And the lessons chefs like William Harold and his likes realised about Indian Cuisine.

By Madhulika Dash; Illustrations: Stock Images

On his way back to England from India, legendary chef William Harold makes a note on his diary that read: “Of all the food cultures I have had the fantastic opportunity to savour, Hindoostan remains one of the most enigmatic, enchanting and extremely addictive. It is both ancient in practice and modern in the approach, and in the years to come will be the one system that would turn cuisine in the world.”

The year was of the war, and Chef William Harold on the behest of an officer had made a rather “strenuous” journey to figure out the omnipresent Bhel – a common snack that had made home in the British palate memory way before Chicken Tikka ruled their world.

Curiously, while Chef Harold failed to master Bhel in spite his many visits to different vendors across North and Western India and often defined it as a “an easy dish that needs in-born talent”, he did take a shine to many things Indian – the grill, the pit cooking and of course the one pot cooking.

Chef Harold however wasn’t the first person to be smitten by the vastness of Indian cuisine, even in its ancient form, the Indian food culture – which is defined as a delicious melange of food cultures developed by nearly 10,000 tribes and communities – managed to stun travellers like Ibn Battuta as well. The Moroccan scholar in fact dedicated a major part of his diary to exploring the fascinating world of cuisine across the Silk Route kingdom – with an interesting chapter dedicated to the food street of India, including the rich Vijaynagaram, which he called the “capital of a healthy surpluses”.

What was (and still is) about Indian cuisine that attracted all? The sheer variation, the science, the techniques that are slowly getting revived and adopted by the world for its wellness quotient or a common thread of influences that is at the core of the country’s culinary ecosystem. It is a little more than that. While it is true that Indian cuisine was developed on the science of wellness and a system of thali, which allowed the body to take the right amount of nutrients required as per one’s occupation, what gave it the envious position is its sustainability and taste.

After all, Indian cuisine wasn’t the creation of a particular region or tribe but a collective effort of different tribes, dynasties, trading routes and outside influence. Adding to that was the fact that each cuisine had at least two versions – one the tribal, common man’s version, the second was the elite class. And then came the version of those who came from outside and settled there and designed their own cuisine. Take the case of Assam. The food culture here easily dates to early AD, and was developed primarily by the Ahom Kings who ruled upper Assam and the farmers who stayed in lower Assam. The result, this ancient cuisine that taught the world the value of introducing “khar” (alkali) and “tenga” (sourness) into food. Even today, they have two streams of food – the subtle one that was created by royalty and the vibrant one that was created by tribes – as part of their food culture. This was further enhanced when Bengali community and the Muslim soldiers settled in this tea-rich region and added a new dimension to the food. So today an Assamese thali while having their traditional food also has influenced food that was created by the Muslim soldiers who settled in Hajo and Bengalis who populated their Brahmaputra region for trade and brought their own food culture.

Thus, giving Assam cuisine new layers of culinary gems and a connect. Bengali cuisine, as a matter of fact, developed in the likewise manner. Before the famous Calcutta modern cuisine was created by a melange of Oriya temple chef and Bangladesh cooks who got an array of interesting mutton curries, chops and the famous daber chingri (fish in tender coconut) and the chorchori, Bengal food was slowly created by a slew of farming community and the dynasties that ruled Bengal – which ranged from the uniting Gupta kings to the Chola empire. Thus, giving a common link between Bengal, Odisha, Bihar and part of Andhra cuisine.  

In addition to all this was the community that made each of their region home. In case of Bengal, it were the Armenian, who settled way before the Dutch and British, who influenced and created a different stream of cuisine inspired from the existing one called the Anglo Indian cuisine. In case of Gujarat and Maharastra, this was effected by the Parsees, who as per their promise, took the indigenous cuisine, paired it with their own eating habits and culinary techniques to create a food culture that today is a sunning blend of both Gujarati food and Iranian ingredients and influences.

In fact, this  fascinating weave and waft of a lot of traditional practices and thoughts were at the foundation of the ever-evolving Indian cuisine as early as 2BC. The Indian cuisine was adept at absorbing different techniques and produces, and present them in their own manner.  In food, an brilliant example of this is the samosa, which arrived as sambuka and was turned into a savoury, all-loving patty using another ingredient that didn’t belong to India, but came with the Portuguese called potato. Today, it is as integral a part of the food as tomatoes, which also came from South America, but can boast of some of the most innovative usage in its foster land – from tomato khatta to murabba and even tamatar ki chaat.

It is, in fact, this versatility that made even Babar (founder of the Mughal dynasty in India) despite of his little liking to the country he came to conquer only, work towards developing a cuisine that eventually led to many branches, the Mughali cuisine. The food umbrella which over the next 1000 years led to the origin of the Awadhi, Hyderabadi, Bhopali and Rampuri cuisine – each a fine showcase of taking old cooking techniques and food and evolving it.

This constant evolution that came was an outcome not only of the trade, invasions and colonialization, but also the 10,000-year-old science that made our culinary ecosystem not only about the taste – the Indian thali uses  but also wellness that defined much of the techniques that led to the creation of an array of interesting dishes. An excellent example of Indian culinary evolution are the sweets – from ladoos to chenna podo (touted as the first cheesecake of South Asia), jalebi to ghevar and even rosogulla each has been a benchmark of how basic techniques like baking, roasting, frying – deep and shallow – and steaming was perfected to create classics.  

Another set of the culinary gems that became highlights were the kebabs, raans and barras that redefined roasting – pit, grilling and tandoor. But the one thing that hold the fascination of the world were our curries and  flatbreads. India by the medieval times boasted of a range of flatbreads that were redefining those across the world – and impressively, two dozen of them were made using the flat griddle also called the tawa, and the rest came out of the tandoor and used the sour bread technique. And most surprisingly, we were not working with wheat or corn flour to make our breads but of millets, rice, lentils and roasted flour called sattu as well.

No wonder, Indian cuisine was the focal point of many cultures.