How the Middle East influenced the Indian cuisine we know

How the Middle East influenced the Indian cuisine we know
A street vendor prepares food in New Delhi. (AFP/File)
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Updated 16 December 2022

How the Middle East influenced the Indian cuisine we know

How the Middle East influenced the Indian cuisine we know
  • Centuries-long exchanges between regions resulted in famous dishes
  • Arab merchants reached southwest coastal regions of India long before advent of Islam

NEW DELHI: When traders from the Arabian Peninsula began to reach the shores of the Indian subcontinent, they exchanged not only goods and information, but also flavors, which for millennia shaped the shared gastronomic heritage we know today.

While an Indian meal is usually incomplete without naan, a leavened flatbread that originated in the Middle East, most of the signature Arab dishes are not possible without Indian spices.

From as early as 2,000 B.C, spices from South and East Asia were exported along the Silk Road to the Middle East, from where they later entered Europe. They were highly valued — used not only in cooking, but also for ritual, religious or medical purposes.

The English word “spice” derives from the Latin “species,” or “special wares,” which refers to items of special value, as opposed to ordinary articles of trade.

In Arabic, the very word “spices” bears an immediate link to India.

“Spices are known as ‘baharat,’ a term similar to India’s ancient name, Bharat,” Muddassir Quamar, a New Delhi-based expert on Middle Eastern affairs, told Arab News.

“‘Baharat’ for ‘spices’ was a reference to its Indian origins or the name Bharat for India was linked to the term for spices. Whatever it might be, the strong connections are self-evident.”

Merchants from the Middle East would sail the Arabian Sea and reach southwest coastal regions of India long before the advent of Islam in the seventh century.

Archaeological excavations show robust trading and cultural exchange between the civilizations of the Indus Valley in the northwestern regions of South Asia and of Mesopotamia.

Colleen Taylor Sen, the author of “A History of Food in India,” sees ancient Arab traders as a “link in the Spice Route between Southeast Asia and Europe via India.”

She said: “From the time of the Harappan, or Indus Valley Civilization, India and the lands on the Arabian Sea have had close trade relations and cultural exchanges.

“Today, Indian spices are widely used in Arab cuisines. Rice dishes, such as the Saudi chicken kabsa, are aromatic cousins of Indian biryani.” Food in the Arabian Peninsula, in particular in Yemen, shows Indian influences with the extensive use of chili, cumin, coriander seeds and turmeric.

But the gastronomic exchange went both ways, and is evident in India’s comfort stew haleem or popular snacks such as samosas and jalebis.

Haleem was introduced to the region during the Mughal period, while the fried pastry was already known a few hundred years earlier — since about the early 13th century.

“In India, haleem is an offshoot of Arabic harissa, while samosa and jalebi are of Middle Eastern origin,” Sen said.

“The last two probably came to India during the time of the Delhi Sultanate, which attracted scholars and administrators from all over the Islamic world.”

The complexity of the formation of shared culinary heritage is reflected in how some food items traveled to the Middle East from India and returned in a new, changed form that is nowadays considered original.

Vir Sanghvi, celebrity Indian food columnist and author, refers to a documented example of ancient trade in food that suggests that the introduction of poultry — a staple in Middle Eastern cuisines — began from the Indian subcontinent.

“Generally, the view is that the chicken was domesticated first in the Indus Valley civilization in 1,500-2,000 B.C. The Indus Valley had strong trade links with Mesopotamia, which is today’s Iraq. The view is that chicken went from the Indus Valley to the Middle East and from there to the rest of the places,” Sanghvi told Arab News.

In turn, India received bread, which has since been one of the most important parts of the country’s diet.

“I think one of the most important contributions of the Arab world to India was refined flour or maida. We had no refined flour and therefore no tradition of baking and it’s the Arabs who introduced baking to India,” Sanghvi said, as he mentioned yet another culinary item, which has been key to the evolution of Indian and Arabian cuisines: Rice.

There are different opinions on when rice was introduced but according to Sanghvi the first grains likely entered the Middle East from India.

“There are two views. The first is that when Alexander the Great came to India in 326 B.C., his soldiers had never seen rice and they took rice all the way back to Greece. On the way back, soldiers set up camps and cities and took rice to the Middle East,” he said.

“The second view is that when the Arabs conquered India’s Sindh in the ninth century, they also discovered rice and they took it back.”

A few centuries later, rice returned to India from the Middle East, but in a new manifestation that has since become one of the region’s favorite celebratory dishes: Biryani.

The flavorful dish derives from mandi, an Arabic rice pilau.

“The Middle East created this dish called pilau and it came to India with Arab travelers,” Sanghvi said.

“We changed it, and we turned it around, and probably in the reign of the Mughal emperor Jahangir in the 17th century we created biryani, which is typically Indian, but which grew out of pilau, which grew out of an Arab dish, which grew out of the rice that India sent there.”