The Indian Food that isn't Indian
Posted on 22nd February 2017
Much of the Indian food we know and love isn’t Indian at all. Throughout the subcontinent’s history, new foods have been introduced through foreign invasions, trade and colonialism, creating the rich tapestry of cuisine we enjoy today. We take a look at the fascinating stories behind some of our best-loved dishes…
We all know that India has always been at the heart of the spice trade – evidence suggests the Indian people were trading spices with the Phoenicians, Israelites and Arabs as early as the 1st century. With these luxury ingredients travelling from India to the rest of the world, it’s easy to forget that trade goes both ways.
It’s thought that coriander, okra, yams and tangerines came to India from Africa. Meanwhile, chili peppers, tomatoes and potatoes were introduced to India by Portuguese traders from the Americas. The Portuguese also introduced Indian oranges to Europe in the 15th Century. Although Europeans had been growing oranges for over 400 years, they were a bitter Persian variety and Indian oranges were much sweeter. This influence is still seen today: in Bulgarian, Romanian, Greek and Persian, the word for orange is named after Portugal, their main source of imports.
It’s not just ingredients that have come and gone from India; recipes have too. Samosas were introduced to India around the 13th and 14th century by Middle Eastern traders; naan and biryani are souvenirs from Persian invaders; and of course, Vindaloo has its roots in Portuguese cuisine – after all, they brought the potatoes.
Some dishes have more of a story to tell. Although Gulab Jamun was first cooked in Medieval India, it was brought there by Central Asian Turkic invaders – and legend has it that it was originally created accidentally by the personal chef of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan.
Masala chai – which you can find today in coffee shops across the world – might be a traditional Indian beverage, but it isn’t really Indian. Chai comes from China, brought to North-East India in the early 19th century by the British East India Company in an effort to cut down the Chinese monopoly on tea. It worked: by 1900, 50% of all tea consumed in Great Britain was grown in British India. Masala chai was a side effect; the Indian Tea Association encouraged factories, mills and mines to give their workers tea breaks, serving tea the English way with milk and sugar. Vendors increased the amount of milk and sugar and added spices, giving chai a local flavour.
Indian cuisine has a fascinating heritage, and one that we celebrate at Chakra. Visit our restaurant in Kensington’s Holland Street to sample our famous fusion food. Make a reservation online, or call us on 020 7229 2115.
Want more fascinating facts about Indian cuisine? Like Chakra on Facebook!