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The story of desi cuisine: Timeless desi dishes
Friday, June 29, 2012 10:49 AM
On the eve of his departure to India last February, Hollywood star Will Smith said he hoped to achieve two things on his visit: to meet Aishwarya Rai and to taste authentic chicken tikka masala. But finding the divine Ms. Rai would probably prove easier for Smith than hunting down his favourite dish. Chicken tikka masala is a preparation that few Indians had heard of until quite recently.

The story of desi cuisineAnd it’s doubtful whether there is anything like an authoritative version. Dozens of recipes exist, most bearing little resemblance to one another.

Accounts of the origins of the dish usually point to a curry house in Glasgow, where an irate customer sent back the order of chicken tikka that he found too dry. The Bangladeshi chef whipped up a spicy tomato sauce (one variation has him using Campbell’s tomato soup), poured it over the chicken and created an instant hit.

Chicken tikka masala is now the most popular item on restaurant menus in the U.K., where it has been hailed the country’s true national dish.

Chefs on the subcontinent, initially baffled by requests from British tourists wanting to taste the genuine item, quickly invented their own versions. Today, chicken tikka masala is increasingly well known in its supposed land of origin.

The convoluted history of this dish demonstrates the difficulty in trying to identify “authentic” Indian cuisine. Indian food has been shaped by millennia of foreign influences, including migrants introducing their traditional recipes; conquerors imposing new palace cuisines; merchants importing unfamiliar plants; and new religions with their own dietary laws. South Asians have assimilated all of these ideas, interpreted them in their own unique way, and created the range of cooking styles found across the subcontinent today.

If you had been invited to an Indian banquet 2,000 years ago, what would you have found on the menu? Rice, accompanied by chickpeas (chana) or kidney beans (rajma). Lentils (urad, moong, masoor), either boiled, made into a batter and deep-fried (vade), or rolled into thin papads. A variety of vegetables, including squash, bitter gourds (karela), peas, sweet potatoes and lotus stems. The food would have been well spiced, using generous amounts of turmeric, cumin, asafetida (hing), pepper, mustard seeds and fenugreek. Coriander, lemon and ginger would have been used for added flavour, but garlic and onion would have been frowned upon. The food would have been cooked in sesame or mustard oil — or, on special occasions, ghee — even though the great physicians of the time, Charaka and Sushrutha, warned against eating too much fried food.

People with a sweet tooth would be satisfied with apupa (barley or rice cakes deep-fried and dipped in honey), kheer from rice cooked in milk, and mandaka (parathas stuffed with sweetened lentil paste). A variety of meats were offered, including chicken, goat and venison — but the taboo against eating beef was already established, and vegetarianism was becoming widespread.

A modern guest at this ancient feast would have been equally struck by what was missing, as many of the ingredients indispensable in Indian food today would have been absent. Potatoes and tomatoes were still unknown in India, as were chilies — the only heat in the spicing came from black pepper and mustard seeds. There were no nuts or cream.

If your dinner invitation were to be postponed by about 1,500 years, a very different menu would greet you. The arrival of Muslims altered Indian cuisine, though in different ways in the south and north of the country.

In Kerala, Arab traders were frequent visitors, attracted by the flourishing spice trade, and many married and settled there. Their history is reflected in the name given to the Muslim community, Mappila, derived from the Malayalam for son-in-law. Arab influences are clear in Mappila food, including an elaborate repertoire of biryanis and pulaos and dishes such as aleesa, a sweet porridge of wheat and ground lamb.

In northern India, the Muslim influence was very different and far deeper. Afghans, Turks and Persians came as invaders, not traders. Muslims had conquered parts of the north as early as the 13th century, but the people with the greatest influence on India’s culture, for whom an entire cuisine is named, were the Mughals. Babur, founder of the Mughal dynasty, hailed from a tiny principality in central Asia. He found himself master of the north in 1526, after defeating the sultan of Delhi. Babur did not think highly of his new kingdom, complaining about the lack of ice, grapes, melons, good food and bread.

The Mughals set out to refashion their court according to their own ideals of good taste, drawing inspiration from Persia, the centre of Muslim culture. Persian poets, architects, craftsmen, artists and musicians were all invited to the Mughal court. Persian chefs came to India and introduced the cuisine of Isfahan, their royal capital. Indian cooks mastered this new cooking style but adapted it to their traditional spices and ingredients, creating a fusion cuisine that we now know as “Mughlai.” Indians learned Persian techniques of marinating meat in yogurt, and of cooking with dried apricots, raisins and almonds. Kebabs and kormas became the mainstay of Mughal banquets.

Muslim cooks used garlic and onions liberally in their food, and Hindus who had previously shunned these ingredients for religious reasons began to use them, too. Kashmiri Brahmins refused to do so and roghan josh, originally a Persian dish, was adapted by Kashmiri cooks using fennel seed and asafetida instead of onions and garlic for flavouring.

Saffron had long been held in great esteem in Arab and Persian cultures, where the golden hue it imparted to food was a symbol of festivity and well-being. Echoes of this tradition can be found in modern restaurants, where food colouring is used to dye tandoori dishes orange.

The centrepiece of any Persian meal was delicately scented polo, platters of rice cooked with butter and saffron. Rice, which had been grown in India for millennia, was so rare and expensive a commodity in Persia that only the very wealthy could afford it. Elaborate recipes were developed to make the best use of the treasured ingredient. When polo was brought back to India, Mughal cooks added spices, vegetables and meat to the mix to create pulaos. Taking the idea one step further, they created biryani, in which rice was layered and cooked in a meat curry, infusing it with the flavour of spices.

Many of the sweets most loved in India today were developed in Mughal times. Halwa, a favourite of the Arabs, is made from grated vegetables or semolina cooked with milk and sugar. Barfi, so called because of its resemblance to snow, which is burf in Persian, is made from thickened milk, nuts and sugar. And jalebis are deep-fried spirals of fermented batter in syrup, whose name is derived from the Arabic zalabia.

Europeans had arrived by ship in India a few decades before the Mughals, but their political impact remained insignificant for centuries. Their greatest effect was on Indian cuisine, which they were to transform.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in India, seizing Goa in 1510 and holding it as a colony for the next 450 years. The Portuguese encouraged marriage with Indian women, creating hybrid households and a unique cuisine that blended Portuguese cooking methods with distinctively Indian spicing. Goans, who eventually became Catholic, had no religious objections to eating pork, and Goan cuisine has a lot of pork dishes that are rarely eaten elsewhere on the subcontinent, such as chourisam (a spicy sausage prepared from pork marinated in ginger, garlic, spices and vinegar) and sorpotel (pork curry with vinegar and tamarind juice). Vindaloo, the best-known example of Goan cooking, is made by cooking meat marinated in vinegar. Its name comes from the Portuguese vinho e alho, meaning wine and garlic.

The Portuguese went to great lengths to bake leavened white bread, not only for their dinner tables, but because it was essential to the rites of the Catholic mass. They lacked yeast to make bread rise, but toddy (fermented palm juice) served quite well. Goans baked white bread rolls known as pão, the predecessors of the pao-bhaji served today on Indian street corners. Arabs had introduced Persian polo to their territories in Spain, where seafood was added to create paella, a distant relative of the Mughal pulao. In an odd loop of history, the recipe for paella was carried back by the Portuguese to Goa, where it was given a new twist with the addition of coconut milk and Indian spices and herbs.

The Portuguese effect on Indian cuisine extended far beyond the boundaries of Goa. From their colonies in the Caribbean and Brazil they imported a variety of fruit and vegetables that were previously unknown in Asia, and these altered Indian eating habits forever. Fruits such as pineapples, papayas, guavas and lychees all found an enthusiastic reception on the subcontinent. Cashew nuts were grown in Goa and used to brew the potent liquor known as feni. Corn was planted across the country and became the staple food of Punjabi peasants who used it to make makki di roti. Potatoes and tomatoes were introduced, though they were not widely used until the 19th century.

But no Portuguese import had as much impact on Indian cuisine as chilies. Chilies were brought to Goa a few decades after Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the New World and they were imported under the name achi, which still lives on in the Hindi word achar, meaning pickle. The plant itself was renamed mirchi in most Indian languages, the name previously used for black pepper. South Indians took to eating chilies with gusto and by the mid 1500s the Kannada poet Purandara Dasa was writing odes to the “saviour of the poor, enhancer of good food.”

The British ruled India for more than two centuries and left behind impressive architecture, parliamentary democracy and cricket, but they had surprisingly little effect on local food. Cutlets and custard, the mainstays of Anglo-Indian cuisine, survive in railway restaurants and army messes, but never became popular.

The absorption of foreign influences by South Asian chefs continues today, producing strange hybrids found on restaurant menus, such as pizza-uttapam and couscous upma.

The process of culinary exchange is by no means a one-way street. In Toronto, Pizza Pizza now offers a chicken tikka masala-topped pizza and several restaurant chefs are experimenting with fusion cuisine, blending subcontinental and Western styles of cooking.

The future, obviously, holds many delicious surprises.

This article first appeared HERE.

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