Not just people, foods travel too. So how Indian is your food, anyway?

Updated on Mar 22, 2015 12:59 PM IST

Not just people, foods travel too. And their journeys shape civilisations, history, national identity and the very meal you’ll eat tonight

Hindustan Times | By

Do you take the food we eat for granted? Or do you ever wonder how it originated? I used to accept commonly held views on most Indian food and drink. Then, I started writing about food and discovered that nearly all of my preconceptions were wrong. The first shock I received was when I held forth to some English friends about the virtues of Indian tea. We invented tea drinking, I told them, and we still grow the best tea in the world.

"Well, actually no," my friend responded. "We taught you how to drink tea. And in any case, tea is a Chinese drink, not an Indian one."

Alarmed by his confidence, I went away and checked. It turned out he was right. The British found the tea plant in China and brought it to India. They hoped to break the Chinese stranglehold on the global tea trade and thought that an alternative supply could be arranged from the hills of Assam and Darjeeling. Most of the tea they grew was for export and ordinary Indians hardly ever touched the stuff.

So what about our famous dhaba and railway station chai, served in khullars, sweetened beyond belief and drowned in milk? Surely that was part of the Indian tradition?

Well, yes and no.

The British taught us how to drink tea, which is why we make it with milk and sugar (the Chinese use neither). But Indians only really began drinking tea as late as the 1920s when it was considered a mark of English-style sophistication. And tea drinking really took off in India only after Independence.

Around the 1950s, the government, eager to avoid an over-dependence on the export market, ran a successful campaign to popularise tea in north India. Sales boomed after that, but the tea that we consumed was not the fancy stuff (called ‘orthodox’) that the British drank. Instead, most Indians, drank (and still do) CTC (crush, tear and curl) tea.

This is tea produced by an industrial process invented in the 1930s. CTC teas are cheaper to make and when cooked (as they are in India), they yield a strong dark brew which usually needs milk and sugar to taste good. (Orthodox tea, on the other hand, can be ruined by the addition of milk).

So the truth is that India is not the home of tea; far from it. Our ancestors only took to it in the 1950s, and the reason we created all those milky dhaba teas was because the cheap industrial stuff we drank needed something to moderate its taste.

I had to concede, sheepishly, to my English friends that perhaps they were right. But, I insisted, Indian tea is still the best in the world. (This is not bravado. Orthodox Darjeeling tea is outstanding).

Ever since I lost that argument, I’ve felt a little like that guy in Goodness, Gracious Me who keeps saying "Indian! Indian!" about everything, even when it is clearly not of Indian origin. I accepted early on that many of what we regard as essential Indian vegetables and ingredients were found in the Americas and brought to our homes by Europeans.

Can you imagine Indian food without the tomato, the potato and the chilli? And yet all these only got to India after the Europeans and colonists arrived.

But even so, I am often surprised by how much we have colonised these American (mainly South American) ingredients and made them our own. Every Punjabi will tell you how his family has been making makki ki roti for generations.

And yet the tradition can’t really go that far back. Corn was unknown in the Punjab till the British got there and introduced it. It is the same story with rajma, another Punjabi staple. It is also of South American origin and Punjabis had no idea what rajma was till the British showed them how to grow it.

We also owe a huge debt to the Middle East though curiously we either overstate it or underestimate it. Let’s take the samosa, that most Indian of snacks. We can now be reasonably certain that it is not really Indian in origin at all.

It turns up all over the Middle East in texts from as far back as the 10th century, where it is called by a variety of similar-sounding names such as the sambusak.

The earliest records of samosas (or medieval versions of the dish) in India date from the 13th century and the Delhi Sultanate. By the time the Moghuls came along, it was a well-established court dish. (But Indians invented the vegetarian samosa – if that is any consolation!)

We are also strangely unwilling to give any credit to the Middle East for coffee. And by coffee, I don’t mean the fancy Starbucks-type version but traditional south Indian coffees.

Though the marketing of coffee is now an American obsession, coffee is, first and foremost, an Arab drink. It probably originated in North Africa and was then exported to Arabia. Indians had never even heard of coffee till a Muslim saint called Baba Budan smuggled green coffee beans out of Arabia where he had gone for a Hajj pilgrimage. (At the time, the Arabs were so possessive about coffee that they forbade anyone from taking green coffee beans – which could germinate – out of the country).

Baba Budan planted the beans in Karnataka (probably near Chikmagalur) and laid the foundations for coffee cultivation in India. Plantations were only established two centuries after Baba Budan had planted the first beans and the domestic coffee industry began to spring up in the hills of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu around 1850.

Contrary to popular belief, coffee was not a Malayali invention (though an early plantation was located in Wayanad, which is now a part of modern Kerala) and it spread all over the South only in the second half of the 19th century. Even then, this was entirely because of the British who set up plantations for export and developed a domestic market.

The great south Indian tradition of coffee was only really established in the early part of the 20th century – its origins were Arab and its cultivation was British!

While we don’t give the Arabs credit for coffee or samosas, we are often too willing to give them credit for things they had very little to do with. I’ve read many accounts that attribute nearly all north Indian non-vegetarian food to Arab influences.

In fact, we give ourselves too little credit for our own cuisine. Take the tandoor. There are variations on the tandoor found all over West and Central Asia (Persia, Turkey, Uzbekistan, etc) but none of them quite resembles the Indian tandoor.

One view is that invaders/traders from those regions brought their tandoors with them. Perhaps they did. But who is to say which way the traffic went? Excavations at Indus Valley sites show objects that could have been tandoors. So, did the tandoor travel from West to East or vice versa? Or did it develop independently all over Asia?

Moreover, it is almost unknown to find meat or dishes cooked in the tandoor-like ovens of Central and Western Asian cuisines. The tandoor (or variations thereof) is used for making breads.

The first properly recorded use of tandoors to cook chicken comes from 20th century India. Some sources ascribe the origins of tandoori chicken to Peshawar; others to Lahore. Either way it is clear that tandoori meats came from the Indian sub-continent and not the Arab world.

There may not even have been an Islamic connection. It is likely that the chefs who made the first tandoori chickens were Hindus. And it is certainly true that after Partition, tandoori chicken was popularised by Hindu refugees to Delhi from Western Punjab.

So it is with biryani. There is no doubt that biryani is a Muslim dish. One of the most fascinating aspects of Indian cuisine is that wherever you find a Muslim community anywhere in the sub-continent – from Assam to Kerala to Punjab to Dhaka – you will find a biryani that is a local speciality.

Nor are these biryanis particularly similar: except that they use meat and rice. The Moplah biryani from the Kerala coast is as far removed from a Lucknow biryani as you can possibly imagine.

But where was biryani created? All the evidence suggests that it was created in India and perhaps in Delhi. There are no great biryanis in Arab cuisines mainly because Arabs don’t use spices the way Indians do.

The nearest you get to our biryanis are their bland pilafs. What is most likely is that when Muslim rulers set up courts in India, their chefs were inspired by our spices and our khichri (a staple in every Indian household) to abandon the pilafs of West Asia and to create a spicier, moister rice dish.

So yes, we owe the world a lot in terms of the give and take of cuisine development. But let’s hold on to tandoori chicken and biryani. Those are our very own!

From HT Brunch, March 22

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