I have always loved to experiment with food. Among friends I am the first to sample crazy concoctions. Till three years ago I limited my adventures to eating; this changed when I began teaching myself to cook. I made the kitchen my lab. But little did I know that my quest for interesting recipes and methods would open up a portal of knowledge about food and its history. What fascinated me most was the fact that a lot of dishes or ingredients or cooking methods that we take for granted when thinking about Indian food or cooking came from lands far far away. Take for example one of the most common ingredients of Indian cooking, the tomato. It came to us all the way from the New World (South America) via the Portuguese, and its name originates from the Spanish language.
World cuisine is replete with these amazing links and gives us a glimpse of how what we eat is influenced by a region’s environmental, religious, social and political history. Numerous invasions, friendly visits or even the proximity of geographies has helped Indian food become diverse and in many ways unique in the world. This week’s column explores how over the ages, the Persian influence shaped Indian food (or at least some varieties of Indian cuisine, given how vastly different regional food can be!)
India has a unique connection with Persia, which dates back to the BCs. In 532 BC Iran’s greatest king, Cyrus, took control of north-west India and his successor Darius extended the territory further to the east. The invaders brought with them their culture and ingredients like spinach, pistachio, almond, pomegranate, saffron and rosewater. It is interesting to note that during this time they were introduced to rice, a grain indigenous to India, which soon became and still is an Iranian staple. It is such an important part of their food culture that the skills of a cook are judged on well he or she cooks rice.
The next wave of Persian influence reached India in the 10th century AD when a group of Zoroastrians immigrated to Gujarat. According to legend, when they landed on the shores of the western state, the local ruler was unsure about granting them asylum. He sent them a bowl of milk, filled to the top, to indicate that his land was already brimming with prosperity and did not see any reason or need to let them stay. In response a high priest amongst the refugees added a spoonful of sugar to the bowl, and explained that his community would bring flavour and richness to the new land without changing its colour or form.
Impressed by this argument, Gujarat embraced the new settlers who in time they came to be known as the Parsis. A community that loves to cook and eat, Parsis have given India a lot of yummy food to enjoy. Some popular Parsi dishes are dhansak (mutton or chicken in lentil), khichdi and patra ni machhi (steamed fish wrapped in banana leaf). Over centuries, however, Parsi food became quite distinct from its country of origin and became closer to north Indian and Pakistani cuisine than Iran’s.
The Mughal dynasty did much to integrate Persian and then prevalent north Indian cuisine. Originally from central Asia (of Timrud ancestry), these rulers were the descendants of the Mongols. The word ‘Mughal’ is Persian for Mongol. Due to the relationship with Persia, their culture was similarly influenced. As for merging the Indian and Persian tastes, a lot of the credit goes to Akbar (1542-1605) and his efforts to integrate the local (Indian) with the foreign (Persian and central Asian) cultures. This synthesis extended into his kitchens where cooks married the delicate Persian flavours with the stronger pungent Indian spices and so was born the Mughlai cuisine, of which the biryani is a famous invention. The recipes recorded in the Ain-i-Akbari reflect the Persian and central Asian influences on the Mughlai cuisine. And its sway was not limited to the northern part of the country. Hyderabadi cuisine, patronised by the nawabs, too, was affected by Mughlai and Persian styles. Here the combination that emerged was that of the former and of Telugu and Maharashtrian traditions.
Even today there remain similarities between current Persian and Indian cuisine — rice is a staple food, a significant part of the cuisine is vegetarian, yogurt is an important ingredient in cooking as well as a stand-alone. However, unlike most Indian cooking, Iranian cooks use a lot of herbs instead of pungent spices. The traditional Persian pita breads or kaboos is very similar to the Indian naan, roti and kulcha.
I find it amazing how a plate of food can take one on a journey through time. I hope this column has whetted your appetite to find more such connections between Indian and world cuisine. Next week we move to another part of the world to dig up more history about our food. Till then — Bon apetit!