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.”


Kremlin denies Turkish media reports of planned Putin visit to Ankara

Kremlin denies Turkish media reports of planned Putin visit to Ankara
Updated 27 March 2023

Kremlin denies Turkish media reports of planned Putin visit to Ankara

Kremlin denies Turkish media reports of planned Putin visit to Ankara

MOSCOW: The Kremlin on Monday denied Turkish reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin was planning to visit the Turksih capital, Ankara.

Russian state-owned news agency RIA reported on Monday that the deputy foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey, Iran and Syria may hold consultations in Moscow in early April.

Police fire tear gas as fresh protests erupt in Kenya despite ban

Police fire tear gas as fresh protests erupt in Kenya despite ban
Updated 27 March 2023

Police fire tear gas as fresh protests erupt in Kenya despite ban

Police fire tear gas as fresh protests erupt in Kenya despite ban
NAIROBI: Police fired tear gas to disperse anti-government protests on Monday over the high cost of living, after the opposition vowed demonstrations would go ahead despite a police ban.
Security was tight, with riot police stationed at strategic points in Nairobi and patrolling the streets, while many shops were shut and train services from the capital’s outskirts into the central business district were suspended.
Veteran opposition leader Raila Odinga has urged people to take to the streets every Monday and Thursday, even after protests a week ago turned violent and paralyzed parts of Nairobi.
Police clashed with stone-throwing demonstrators in Nairobi’s largest slum Kibera, where protesters set tires on fire, defying a warning by the Inspector General of Police Japhet Koome who said Sunday that the rallies were “illegal” and would be banned.
The situation was calmer elsewhere in the city, with a heavy police presence in neighborhoods where protests had taken place last week.
During last Monday’s clashes in Nairobi and opposition strongholds in western Kenya, a university student was killed by police fire while 31 officers were injured as running battles erupted between riot police and demonstrators.
More than 200 people were arrested, including several senior opposition politicians, while protesters — as well as Odinga’s own motorcade — were hit with tear gas and water cannon.

It was the first major outbreak of political unrest since President William Ruto took office more than six months ago after defeating Odinga in an election his rival claims was “stolen.”
Despite the police ban, Odinga called Sunday on Kenyans to join what he has described as “the mother of all demonstrations.”
“I want to tell Mr.Ruto and the IG Koome that we are not going to be intimidated,” he said. “We are not going to fear tear gas and police.”
Odinga also accused Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua of orchestrating an operation to cause “mayhem” at Monday’s rallies.
Nairobi residents were wary after the previous violence.
“I may have to close too because I have seen most of my neighbors are closed,” said Mercy Wangare, an Mpesa (mobile money) kiosk attendant at an electronics shop.
“I am just weighing the situation before I decide because the sight of these policemen patrolling around is a sign that it may not end up well.”
The Communications Authority of Kenya has sought to prevent television stations from broadcasting the demonstrations live, but the move was blocked by the High Court.

Ruto, who is currently on a four-day trip to Germany and Belgium, has urged his rival to halt the action.
“I am telling Raila Odinga that if he has a problem with me, he should face me and stop terrorizing the country,” he said Thursday.
“Stop paralysing the businesses of mama mboga, matatu and other Kenyans,” he said, referring to women stallholders and private minibus operators.
Many Kenyans are struggling to put food on the table, battling high prices for basic goods as well as a plunging local currency and a record drought that has left millions hungry.
“If the leaders don’t talk, it is us who are affected. They are rich people, it is who will sleep hungry,” motorcycle taxi driver Collins Kibe told AFP.
During the election campaign, Ruto portrayed himself as champion of the downtrodden and vowed to improve the lot of ordinary Kenyans.
But critics say he has broken several campaign promises and has removed subsidies for fuel and maize flour — a dietary staple.
Demonstrators in Kibera, an Odinga stronghold, on Monday banged empty pots and pans as they faced off against police, chanting “we don’t have maize flour.”
Kenya’s energy regulatory body has also announced a hike in electricity prices from April, despite Ruto insisting in January there would be no such increase.
Last week’s protests proved costly, with Gachagua saying the country had lost at least $15 million.
Police said Friday they had launched a manhunt for suspects involved in last week’s riots, and published photographs showing people throwing rocks at police, burning tires and vandalising property.
But an AFP Fact Check investigation found that a number of the photographs were old and unrelated to Monday’s events.
And on Saturday, a red-faced Directorate of Criminal Investigations issued an apology on Twitter for what it said was a “mix-up of images.”

Taiwan’s former leader Ma begins China visit

Taiwan’s former leader Ma begins China visit
Updated 27 March 2023

Taiwan’s former leader Ma begins China visit

Taiwan’s former leader Ma begins China visit
  • The ex-president is visiting in a private capacity

TAOYUAN: Former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou departed for a 12-day tour of China Monday, a day after Taiwan lost another of its 14 diplomatic partners to China.
The ex-president is visiting in a private capacity, bringing a delegation of academics and college students for exchanges, as well as members of his family, but the trip is loaded with political meaning.
Ma’s policies brought Taiwan and Beijing to their closest relationship ever, but his exit from office was overshadowed by massive protests against a trade deal with the mainland and his successor has focused on defending the autonomy of the democratically-governed island that China claims as part of its own territory.
Ma’s visit comes amid rising tensions. Beijing has exerted a long-standing campaign of pressure against Taiwan, poaching its diplomatic allies while also sending military fighter jets flying toward the island on a near daily basis. On Sunday, Honduras established diplomatic relations with China, leaving Taiwan with only 13 countries that recognize it as a sovereign state.
Ma, a member of the opposition Nationalist Party (Kuomingtang), will land in Shanghai before starting his visit in nearby Nanjing. He is expected to tour the mainland from March 27 to April 7, stopping in Wuhan and Changsha, as well as other cities. He is bringing college students from Taiwan to meet with fellow students from Shanghai’s Fudan University and Changsha’s Hunan University.
Ma has framed the visit as a bid to lower the tensions in cross-strait relations through people to people exchange. “I hope through the enthusiasm of the youth and their interactions to improve the cross-strait mood, so bring peace faster, and earlier,” he said to reporters ahead of his departure on Monday afternoon. He also said it would be his first time visiting China.
His trip has not drawn much controversy in Taiwan, where the public is used to seeing Kuomingtang politicians visit China. However, it has been criticized by some political opponents and activists.
A former mainland student leader in the 1989 Tiananmen square protests called on Ma to cancel his trip. “If you have even a strand of affection for Taiwan ... you should announce the cancelation of your trip,” said Wang Dan, a Chinese dissident who previously lived in Taiwan, on his Facebook page.
A handful of protesters from a pro-independence group held a demonstration at the departures area at Taoyuan airport before Ma’s departure. “Ma Ying-jeou is humiliating our nation and forfeiting its sovereignty,” they shouted before police carried them out. “You are a stinky beggar.”
On the other side, a small group of people from the pro-unification camp also came to the airport to show their support. “Cross-strait relations are like flowers blossoming in spring and both sides are a family,” they shouted.
The trip is also a chance for him to honor his ancestors, ahead of Tomb Sweeping Day on April 5. During the festival, which is celebrated in Taiwan and China among other countries, families visit ancestral graves to maintain the burial grounds and remember the dead.
Ma will not go to Beijing, but may meet with Chinese officials.
Ma met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore in 2015, while he was still in office. The meeting was the first between the leaders of the two sides since Taiwan split from mainland China in 1949 during the Chinese civil war, but was considered more symbolic than substantive.
In 2016, the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party won national elections and Beijing cut off contact with Taiwan’s government, citing President Tsai Ing-wen’s refusal to endorse the idea that Taiwan and China are one country.

Myanmar junta chief vows continued crackdown, then elections

Myanmar junta chief vows continued crackdown, then elections
Updated 27 March 2023

Myanmar junta chief vows continued crackdown, then elections

Myanmar junta chief vows continued crackdown, then elections
  • Myanmar has been in turmoil since the military deposed Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government
  • Min Aung Hlaing: Military will take ‘decisive action’ against opponents and ethnic rebels supporting them

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar: Flanked by tanks and missile launchers, Myanmar’s junta chief Monday vowed no letup in a crackdown on opponents and insisted the military would hold elections — weeks after admitting it did not control enough territory to allow a vote.
Myanmar has been in turmoil since the military deposed Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government over two years ago after making unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud.
The putsch sparked renewed fighting with ethnic rebels and birthed dozens of anti-junta “People’s Defense Forces” (PDFs), with swathes of the country now ravaged by fighting and the economy in tatters.
The military will take “decisive action” against its opponents and ethnic rebels supporting them, Min Aung Hlaing told an audience of around 8,000 service members attending the annual Armed Forces Day parade in the military-built capital Naypyidaw.
“The terror acts of NUG and its lackey so-called PDFs need to be tackled for good and all,” he said, referring to the “National Unity Government,” a body dominated by ousted lawmakers working to reverse the coup.
The junta would then hold “free and fair elections” upon the completion of the state of emergency, he said.
Last month, the military announced an extension of a two-year state of emergency and postponement of elections it had promised to hold by August, as it did not control enough of the country for a vote to take place.
“Serenity and stability are vital” before any election could go ahead, Min Aung Hlaing told the parade.
Planes flew overhead spewing smoke in the yellow, red and green of the national flag and a flight of five Russian-made Sukoi Su-30 jets roared past.
Women lined the streets leading to the parade ground to garland marching soldiers with flowers, images on state media showed.
Armed Forces Day commemorates the start of local resistance to the Japanese occupation during World War II, and usually features a military parade attended by foreign officers and diplomats.
Two years after the coup, the situation in Myanmar is a “festering catastrophe,” United Nations human rights chief Volker Turk said earlier this month, adding that the military was operating with “complete impunity.”
More than 3,100 people have been killed in the military’s crackdown on dissent since the coup, according to a local monitoring group.
More than a million people have been displaced by fighting, according to the UN.
In December, the junta wrapped up a series of closed-court trials of Suu Kyi, jailing her for a total of 33 years in a process rights groups have condemned as a sham.

Voter turnout ticks up in Cuba legislative elections

Voter turnout ticks up in Cuba legislative elections
Updated 27 March 2023

Voter turnout ticks up in Cuba legislative elections

Voter turnout ticks up in Cuba legislative elections
  • Latest provisional figures show voter turnout stood at 70.33 percent
  • Modest increase from the 68.5 percent who voted in last November’s municipal elections

HAVANA: Cuba’s government managed to mobilize voters on Sunday for National Assembly elections, the results of which were a foregone conclusion, as it pushed back against a recent abstentionist trend in the communist-ruled nation.
As many as eight million eligible voters selected from the 470 candidates on the ballot — 263 women and 207 men — are vying for the 470 seats in the congress.
But what was really in play was the number of Cubans refusing to vote.
The opposition had called on citizens to abstain, with one opposition Twitter account branding the vote a farce.
Voting is not obligatory and abstention has risen steadily in recent years.
On Sunday the nation’s 23,648 polling stations closed at 7:00 p.m. (2300 GMT), an hour later than initially announced by authorities.
According to the latest provisional figures released by the National Election Council, as of 5:00 p.m. turnout stood at 70.33 percent.
That marked a modest increase from the 68.5 percent who voted in last November’s municipal elections, the lowest turnout since the island’s current electoral system was set up in 1976.
Last September about 74 percent of eligible Cubans voted in a referendum on a new family code, down from the 90 percent turnout in the 2019 referendum on a new constitution.
Cuba’s communist government does not allow opposition, so most parliamentary candidates are members of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC).
Candidates still must receive 50 percent of votes to be elected.
Voters had two choices: they could tick the names of any number of individual candidates, or they could select the “vote for all” option.
“I voted for the unified vote because, despite the needs, the difficulties that this country can have, I could not imagine” abstaining, Carlos Diego Herrera, a 54-year-old blacksmith in Havana, said.
He said abstaining would be like voting “for those that want to crush us, the Yankees.”
Washington has imposed sanctions on the island nation since 1962, three years after the communist revolution that saw Fidel Castro take power after overthrowing US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Student Rachel Vega, 19, also said she voted for all candidates, considering it “a step forward right now” that would “improve the situation in the country.”
President Miguel Diaz-Canel is among the candidates, as is his predecessor, 91-year-old Raul Castro.
“With the united vote we defend the unity of the country, the unity of the revolution, our future, our socialist constitution,” said Diaz-Canel, 62, after voting in Santa Clara, 175 miles (280 kilometers) southeast of Havana.
The opposition scoffed at the turnout figures, with dissident Manuel Cuesta Morua of the Council for the Democratic Transition in Cuba warning about “the government’s electoral mathematics.”
“At 9am it reports that 18.2 percent of the electorate has voted. At 11am it says 41.66 percent — that is, in less than two hours the turnout increased by 23.46” points, he said on Twitter. “Impossible!!! The polling stations are empty.”
Final figures will be released Monday.