A primer on Indian food


I really didn’t realise what I was letting myself when I began researching this article. I have been to hundreds of Indian restaurants, but I had no idea of the sheer scale of Indian cuisine. This was rather naïve I suppose. India, which is larger than the whole of Europe (excepting Russia), is, after all, the second most populous country in the world. Luckily, I had the invaluable assistance of Alan Davidson’s The Oxford Companion to Food 2nd Ed, a one-million word encyclopaedia of food.

The Indian subcontinent is the birthplace of four of the world’s major religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Christianity, and especially Islam, have an important presence in the country. And although 250 languages have died out in the last fifty years, people in India presently speak in 780 different languages according to a study published in 2013. The geography, from the snowy Himalayas to the coconut palms of the tropical south provides for a great variety of cuisines. Indeed, Wikipedia lists 37 different regional cuisines. I was going to do an historical overview, but in the end I will just do a survey.

The basics

However, I do want to try to seek out the common strands. Cereals are at the heart of an Indian meal, with savoury dishes added as accompaniments and to provide flavour. There is a strong vegetarian component lentils and pulses generally, and vegetables are staples. This vegetarianism has in its origins the doctrine of ahimsa or non-violence first set forth in the Upanishads, a 9th century BC collection of texts that contain some of the central philosophical concepts of Hinduism. Buddhism and Jainism developed the idea. Dairy products such as yoghurt, ghee, panir and kheer are very popular. In fact, India now has the world’s biggest dairy industry in terms of milk production. But it is the spices, especially ginger and garlic, but including coriander turmeric, fenugreek and cumin and many others, that make Indian cuisine so distinctive. Traditionally, meals in India were eaten while seated either on the floor or on very low stools or cushions. At the centre is the thali (platter) with its central pile of rice or bread surrounded by small containers of savoury accompaniments. Food is most often eaten with the right hand rather than cutlery.


Although now part of India, Goa was a Portuguese possession for four and a half centuries. This led to a fascinating mix an intriguing mix of Latin influences mixture with those of the Hindus and Muslims. It may have been a small territory, but its position as a gateway Portugal’s empire in the East and as centre of East–West trade, gave Goa, an importance quite disproportionate to the small size of the territory. The best known example of the Portuguese Indian collaboration must be Vindaloo. Originally a pork stew, the addition of various spices gave it that Indian touch. Goan chouriço sausages are Portuguese chouriços, but with an Indian masala. The ingredients include pork, pork fat, chilli, garlic, ginger, cumin and turmeric and they are filled into pig intestines.

Moghul cuisine

Moghul is the Indian version of Mongol. The Mongol Empire was by far the greatest force in Asia in the Middle Ages. See my post Genghis and the original Khan Academy. It was the Moghuls who over a period of two centuries introduced Persian dishes to India. There was a blend of Persian and Indian flavours. This legacy survives today. The Indian food that most of us are familiar with is this northern cuisine. All of these have a Moghul origin:




Pilaf and Biriani dishes


Tandoor dishes;

And those rich dishes with almonds and pistachios are likely to be of Moghul origin, as are sweet rice dishes flavoured with saffron.


The British were in India from 1612 to 1947 resulting in a great deal of influence. I will look at a few of the dishes or foodstuffs regarded as typical of Anglo-Indian cookery. Mulligatawny soup came about due to British requirement for soup as a separate course, something unknown in India. The name is a corruption of the Tamil milagu-tannir, “pepper-water”. The basic recipe for mulligatawny was always with some chicken or mutton, fried onion, curry powder, and stock or water. Another dish from this period is kedgeree. It was an Indian dish, but was adapted to British tastes with flaked smoked fish, hard-boiled eggs and even cream being added.  It has now become a British breakfast speciality. The long-term impact of Anglo-Indian cookery on English cookery apart the popularity of curry dishes and of chutneys was not that great. It was not until the arrival of Indian restaurants in Britain, in the second half of the 20th century, that the influence grew.


Curry, which comes from the Tamil word kari, entered the English language in the 1680s. In India it referred to a spiced sauce. The traditional South Indian kari does not have a fixed set of ingredients, but a typical mixture was and remains the following, all roasted and ground to a powder: kari patta (curry leaf); coriander, cumin, and mustard seeds; red and black pepper; fenugreek; turmeric; and oftentimes cinnamon, cloves and cardamom. In India this mixture is almost always freshly prepared. It was during the Raj that the British, in the name of convenience, created commercial ready-mixed curry powder. In 1747 Hannah Glasse published To Make a Currey the India Way’, said to be the first curry recipe in English,

The curry house

The colonial relationship between Britain and the Indian subcontinent is undoubtedly behind the rise of Indian restaurants in the UK. In the 18th century, thanks to employees of the British East India Company, curry began to appear on coffee house menus. In 1810, the Bengali entrepreneur Sake Dean Mahomed, opened the first Indian curry house in England: the Hindoostanee Coffee House in London. Veeraswamy’s, the oldest surviving Indian restaurant in London, opened in 1926. And in the 1930s and 1940s cheap curry houses began to spring up. It was given an English twist, with the emphasis on emphasized meat and sauce and often served with chips. What was lost was the sophistication and complexity of vegetable and pulse dishes. Although since the 1980s there has been a greater appreciation of the variety and subtlety of Indian cuisine. At the same time we have seen the emergence of an “English” curry.


The name refers to both the cuisine of Baltistan in the far north-east of Pakistan and the wok-like utensil which is the main piece of equipment used by Balti cooks. There are other theories: one dictionary of Anglo Indian terms claims it comes from the Portuguese word “balde” meaning bucket. Be that as it may, until the last quarter of the 20th century Balti food was virtually unknown outside Baltistan. Apparently it was the chance arrival one immigrant, Mohammed Arif, who claims to have opened, the first Balti restaurant, called Adil’s, in 1977. It has now become a mass phenomenon all over the U.K. especially in Birmingham.


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