India has had a very diverse culture and it’s cuisine is no exception. Based on its geographical outline,religion, culture every single dish varied in techniques. Food in India was largely influenced by foreign invasions like Persia, Greece, Roman, Mongol and Western Asia.The use of ingredients varied from region to region. Potatoes were brought in largely by the Portuguese and Arabs during the 16th century. India also being very diverse with its climate from tropical to alpine has had a wide range of ingredients that influenced cooking. Every ingredient used in a specific region was subject to the abundance of that area.
Little is known about what Indians ate during the early civilisation but vegetarianism was largely practiced. India being the land of ayurveda, food was classified as Saatvic (pure), Raajvic ( active or passionate) and Taasmic (dull and gluttonous).
A staple Indian meal consisted of a simple dal made of lentils, rice or roti and a vegetable. Vegetarianism became wide spread due to religious beliefs. Certain Hindu communities, the Jains and the Hindu Buddhists strictly followed vegetarianism. Jain communities also restricted eating roots and tubers purely because they believed in tiny organisms being destroyed while uprooting them.
We all know how popular Indian food is in the western world. It’s also interesting to know how the rest of the world had influenced our cooking. The Indian cuisine shared a strong reflection of various cultures with a 5000 year old history.
When Alexander, The great invaded india in 350 B.C, the northern and eastern parts displayed Greek influence in food. Greek cuisine by itself was influenced by several foreign cuisines. Greece is a country known for organically producing cheeses, oil, fruits, nuts, grains, legumes, and vegetables .The Greek gifted the Indian sub continent with an assortment of ingredients for cooking such as olive oil and lemon. They had also introduced several spices such as Garlic and herbs like Thyme, oregano, basil and mint. The two predominant ingredients brought in by them were fenugreek and fennel which infused a lot of flavour to the dishes. Eggplants and zucchini were also a contribution to India by the Greek.
As mentioned earlier, it was the Portuguese and Arabs who invaded India brought in potatoes during the 16th century. This was the time when even vegetables like tomatoes and chillies made it’s entry. Vasco da Gama discovered his sea route to India and made his entry to the Malabar coast in 1498. The 1st viceroy made Cochin as their headquarters ,discovered Pepper as the king of Spices and started business of pepper and spices establishing even a factory in Cochin. Later they shifted base to Goa and 400 years of Portuguse colonialism highly influenced Goan cuisine. Beef and pork were their speciality foods and adapted to different styles of preparation. Thinking of Goan food means Vindaloo and was introduced by the Portuguese sailors who travelled with their meat preserved in wine and garlic for longevity. Bread was a significant part of their breakfast and Bebinca was a speciality dessert which was baked with thick layers of egg based batter. Goan Catholic cuisine has a distinct Portuguese flavour. They also used a lot of nuts like cashew which was generously grown in that region and used the fruit of cashew to make feni. It is also known that Bengal cuisine has had some influence of Portuguese during the late 16th century. It is believed that it was the Portuguese who introduced the art of cheese making in Bengal and has now survived over centuries. Bandel cheese was owed to them.
Interestingly, a particular spice dominated a region. For example, people of AndhraPradesh relished spicy food and chillies were their main ingredient. Guntur, a district in Andhra Pradesh is renowned globally for chilli cultivation and produces most varieties of chillies and chilli powders which are exported to countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, middle East , South Korea, UK, USA and Latin America. Andhra Pradesh which is distinctly known for pickles uses their best chillies from their region. By the end of the 15th and early 16th century the moguls had invaded this region and thereby contributed their bit . That is how we know how popular Hyderabad biryani, Haleem and kubani ka meeta have become the popular dishes.
With the invasion of Mughals into Uttar Pradesh from Persia, emerged the awadhi cuisine native to Lucknow during the reign of Nawab Asaf ul Daulah, which had a great deal of influence to the Indian gastronomy. Their style of cooking was refined by the use of fine ingredients like saffron and cardamom which simply enhanced the flavours of food. The variety and spread was so lavish which was not only about the number of dishes prepared but by the kind of ingredients used. Butter and cream was also used in some of their delectable dishes. Generous use of dry fruits and fresh fruits like apricots, figs almonds,pistachios, pomegranate and raisins for example were used in their foods which proved royalty. Nawabs were connoisseurs of good food and dawaats ( feasts ) were generously hosted. The preparations always varied according to the occasion. Exclusive to the awadhi were the kababs, kormas, pulavs, kheers, rumali rotis, warqi paratas and kulchas. The list is nevertheless endless.
During the late 18th century, a section of Chinese settled in parts of Kolkata. They were either manufactures or traders or port workers who introduced their flavours to India by opening small Chinese restaurants. Today, it is one of the most popular tastes that Indians have adapted to modifying it to their palates. The north eastern region being indigenous were highly influenced by their neighbouring countries. Around the 13th century, the North eastern India was invaded by the Mongols. Though they were not successful in conquering, there were some settlements which predominently influenced the cuisines of Mizoram, Meghalaya, Manipur, Assam, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh.
When Indian food was all about variety and elaborate techniques with the use of fine spices, the colonial period introduced European styles of cooking. Breakfasts became English serving eggs and fruits.The English brought Tea to India and introduced the making of chai with masala using cinnamon, ginger,cardamom, cloves and licorice. It was the English who brought whisky to India. We learnt the art of baking fine sponge cakes, tarts, pastries and sandwiches. English pork chops were marinated in spices and chillies.soups and salads became part of the meal. Gourmet food was cooked in the courts of royalty. The style of using cutlery and the concept of a dining area was adapted. Plates replaced banana leaves. With all the finese that the British exhibited, they took the chicken tikka masala from india making it their national dish though the Scots claim that it originated from them.
The 17th century period saw the settlement of French who first invaded Pondicherry by the French east India company for trading of Spices. Though the Dutch had also invaded Pondicherry in 1693, it was the French who had a stronghold in Pondicherry, Mahe, Yaman in East Godavari of Andhrapradesh and Karaikal in Tamil nadu.
Unknowingly Indians cooked more French food at home. Steaks or salads, Bouchées or Frappes, crepes or canapes, croquettes or croissants Indians conceptualized some skills from the French . Desserts like Creme brulé, souffles or the Pattissere were popular among the Indians. Use of wine and cheese into cooking was adapted. Cafes and bistros originated from the French. They were basically eat out joints that served quick food. Quick and simple making dishes were the french style rather than the heavy sauced up and over powered use of ingredients. Apart from food a lot of French terms like Entrée, Hors d’ ouvres, Entremets were part of the menu one was very familiar to.
Italian cuisine is another favourite which gained popularity in the 20th century. Though relations between India and Italy dates back to ancient times, trade links flourished between India and the Roman empire during the 1st and 2nd century AD. Caches of Roman coins were discovered across the Indian peninsula especially in the southern India which indicated the existence of Roman settlements. However strong the history remains, Italian food has become one of the favourites of the Indians with pastas and pizzas on the top. Considered one of the best cuisines in the world found it’s way to suit a normal occasion or a romantic date.
On a conclusive note, However adaptive India had been with its invasions, Indian food has always been unique to it’s flavours and varieties. Every Indian household cooks their staple meal distinct to their culture.