One of the many reasons I love food history is because it leads to a better understanding of the world’s various cultures, religions, agricultural practices and political pasts. Each country has its own fascinating history and we can learn a lot about its people by learning the stories attached to culinary traditions.
Among my favorite cuisines of the world, if not my actual favorite, is Indian. However, I have always been intimidated by it when it comes to cooking authentic dishes at home. The range and use of spices in Indian cuisine is so sophisticated and complex! And some of the ingredients just aren’t easy to come by where I live. With my personal limitations, how could I possibly do it any justice?
However, I was still determined to attempt to capture what Indian food is all about by learning more about the why. Why are there so many spices? Why do they use ghee? I am far from an expert on South Asia, but I’m going to share with you a very brief and simplistic overview of the history of Indian food up to the 16th century.
Disclaimer: Historical accuracy, cultural sensitivity and academic honesty are of the utmost importance to me as a writer and a food historian. I am aware that there are elements of ancient history that may be controversial. I do not claim to be an expert in Indian history, but I do conduct thorough research using reputable academic sources, which are cited at the end of this article.
A Brief History of Indian Food
Indian food as we know it is influenced by many factors. It varies significantly by region, caste and religion. Overall, the staples of India consist of basmati rice, millet, legumes (lentils, chickpeas, etc.), dairy like ghee, yogurt and paneer cheese, citrus fruit and a wide variety of nuts, spices and herbs. Here is a great list of Indian pantry essentials.
Around 1500 BC, there were widespread invasions throughout the continent. The Dorians, Hittites, and others systematically raided this part of the world. India was invaded by Indo-Aryan warriors from Central Asia, who are credited by some with introducing the Sanskrit language and the caste system. According to Professor Ken Albala, these warriors were polytheistic and practiced meditation and fasting. Their clergy later became known as Brahmins.
Under the caste system, Brahmins and warriors (Kshatriyas) were kept separate from the other castes. In the early days they did eat beef, but all of that changed around 600 BC. There are theories as to how and why this happened, which I will not get into. But the result of this change brought about the early Dharmasutras/Dharmasastras. In these early Hindu texts a number of food prohibitions were laid out for each caste. Also included were some guidelines as to which foods were considered pure or unpolluted. Among the purest food items was clarified butter, also known as Ghee.
Around this same time, Buddhism was spreading quickly throughout Asia. The religion taught strict vegetarianism. Hindu Brahmins adopted and enforced vegetarianism as a way of life with ayurvedic medical benefits.
In Ayurveda medicine, the ultimate goal is balance. Human beings are run by a set of forces that affect our bodily functions. These forces are called doshas and consist of space, air, fire, earth and water. Also present in our bodies are other forces, one of which is called Ojas. Healthy ojas is directly related to diet.
In the ayurvedic system, foods are assigned properties, called gunas, according to attributes (cold, hot, smooth, solid, etc). There are 20 gunas. The best way to achieve optimal health is by combining and balancing the gunas and the doshas through food. This is why Indian cuisine uses such a wide variety of spices and, unlike many European cuisines, doesn’t pair ingredients with like flavors.
In the centuries that followed, trade, travel, and invasions further influenced Indian cuisine. Additional spices were imported from other areas of the world, and vindaloo is said to have come from Portuguese sailors who called the dish vinha d’alhos.
Throughout the medieval period, strong Persian, Turkish and Iranian influences began to manifest in Indian cuisine. Various empires and dynasties rose and fell. Among these were the Gupta, Chalukya, Rashtrakuta, Pala and Chola. In the Late Middle Ages, A Muslim Indo-Turkish sultanate ruled from the 13th to the 16th century.
Probably the most significant culinary influence came with the Mughal Empire, a Persian-Mongol Islamic empire which covered a huge area including much of India, Pakistan and part of Afghanistan between the 16th and 19th centuries. This cuisine hybrid became known as Muglai cuisine, which survives today in northern India, especially in the state of Punjab.
If you have been to an Indian restaurant in the United States, chances are you’re very familiar with northern Indian and Sikh dishes. These cuisines were heavily influenced by Mughlai traditions and include dishes like Tandoori, Samosas, Masala, Biryani and Lamb (a Persian influence), sweet milk-based desserts, Gulab Jamun and Kebabs.
There are authentic 16th-century Mughal cookery texts in existence, but of course I can’t read them and to my knowledge there are limited digitized images available to the general public. However, one of these texts, Nuskha-e-Shahjahani, has recently been translated by food historian Salma Yusuf Husain and published in her book, The Mughal Feast. I haven’t read it but it’s on my list!
Gajar ka halwa
Since I don’t have any authentic 16th-century Mughal recipes at my fingertips, I decided to celebrate Indian food history by making my very own Gajar ka halwa. Gajar ka halwa, also known as Gajrela, is a sweet pudding-like dish of carrots simmered in milk cooked with sugar, spices, nuts and ghee. This is a very traditional dish from the Mughal era lumped into a dessert category called Mughlai Mithai (Mughlai Sweetmeats).
This recipe belongs to Dassana Amit of Veg Recipes of India and I will not take any credit by posting her actual recipe here. If you want to try it at home, please go to her website for the full recipe.
What I will tell you is that I followed the recipe exactly and it turned out very well. It is rich and very sweet (makes sense because the Mughals had a sweet tooth) with a nice aroma from the saffron and cardamom.
If you like Indian food you will probably really enjoy this halwa! It takes about two hours to make, but it turned out perfectly despite this being my first time cooking an authentic Indian dish from scratch. I really hope you try it!
- Professor Ken Albala. Food: A Cultural Culinary History. The Great Courses. Audio lecture on CD.
- Gnana, S.R. “Caste system, Dalitization and its Implications in Contemporary India.” International Journal of Sociology and Anthropology 10.7 (2018): 65-71
- Gupta, Surbhi. Food historian Salma Yusuf Husain brings back recipes from Shah Jahan’s dastarkhwan. The Indian Express. May 21, 2020.
- Husain, Salma Yusuf.Excerpt | From Kababs to Pulao, the Art of Cooking in the Time of Mughals. The Wire. June 30. 2019.
- Thapar, Romila. “The Theory of Aryan Race and India: History and Politics.” Social Scientist, vol. 24, no. 1/3, 1996, pp. 3–29. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3520116.
- Vishal, Anoothi. Medieval Mughlai: New Translation of Nushka-e-Shahjahani.
- What is India’s Caste System? BBC News. June 19, 2019.