Indian cuisine has a history that is 5000 years old and is an amalgamation of various cultures intermingling with the subcontinent and lending a touch of influence to the flavors. This has resulted in the diversification of the regional cuisines and development of the modern day cuisines of India.
India has been famous for its tradition of following a vegetarianism way of food. The initiation of the vegetarianism food culture dates back to around 2000years. But vegetarianism was not the preferred food culture in ancient India. This trend was advocated and made popular by the Hindus and Jains. In the Vedic period of ancient India dating from 1500 to 500 BC, the popular custom among the priestly castes was to sacrifice animals in order to please the Gods and get boons from them. The flesh of such animals was then relished as “Prasad” (offering).
But slowly and steadily the trend of meat-eating took a shift. The disadvantages of meat-eating were clearly visible at the end of the Vedic age. This period also witnessed the rise of the Buddhist and Jain religious cultures which strongly advocated against the practice of flesh eating and encouraged people to convert to the vegetarian way of life, preaching the values of “ahimsa” or non-violence towards all.
How old is Indian cuisines history?
The Hindu priests saw a social change in the beliefs of the people. As more and more people were attracted towards the values advocated by Buddhism and Jainism and began converting to those religions, the Hindu priests saw it as a threat to their religion and mass appeal. In order to impress the converts back to their side the Hindu priests began to preach against killing animals.
They publicly came out with their stand against killing near the time of 1st century BC. They adopted the vegetarian way of life and began advocating ahimsa as a better way of life as compared to the ideology of sacrifice practiced by the Brahmins. There was no major opposition to this attitude of turning vegetarian from the meat lovers since the animals were considered under a religious outlook from the Vedic age itself. Actually, only the meat of sacrificed animal was considered food. One of the animals sacrificed during the Vedic times was the cow, which later was looked upon with reverence and worshipped in the Hindu culture.
Consumption of beef was prohibited in the Athervaveda and was considered to be equivalent of a sin committed against one’s ancestors. But it was a popular food at the beginning of the Epic period (c.1000-800 BC) due to the belief that it added vigor to the body as well as the mind. The whole scenario changed in the 5th century BC and the cow came to be considered as the favored animal. It was that period when the cattle population started depleting at a rapid rate.
The people realized the importance of a cow and its utility when alive. They began revering the cow and its flesh became a strictly prohibited meat among the Hindus. They understood that ghee (clarified butter), milk and yoghurt, which were vital ingredients for temple rituals, were produced only by cows and so, cows began enjoying a special place in the prevalent society of that day.
This is how beef-eating was given a natural death in the Hindu society and the taboo associated with eating beef took shape and gained popularity in Hinduism. But vegetarianism is not about averting consumption of beef only. The history of India is abundant with occurrences of vegetarianism being practiced.
For instance, in 800 BC, there was a wide spread distaste for meat among the people and so, cereals, vegetables, pulses, and fruits began gaining popularity. This trend of vegetarianism was given a boost by some priestly castes of certain areas when they began to offer vegetarian food to the deities. It further helped that a few influential kings like Ashoka strictly advocated against killing animals and encouraged the people to turn vegetarian and adopt ahimsa as a way of life. It was not only the Brahmins who took to this vegetarian way of life.
Spreading from northern India, this vegetarian influence made its mark in the southern part of India too. Here, along with the Brahmins the non-Brahmins too saw the benefits of this diet and incorporated it in their lifestyle. The Brahmins began to exclude even garlic and onion in their vegetarian fare as they considered these two vegetables to arouse passion, which was not acceptable to them. Eating a strictly vegetarian diet meant that they possessed a clean and pure mind and body to accomplish various rituals.
But as with everything else, exceptions exist in this case too. Vegetarianism was not adopted by all Brahmins spread across India. Kashmiri Brahmins were a division that continued enjoying their mutton dishes. Even the Brahmins from Bengal ate fish. This made the concept of vegetarianism more popular in South India than in any other part of the country.
Apart from the Brahmins there are various other influences that have shaped the food culture of India and have developed it in the present day form. Among these influences a very strong one is of the Muslims from west Asia, who came to India in the 16th century and spread their culture across the northern part of the country in a vivid manner. The Muslim invasion influenced the Indian way of life in many ways, among which food was a prime area. The Muslims with their different taste of food and diverse methods of cooking had a confluence with the Indian way of cooking and that gave birth to a very distinct kind of food which was acceptable to both the Muslims and the Hindus of India.
It was basically a blend of the non-vegetarian stuff of the Middle East with the rich gravies that were a trademark of Indian food and the innovative cuisine that resulted from this merger came to be known as Mughlai cuisine. Gravies were prepared using milk, cream and clarified butter, ground and whole spices were added to the gravies to add taste and flavor, rice was deliciously cooked with meat, dishes were abundantly garnished with almonds, pistachios, cashews and raisins. India got a taste of delicious Mughlai preparations like pulaos, kebabs and Biriyani and was impressed with the taste and flavor of the dishes. Sweetmeats were also a part of the cuisine as the Arabic tradition was to end the meal on a sweet note. Milk, sugar, cream, rich spices like cardamom and saffron, almonds, rice, wheat flour, coconut, pistachio, rose water, etc. were extensively used to rustle up amazing sweetmeats and desserts.
The Hindus and Muslims had distinct ways of preparing food. The Muslims cooked naan which were cooked in oven and chapattis cooked on girdles. The Hindus cooked puris and bhaturas by deep frying them in oil. The rich section of the society used to deep-fry the puris and bhaturas in ghee while the poor had to do with oil.
Another big influence on Indian cuisine is that of the British. It is a fact that the British played a major role in making the Indian cuisine popular all over the world. The coming of the British to India is a vital turning point in the history of Indian cuisine. It was the starting point of an exceptional romance between the spicy Indian food and the bland European food. The fiery taste of the local food was mellowed down to make it appealing for the gentle European taste buds. The native cooks brought about a unique combination of the Indian spices and herbs used with the smooth taste of the continental dishes and created a certain kind of food that was suitable to both the cultures and yet retained the identity of authentic Indian food. The Portuguese were also responsible for considerably influencing the Indian cuisine. They were the people who introduced India to various vegetables and also techniques of cooking like baking.
Thus the Indian cuisine added the flavors of British food culture along with the already incorporated Muslim tastes and moved along to make a place for itself in the world cuisines. Indian cuisine was also influenced by the traders coming from Arab and China as well as the invaders from ancient Greece, Mongolia, Turkistan, Persia and Afghanistan. Each culture lent a slice of their unique food culture to India and helped develop it into the present day Indian cuisine.
Indian cuisine is provided a distinct identity by the use of a variety of spices and herbs. These spices are essentially the soul of Indian food.
The most common elements or ingredients of Indian cuisine include rice, pearl millet (bajra), whole wheat flour (atta) and various types of pulses or lentils. Among the lentils the most popular and widely used ones are split red lentils (masoor), split green gram (moong), pigeon pea (toor), split Bengal gram (chana daal), black gram (urad), etc. Lentils may be used whole and in de-husked form or in the split form. Generally, split lentils are more widely used. Pulses like kidney beans (rajma), black eyed beans (lobia) and chickpea (desi chana or kabuli chana) are extensively used in the northern part of the country. Some of the pulses like green gram and Bengal gram are turned into flour (besan) and used in the preparation of food items.
Oil is one of the most popular medium of cooking food in India. Vegetable oil is widely used. North and West India prefers peanut oil to prepare food. Eastern India extensively uses mustard oil while South India has a fixture for coconut oil to be used in the preparation of its dishes. Coconut oil is also preferred by the people residing along the Western coast of India. Sesame oil is another variety of popular oil down south used for the purpose of cooking food. Sunflower oil and soyabean oil have gained popularity in recent decades and are emerging as widely accepted choices of cooking medium across India. Another popular cooking medium is the hydrogenated vegetable oil (Vanaspati ghee). Clarified butter (desi ghee) is also used for the purpose of cooking but it is used less frequently in the present times as compared to its extensive use in the past.
India is famous worldwide for its rich and exotic spices and the flavor they impart to Indian cuisine. There is hardly a kitchen in India which does not use a blend of different spices in cooking. Among the most popular and widely used spices in India are turmeric (haldi), red chilli powder, red dry chilli, asafoetida (hing), carom seeds (Ajwain), cinnamon (dalchini), cloves (laung/lavang), coriander seeds (dhania), cumin seeds (jeera), fenugreek seeds (methi), fennel seeds (saunf/mouri), green cardamom (choti Elaichi), cardamom black (badi Elaichi/kali Elaichi), mustard seeds (sarso/rai), nigella or onion seeds (kalonji/kalo jeera), nutmeg (jaiphal), rock salt (kala namak), saffron (kesar), Cayenne pepper (Lal Mirch), cokum, garlic (lassan), ginger (adrak), mango powder (Amchur), mace (javitri), peppercorns (kali mirchi), tamarind (imli), celery seeds (radhuni), poppy seed (khus khus), star anise (chakra anise), etc.
One particular mixture of spices that is very popular in Indian cuisine is the Garam Masala. It is basically a mixture of spices that are hot in nature and that is the reason why the name is Garam masala which means hot spices. Indian garam masala is generally a mixture of black and white peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, black and white cumin seeds, black, brown and green cardamom pods. The proportion and ingredients often vary from region to region. Another mixture of spices common in Indian cooking is the panch phoron which includes five types of spices like Cumin seeds, fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, nigella seeds and mustard seeds or celery seeds.
Some of the common leaves used to impart flavor to the dishes of the Indian cuisine are bay leaf (tej patta), coriander leaves (dhania patta), fenugreek leaves (kasuri methi), curry leaves (kari patta) and mint leaves (Pudina patta). A few of the sweet spices are cardamom, nutmeg, saffron, poppy seeds, mace. They are also used to season sweet dishes and rose petal essence is added to the dishes to enhance the aroma.