History & Evolution of Indian Food
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India has rich and varied culinary traditions. Whilst some are enmeshed with religious and spiritual traditions, others arrived throughout India's long history with those who wandered into the land from afar and settled here, as well as with those who invaded its territories. Still others have been shaped by the natural forces of climate and geography.
To begin with, let’s shatter some illusions about Indian food.
First of all, there is no such thing as 'Indian' food. Each of the regions in India is poles apart in culinary styles and therefore it is impossible to bunch the varied foods of all these regions under an umbrella term of 'Indian' food.
Secondly, it is not always hot. Though most Indian cooking calls for the use of chillies of some kind – dry red chillies, fresh green chillies, red chilli powder; however, each type of chilli has a different potency and heat. And Indians use it sparingly or generously as per their taste.
And finally, there is no such thing as 'curry'. Curry is actually an English concoction passionately embraced by several parts of the world without realizing that a single dish does not make a curry. The term ‘kari’ probably comes from 15th century Tamil literature which means sauce or gravy. There are thousands of gravies or 'kari' in Indian cuisine and they form the base of a large number of dishes.
Evolution and Fusion of Indian Food:
Very little is known about the food of Indus Valley Civilization, the earliest civilization in Indian Subcontinent. As the language of this ancient civilization has not been deciphered as yet, all evidence of food and eating habits comes from archaeological sources.
With the coming of the Aryans around 1500 B.C, we get very clear picture of the food they ate from the literary sources of the period – the Vedic literature. There is abundant information on the food of the early Aryans and how it was prepared. Indeed, the food was simple as the early Aryans were semi-agriculturist semi-nomadic people. Towards 1000 B.C. as they began 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. We can safely conclude that animal flesh was ritually consumed by early Aryans as there are frequent allusions to animal sacrifices and to the cooking of flesh - meat was roasted and boiled. The fermented juice of the plant called Soma appears to have been the only intoxicating drink used in Vedic times. So much were the ancient Aryans addicted to this drink, that Soma was also worshipped as a deity.
As agrarian economy grew, cattle and other domesticated animals became more useful in agrarian and related food production activities; and, 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 6th century B.C. and their huge popularity with the masses and the royals alike, the doctrines of non-violence quickly took religious connotation and meat eating increasingly became taboo with the mainstream Aryan culture. However, the so called fringe communities of non-Aryans continued to consume meats.
From early Christian Eras to early medieval times, the vegetarianism was the mainstream food habit of the Aryan people – marked by preparation and consumption of various grains, fruits and vegetable and milk products. Due to warm climate and cultivation of large number of herbs and spices, the preparation became more and elaborate. Indeed, this is the food habit which has largely continued for over two thousand years as the main food habit with large sections of traditionally vegetarian Indian families – particularly in North India.
During this long period, Indian cuisine gained immensely from interaction with the foreigners who came into the subcontinent as migrants, traders and invaders - making it a unique blend of various cuisines. The consequent fusion in cuisines has resulted in what is today known as ‘Indian Cuisine’. In other words, today’s ‘Indian cuisine’ is a great mix of traditional Indian food and influences on it of the cultural interaction with the incoming foreigners.
The story of foreign influences on Indian food is as interesting and intriguing as the India food itself.
India’s first taste of foreign flavor came with Greek, Romans and Arab traders who gave it many of the important herbs and spices, the head of the pack - saffron. By the time Alexander came to India, saffron was already cultivated in large parts of Northern India.
Another important influence of a different culinary world was from the Arabs traders who introduced coffee. The Arab also left an indelible mark on Kerala’s cuisine now known as Kerala Muslim (or Moppilah) cuisine. Syrian Arab Christians fleeing persecution at the hand of the Muslims took refuge under the king of Kerala and also left a heavy influence in the cuisine of Kerala.
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 fruit 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. Portuguese also introduced refined sugar, before which only fruits and honey were used as sweetener.
The Hindu refugees from Afghanistan brought with them a style of oven, which led to an entirely new stream of dishes – tandoori.
The British infected India with their taste for tea. With the perfect 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.
Indians have absorbed the foods from all over the world throughout the history which gave rise to one of the most rich and sophisticated culinary traditions in the world. As a food historian has said, “No foreign food was rejected, it was just made Indian”.
The role of Spices:
Herbs and spices play a vital role in Indian food. Masala is a word that is often used in Indian context. Masala means a 'blend of several spices’ which varies from dish to dish. Garam (hot) masala is the most important blend and an absolute essential to an Indian preparation, added just before serving the dish to enhance its flavor. Each state in India has its own particular blend of garam masala, and furthermore, each family is partial to their own blend.
Fresh ground spices are the order of the day in an Indian home and are chosen not only according to the nature of the dish but also the season. Spices which generate internal body heat are called ‘warm’ spices and those which take heat away from one’s system are called ‘cool’ spices. For example spices such as bay leaf, black cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, mace, nutmeg and cayenne pepper are considered warm spices and hence used liberally in cold weather. This is the reason one finds these warm spices traditionally used in numerous local specialties of cold Kashmir.
The role of spices and herbs, in fact, goes beyond just cooking. Ancient Ayurvedic texts prescribe them for curative and therapeutic functions. Though the knowledge of the medicinal properties of the herbs and spices have been lost to most of today’s generation, with flavor and palette taking the forefront, the fact remains that locked in traditional wisdom are age-old secrets of the benefits of herbs and spices. For example, cumin seeds are believed to promote digestion, cardamom is good for the heart and is a natural breath freshener, cinnamon is helpful in controlling cholesterol, turmeric is a natural antiseptic, ginger is effective against colds and flu symptoms, and the list goes on.
Regional Classification of Food:
The many culinary styles in India can be generally divided into four regional categories, the North, the South, the East and the West. As you move from one region to another, not only dishes, but flavors, colours, methods of cooking, down to even the style of cutting the vegetables prior to cooking changes as often as the landscape does.
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 the grain plays a stronger role in its cuisine than in other areas of the country. Unleavened breads - naan, tandoori roti, chapaatis or paranthas are traditionally eaten with foods of this region.
The best known North Indian food is the Mughlai cuisine. Introduced by the Mughals and broadly non-vegetarian in content, this cuisine is characterised by the use of yogurt, fried onion, nuts and saffron. There are tender kebabs, creamy kormas, rich pasandas and many other dishes.
Traditional Kashmiri cooking is called Wazawan which reflects strong Central Asian influences. The Wazawan experience includes table settings for groups of four or more on the floor where dishes (mostly non-vegetarian) are served, each aromatic with herbs and the fresh produce of the region. The unique feature of Kashmiri cuisine is that the spices used are boiled rather than fried which gives them a unique and distinctive flavour and aroma.
Punjabis have the reputation of being great producers of food and still greater consumers of it. Punjab has bequeathed the institution of dhaba, a wayside eating joint, especially on the highways. Punjabi cuisine is not subtle in its flavour and there are no intricate marinades or exotic sauces. Mah ki Dal, Sarson Da Saag and Makki Di Roti, meat curry like Roghan Josh and stuffed paranthas are some of the popular dishes in this cuisine.
The rich Awadhi cuisine of Lucknow region was made popular by the Nawab of Awadh who, to deal with food shortage, ordered his men to cook food in huge handis (vessel) to feed the hungry people. This eventually led to a style of cooking called dum, i.e., the art of sealing ingredients in large handi and cooking over a slow fire, which you can so well relate to the relaxed outlook and attitude of the people of the region.
In South India, rice and dal is usually the staple diet. The 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.
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 the typical menu resembles the aristocratic way of the Chettinad people. Tamil Nadu is also known for its vegetarian Brahmin cuisine which is very popular in entire India and overseas.
The rich intermingling of cultures in Kerala has contributed to the vast melting pot of mouth-watering delicacies that are churned out here. 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 Moppilah Cuisine rules the roost. The Arab influence is predominant in many of its dishes like the Alisa, which is a hearty wheat and meat porridge. South to 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).
Eastern India grows a lot of rice. Green vegetables and fruit are also abundant and so are the foods cooked using them. People though, are a balanced mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian.
Fish and rice are at the heart of Bengali cuisine. Mustard oil is used extensively and so is panch phhoron (a combination of 5 whole spices) which sets this cuisine apart from all others.
The flavours of Oriya cuisine are usually subtle and delicately spiced and fish and other seafood such as crab and shrimp are very popular. Only a very small percentage of Orissa state is vegetarian. Pancha-phutana, a mix of cumin, mustard, fennel, fenugreek and kalonji (nigella) is widely used for tempering the dishes.
The food of India's smaller eastern states such as Sikkim, Manipur, Meghalaya, etc. varies quite dramatically due to their geographical location. These areas have been heavily influenced by Tibetan, Chinese, and even Western Cuisine in recent times and you will find steaks, pork or chicken dumplings — moo-moos — and filling noodle soups featuring strongly on your menu.
In western India, Rajasthani and Gujarati cuisines offer a delectable variety of dals and achars (pickles/preserves) which substitutes the relative lack of fresh vegetables in these areas.
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. Gujarat 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. The typical Gujarati thali is a carnival of savoury vegetables prepared with aromatic spices, accompanied by fried snacks.
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 strong Portuguese influence since it was previously a Portuguese colony. The gravies 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 vegetarian too.
Celebrating with Food:
Due to 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 the traditional delicacies that are associated with each festival. Special dishes are prepared and offered to respective deities, and the seasonal background plays an important role in the celebration. 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 Chaturthi. In olden days when the transportation of food stuffs and vegetables was difficult, only seasonal food, typical of the region was cooked and offered to the deities. These food items came to be identified with particular deities, and the practice has continued till today.
Indian sweets (mithai) are the biggest attraction not just during festivals but also on special occasions in people’s lives. People buy or prepare sweets and distribute them among family and friends during festivals, marriages, birth of a baby, after buying a new house or a car, career related achievements, etc. Mithai are a type of confectionery usually made using ghee, sugar, milk, flour and a variety of nuts. 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. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.