“You don’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.”
What is Indian Food?
Glancing at a laminated paper, at a Curry House in Nottinghamshire, with chicken tikka masala, biryani, tandoori chicken, naan bread and Korma printed on it, I started scribbling along the margins of my notes on Journalism Around the World. I was trying to list by recollection, all the dishes that weren’t mentioned on that menu, all the tales and flavours of Indian culture that were left behind or worse, forgotten.
Each Indian curry tells us the story of Indian Food. In a Chicken Tikka Masala, for instance, tomatoes came to India from European nations, dried fruits and nuts used in the curry came from Arab traders and our Muslim rulers, and the dish itself was invented in Glasgow, Scotland.
The Aryan Influence on Indian Cuisine
The science of cooking, eating and combining ingredients to ensure maximum nourishment as well as hygiene practices in the kitchen were brought into our current diets by the Aryans. Dal rice ghee is eaten together so that our body can absorb nutrients from this perfect protein marriage. Meals are served on banana leaves in temples or on special occasions so that it can be discarded after the meal and germs are not passed on from one diner to another and water is sprinkled around the food before you begin eating to prevent ants from coming into the food. Some of these traditions may have been carried forward by religion, but each of them has a science behind it with nourishment and hygiene at the core. The Aryan eating habits were clean, frugal and functional.
The Mughal Influence on Indian Food
Mughal rulers on the other hand brought indulgence, rich ingredients and the art of entertaining with them. Food was now looked upon as art rather than a dry, functional, everyday activity. Eating and entertaining became recreation. The art and mastery of complex cooking techniques and unique presentation was appreciated and rewarded. The Muslims brought a variety of fruits, dried fruits and nuts into India through trade and invasion. The Great Indian Thali owes its complexity, technique and richness to the influence of the Muslims.
Influence of the British Raj on the Land of Curry
The English brought into India, Modern Dining etiquette and the manner of serving food, eating at a table and using cutlery rather than on the floor using your fingers, a practice we go by in India today has its roots in English culture.
Other Influences on the Food of India
Indian cuisine today reflects our core eating habits with influences from various other cultures around the world. Potatoes, tomatoes and even chili pepper, ingredients that are commonly used in modern Indian cooking, were brought through invasion and trade from Europe no longer than two hundred years ago. While some of our most humble staples like dal-rice, which has been consumed in India for centuries, have stood the test of time. Wadas and Modaks, all made with dal-rice have been spoken about in the references of food in the Indus Valley civilization as well as in that of the Aryans.
Indian Food Today
While our history brings both pride and pain, trade and invasion have benefitted and shaped the cuisine of India, making the Food of India versatile and unique. Major influences came from the Aryans, Mughals and the British Raj, and minor influences from the Portuguese in Goa, the French in Pondicherry, the Arabs on the West coast and the Chinese in the East. To know Indian food today is to dig deeper into the soul of our country and the memories of our grandmothers to find remnants of our culture, our people, and our agriculture.
Every community, state, family has a story to tell, and every story begins with a great recipe.If you know about a cuisine, a culture, a community and its food, or you have an old grandma whose recipe book is her mind, don’t lose that treasure of food knowledge, write it down and don’t forget to share it with us. Together we can preserve the jewels of Indian food culture.
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