A brief history of our cuisine


The food we eat today is influenced by several cultures. I learned this after reading the highly informative book called Curry: A tale of Cooks and Conquerors by Lizzie Collingham. The historical references in this book are elaborate and provide an insight into our cuisine. It’s almost impossible to fathom the idea of Pakistani and Indian cuisine without the use of different types of spices. But, before the Portuguese entered Goa, our part of the world had never seen a chili. When the Europeans travelled to India, their aim was to increase trade, but as a result, new ingredients were introduced and our eating habits changed.

The Mughal Empire also had a great impact on the food we eat today. The Mughals believed in dining lavishly. They paid their cooks a handsome amount of money and gave them the freedom to experiment. Mughlai cuisine was heavily influenced by Persian cuisine. The Pulao was a dish very dear to the Mughals. A Pulao is a dish made with rice, aromatic spices and meat. It is said that the Pulao inspired the Italians to make Risotto, and the Spanish to make Paella. A Pulao is the perfect way to gauge the quality of ingredients used. Ideally the rice should be fragrant and separated. The aromatic spices used should not overpower the natural flavor of the Basmati rice. While making a Pulao, I prefer to use tough cuts of mutton which are on the bone. The tough cuts are flavorful and the bones allow to make a rich stock. Plus, I get to eat the bone marrow while feasting on my Pulao.

During Akbar’s rule, innovation in the Mughal kitchen was at an all time high. Spices were being used in varying quantities by the cooks to create something new. This gave birth to the culinary heavyweight: The Biryani. Biryani was inspired by Pulao; it used the new spices that were available to the cooks thanks to the Portuguese. A Pulao is cooked in one pot; in contrast, a Biryani must be layered and steamed before serving. Biryani was created in Delhi and it proved to be the perfect example of a cuisine moving forward. When Shah Jahan took over Hyderabad, Mughlai cuisine was brought to the southern parts of the Indian Subcontinent. The level of spices used in the south was substantially higher in contrast to the north. This resulted in sharper and spicier biryanis.

The concept of fruit punch came from the time Aurengzeb was ruling the Mughal Empire. When British officials visited Aurengzeb, he would serve them beverages with a blend of spices, fruits, sugar and arrack. The ingredients would vary but in usual cases, it would consist of five ingredients. The British picked up on the word ‘panch’, which is Hindi or Urdu for the number five. Due to differences in pronunciation, this cocktail was eventually known as punch in the western world.

Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah is the reason why we have shami kebabs today. The story is quite amusing. The nawab lost his teeth and naturally was unable to chew his food. His cooks were instructed to prepare something delicious which required no chewing. This gave birth to our beloved shami kebab. Rumor has it that Asaf-ud-Daulah ate so many shami kebabs that he was unable to mount his horse due to obesity. Now every time you are served shami kebabs you can imagine a fat nawab falling off his horse.

One thing that is interesting to note is that the term ‘curry’ was introduced by the help of the Portuguese and the British. The term was originally picked up from South India by the Portuguese. In Tamil, the word for a dish prepared by sautéing meat or vegetables is known as ‘kari’. The Portuguese reconfigured the word to ‘caree’ and eventually the word evolved into curry. All dishes made in our cuisine have separate names, for example: korma, salan, karhai. However, the British categorized all dishes that were served with a spicy sauce or gravy as curry. The first time I heard the word curry, my mind automatically went to the dish know as karhi. Karhi is made with yogurt and chickpea flour. Pakoras are also added to this dish which adds a layer of texture.

The British were not able to change much of our eating habits but they had one contribution that is rooted in our culture thoroughly. It’s hard to imagine a life without tea in our part of the world. Tea is more than just a beverage; it has social significance in our culture. Even though I am not a regular tea drinker, I am aware that people around me are serious about their tea. I have a friend who has a specialized tea cabinet with different types of teas for different times of the day. However, initially we did not welcome tea with open arms. It took fourteen years for the British to make tea popular in the Indian Subcontinent. When the industrial world arrived in India, so did tea. A Tea Association was established which helped to market tea to the Indian population. The Tea Association used to tour and teach the correct methods of making tea. Tea vendors did not bother much about these methods and made their tea with plenty of milk and sugar. As tea became popular, people started to experiment with it. This gave birth to the different types of teas, especially spiced teas.

I am frequently made fun of when I tell my friends these random facts. I have been told that I have a “fun fact” tone. But, it’s always good to know about your cuisine and culture. The food we eat today has taken a long journey. To celebrate our cuisine we must continue the innovation and appreciate the food we eat today. And most importantly, share our rich cuisine with people we care about.