly vegetarian and the cuisine of
Coorg which is noted for its pork dishes.
The Chettinad cuisine of Tamil Nadu has transcended the
boundaries of the state to carve a worldwide following. Generally the dishes
are hot and pungent with fresh ground masalas and a typical menu resembles the
aristocratic way of the Chettinad people.
The rich intermingling of cultures in Kerala has contributed
to a vast melting pot of mouth-watering delicacies that are churned out. Appam
and stew, ulli theeyal and of course the ubiquitous banana chips is something
most are familiar with, however, in the northern region of Kerala or the
Malabar coast Muslim Moplah cuisine rules the roost. Arab influence is
predominant in many of its dishes like the Alisa, which is a hearty wheat and
meat porridge. South of Central Kerala is where the art of Syrian Christian
cooking remains the pride of many a homemaker. Their contribution to the Kerala
cuisine has been manifold and the most noted are the hoppers, duck roast, meen
vevichathu (red fish curry) and the isthew (stew).
cuisine is the only traditionally developed multi-course tradition from the
Indian subcontinent that is analogous in structure to the modern service à la russe style of French cuisine, with
food served course-wise rather than all at once. Bengali cuisine has a high
emphasis on chilli pepper along with mustard oil and tends to use high amounts
of spices. The cuisine is known for subtle flavours with emphasis on fish,
vegetables, lentils, and rice. Fresh sweet water fish is one of its most
distinctive features; Bengalis prepare fish in many ways, such as steaming,
vegetables and sauces based on coconut milk or mustard.
The flavours of Oriya cuisine are usually subtle and
delicately spiced and fish and other seafood such as crab and shrimp are very
The food of India's eastern states such as Sikkim, Manipur,
Meghalaya, Mizoram, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur varies quite dramatically due to their
geographical location. These areas are heavily influenced by Tibetan, Chinese,
and even Western Cuisine.
Rajasthani cuisine is quite diverse. On one side of the
spectrum, the love for shikaar (a good hunt) among the erstwhile royalty creates
a culinary art form that is unimaginable. And on the other side of the spectrum,
is the equally grand all vegetarian food of Marwar or Jodhpur with popular
dishes such as choorma laddoo and daal baati.
has a large populace that has been mainly vegetarian for religious reasons and
therefore Gujarati cuisine is strictly vegetarian. The popular dishes in this
cuisine are oondhia, patra, khaandavi and thhepla. Gujarati food tends to be
Parsi food is the hallmark of India's Zoroastrian community -
ancient Persians. The Parsis’ main dish is Dhansakh (caramelized onions and
brown rice served with a mix of dals, vegetables and meat) which is eaten on
Sundays and at all weddings and functions. Goan cuisine has a strong Portuguese
influence since it was previously a Portuguese colony. The gravys are
chilly-hot, spices are ground with vinegar and coconut. Some examples of this
cuisine are Balcao, Xacuti, Vindaloos, Sorpotel and Moehlos.
Malvani/Konkani cuisine is the standard cuisine of the Hindus
in the Konkan region of Maharashtra, Goa and northern parts of West Karnataka.
Although Malvani cuisine is predominantly non-vegetarian, there are many
vegetarian delicacies. Malvani cuisine uses coconut liberally and is usually
very spicy; however, the ‘Konkanastha Brahmin’ style of food of the region is
quite bland and also vegetarian.
Celebrating with Food
Due to the diversity of geographical features and religions,
festivals, small or big, are celebrated all year long in India. These festivals
offer a great opportunity for people to enjoy traditional delicacies that are associated
with each festival. Special dishes are prepared and offered to the respective
deities. For example, milk pudding, butter, and curd preparations signify
cowherd Krishna's birthday, Janmashtami,
while Modakas of fresh coconut, regional varieties of murukku, laddu and
kajjaya are thought to be favourites of Ganesh and are offered on Ganesh
There are so many varieties of mithais as one moves from North to South or East to West and within
different ethnic groups that one gets overwhelmed. While rasgulla, cham cham,
sandesh and laddoo, gulab jamun, kaju katli are popular in West Bengal and
North India respectively, messu, monthar and ghevar are the order of the day in
Gujarat and Rajasthan.
Indian Food the Worldover
Indian migration has spread the
culinary traditions of the subcontinent throughout the world. These cuisines
have been adapted to local tastes, and have also affected local cuisines. For
example, curry's international appeal. Indian tandoor dishes such as chicken tikka enjoy widespread popularity.
Indian cuisine in the Middle East has been influenced greatly by the large Indian diaspora. Centuries of trade relations and cultural exchanges have
resulted in significant influence on each region's cuisines, the most notable
being the Biryani..
It was introduced by Persian
invaders into Northern India and has since become an integral part of the Mughlai
Indian cuisine is very popular in Southeast Asia, due to the strong Hindu and Buddhist cultural influence in
the region. Indian cuisine has also had considerable influence on Malaysian
cooking styles and also enjoys popularity in Singapore.. Singapore
is also known for fusion
traditional Singaporean cuisine with Indian cuisines. The spread of
vegetarianism in other parts of Asia is often credited to Hindu and Buddhist
practices that originated in India.
tikka masala has been called "a true
2003, there were as many as 10,000 restaurants serving Indian cuisine in England and Wales alone. According to Britain's Food Standards Agency, the Indian food industry in the
United Kingdom is worth 3.2 billion pounds.
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