“It is an obvious truth, all too often forgotten, that food is not only inseparable from the history of the human race, but basic to it. Without food there would be no human race, and no history.”
The more I learn about Indian food, the more I realise the significant extent to which India has played a part in world affairs for the last 5,000 years. Indian food is one of the oldest cuisines in human history, and its impressive lineage is still very recognisable in the food we eat today.
The history of Indian food is a fascinating one. Our cuisine is prismatic, of light and brilliant colours, absorbing and reflecting the influences and sparks of global travel and trade spanning the length and breadth of human history. Our food is made from the dazzling array of spices that brought so many to India, and has evolved to reflect many global influences.
We thought it fitting to launch our Bombay Cook Club: Book Club series with the fabulous book, The History of Food, by Reay Tannahill, which ambitiously traces the origins of food and cooking back to our earliest ancestors. The book describes how humans first learned to harness the energy of the food they ate by cooking it, how social structures developed around the sharing of food, and how different food styles emerged in societies around the world.
Our challenge was to design a menu that would take our guests through the course of Indian history, eating the food our ancestors would have eaten, using the ingredients and techniques available to them at the time.
Our feast began with an eggplant curry, first made by the peoples of the Indus Valley, one of the world’s earliest civilisations (now modern day Pakistan) as early as 3,000 BC. The residents of the large and sophisticated cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro had access to a relatively diverse range of fresh food and many spices, grains, rice, and dairy products from the cows they held sacred.
We used sesame oil, ginger, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, turmeric, pepper and tamarind to flavour our curry, and served it with unrefined red rice, dal and wholemeal flatbread. The verdict: a delicious combination of whole, natural ingredients, certainly a meal anyone could enjoy 5,000 years later.
We then made samosas, a food brought to India by the Arab traders of the Silk Road: a travel food, meat wrapped in pastry, to make it portable, and keep it from spoiling. We served our samosas with tamarind and date chutney, and green chutney, made from coriander that was most likely brought to India by Alexander the Great in 326 BC from Greece. Chutney was a popular Indian food that later in history became much loved by the British, who took it home with them to inspire a whole range of famous English chutneys. That’s how far food influences travel!
Next up we served chicken kebabs and yoghurt raita. The Moghuls, more invaders from the north, introduced a whole new style of cooking that left its mark on northern Indian cuisine in the 1600s. The Moghuls loved their meat: skewers were also travel food, meat roasted on spits or swords by vast conquering armies. They also brought spiced and fragrant rice dishes to India: spicy pilaus, biryani full of nuts, dried fruits, fragrant with saffron, gilded with silver leaf; and used lots of dairy in their cooking, yoghurts and cooling salads. The Mughals also loved their sweets, so we made one more court-inspired dish which we saved for dessert: kulfi…. first made for the Mughal emperors and their courtiers with ice carted by slaves from the Himalayas.
Our last course was inspired by the other great influence on modern Indian food: the Portuguese, who first sailed to India in the late 1400s, landing in Goa to find and trade spices. We made a spicy vindaloo, packed with chilli, tomato and garlic, a recipe based on a traditional Portuguese wine vinegar and garlic stew called Vinho de Alhos, and served it with hot white rice.
The Portuguese landing signalled the great age of sea travel sparked by trade in spices that later brought the Dutch and British to India. While there is no doubt that India’s colonial legacy left India much impoverished, the contribution of these cultures to Indian food was significant in introducing some of the very staples of modern Indian cooking like chillies, tomatoes and potatoes (none of which existed in India prior to the 1500s).
There is just so much we can learn from the history of food. The kind of foods our ancestors ate, importance of religious and secular traditions that developed around cooking, eating and sharing food, how and when we used food to celebrate, the medicinal values associated with food and how we used it to cure illness, the practices of cooking to avoid food contamination and eating at certain times of day.
In an era where we seem to be ever more disconnected from an industrialised food system, where many of us in the western world are overeating, the lessons of the past: where our food came from and how to consume it sustainably, how to eat more mindfully, how to control portion size, even how to chew food to optimise digestion, can help restore a historical, cultural and social context to how we eat. And eating like our ancestors, like our grandparents ate, has much to recommend it. “JERF”, or ‘just eat real food” may be a trendy new philosophy, but it’s basically what everyone in the world did, before we started messing with our natural food system.
We love sharing our history, stories and food with our guests at the Bombay Cook Club. And we think our guests loved it to. I have included some feedback from our first Food in History lunch below, and I hope more people will join us on our very interesting journey to learn more about the history of this ancient and global cuisine.
“I’ve never enjoyed learning so much and what an eye-opening, horizon expanding experience. I never knew Indian food could taste like this. The history added to the ‘flavour’ and enjoyment. Thank you!”
“What an inspiring, delicious and enjoyable afternoon learning and sampling the foods of Indian history! Thank you Shaheen and Sultana for sharing your passion, knowledge and the warmth of your kitchen with me!”
“Awesome, awesome, awesome!! Thank you for opening up your home to us and sharing your amazing knowledge and passion with us. The food was so scrumptious and I can’t wait to try some of the recipes for my family.”
“Totally loved our lunch today. Learned a lot about food history and Indian cuisine, everything tasted delicious! Thanks very much.”