Jump to content
  • Welcome to the eG Forums, a service of the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters. The Society is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of the culinary arts. These advertising-free forums are provided free of charge through donations from Society members. Anyone may read the forums, but to post you must create a free account.

The History of Indian Food

Recommended Posts

On the UK board we have been discussing the pro's and cons of certain "modern Indian" restaurants and it made me wonder if there is a discernable historical path that can be followed with food from the subcontinent in the way that one can see with the development of French food over, let's say the last 200 years

What I am really asking, I guess, is " is the food we find in the regions of India today, the same as that we would have found 150 years ago.  Have techniques developed ( and not just with the advent of labour saving devices ) and have ingredients changed?

This is not a question of whether outside influences have "fused' with the cookery of India, but whether as a culture of its own, the food has grown over time.

For example, are there any great histories of Indian food?  The sign of a true cuisine, perhaps?


Link to comment
Share on other sites

I dunno Simon, you know more about this them me (or most others), but it would seem to be that the question is too general to be applied to Indian cooking as a whole. From what you and Suvir have said on the subject, almost every family has its own recipes for a particular regional dish, and dishes between regions varies even more. So difficult to say what is geographic variation and what is temporal development. Is there a history of restaurant type dining in India, such as developed in France?

So, as not to be a pain in the arse, I would suggest that Moghul cooking is an obvious chioce of an Indian cuisine that has a "history" and has changed to suit the requirements of the people that took up this form of cooking (ie. Has developed and changed from the original Persian recipes).

Do you know of any examples of European cooking techniques that have been transfered into the Indian repertoire, like say the Janpanese development of tempura occured due to contact with the Portuguese?

Link to comment
Share on other sites


This thread could take a lifetime to be answered in full detail.

I think within India food has changed depending on what region one is in.  The proximity with the British and other colonial powers.  The invasions from the middle east etc.

Indian food is like Jazz, while the piece may be familiar, the artist has room to improvise.  That is why I often tell people that Indian food is very similar to Indian Classical Music.

I will write more Monday, after I have some time to write my thoughts.  This will be a fascinating thread.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Chiles themselves are only a relatively new (I.E., a few hundred years old) addition to Indian cusine, right? They are from the New World originally.

That would certainly change the cuisine drastically.

Jason Perlow, Co-Founder eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters

Foodies who Review South Florida (Facebook) | offthebroiler.com - Food Blog (archived) | View my food photos on Instagram

Twittter: @jperlow | Mastodon @jperlow@journa.host

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Chiles, tomatoes and potatoes are all new.

The cuisine actually has become less fiery now, for people have stopped using the more expensive alternate of making things hot, the peppercorn.

They were used in large amounts and with the addition of cloves added a heat that continued to hit you long after the bite.

Tamarind, lemons, limes, mango powder, pomegranate seed powder and star fruit were the souring agents.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Apologies if these questions highlight my lack of knowledge regarding Indian cuisine.  I wonder the extent to which religion (e.g., Hinduism) and societal structure (e.g., greater number of children per family on average than typically found in certain non-Asian societies; historical role of caste) have influenced the development of Indian cuisine over time.

Also, I would be interested in better understanding whether the relatively low representation of women among top-tier chefs is also present in India.  (I am building up over a long period of time to address this question in the context of restaurants located in France.)  :wink:

Link to comment
Share on other sites

My semi-educated guess based on one trip to India where I tried to dine in local restaurants as much as possible, as well as having a feast in the home of a well-to-do Indian, I would guess that there is an Indian equivalent of the Italians "Cucina Internationale";i.e. the dishes that get served most places outside of Italy. I don't think we foreigners even get to scratch the surface of the cuisine of this huge, highly-differentiated country. I, too, have wondered about the use of various preparations as a means to mask bad produce, just like France in the days before refrigeration. Maybe Suvir can tell us about the prevelance, availability, and distribution of good, fresh produce in India. Also, what is chicken saag in light of Steve's post?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Steve the marinades were never created to cover up bad meat. In fact, meat in India is only eaten after it has been blessed and given respect for its place in this universe as sustenance.  We call this act Halal and many Hindus and Christians also eat Halal meat.

There are no Meat Markets of the style in NYC.  Animals are not slaughtered, as you would see in a war.  Animals are chosen and then butchered and with in my case, tears in my eyes.  

I have never heard that myth.  But I can easily understand what you mean.  One can make a marinade spicy and more acidic to cover up some flaws in meat.  Is that a reason to marinade, maybe to some people?  Would I use that as a generalization about Indian cooking and marinating, No.

Now about Indian Haute Cuisine.  Steve, Indians of wealth, live lives far more rich and decadent than what one can imagine.  I have hosted and been in the company of royalty, socialites and dignitaries across India and they mouths open wide and completely as they live the decadence they would have ascribed to many generations past.  Is the food Haute, far Haut'er than you could ever imagine or I could ever write about.

But in India, Haute is not done in restaurants.  They are for the most part a place for the upper-lower income group and the lower-middle income groups and youngsters to go.  Once you have landed on your own feet, have a home and means, you entertain lavishly and completely at home.  

A rather famous and fiery food critic from NYC was shocked how they were served the most amazing seafood in Bombay.  At the private home of a friend that is the only home off Bombay in a small Island.  6 men carried the 8 x 3 feet wide silver and glass platter laden with the largest Sri Lankan King Crabs, the largest Lobsters and Shrimps and several other creatures of t he sea.  All local for the most part, and what were not, had been flown in via the private chopper from wherever they were, only an hour before lunch was served.  This critic could not believe eating food in this haute style at a restaurant, in their wildest imagination that would not fathom a host at home being able to create this.  The seafood was served with 22 chutneys and sauces.    Lunch was an intricate 9 courses.  A feast for all the senses.  To this day, 3 years later, every time we talk about haute food, this critic reflects on that meal.  They wonder if I had organized this just for them, no. Unfortunately, the old and established rich of India have no desire to open their homes to the masses or the press.  You can come with friends and family and be a part of their life.  But if you come just to take their private life to the masses, the doors will continue to be closed to you.

Steve, one such friend of mine lives between mansions in London, Paris and New Delhi.  Her homes in each city have been featured in books and magazines about Fine Interiors and charmed lifestyle.  Her life is spent traveling and meeting with families of certain stature around the globe.  At her home in Delhi, London or Paris you are served a cuisine that is Haute and unlike any you can get in any restaurant.  Private chefs from around the globe have been hired to learn from one another, to create their own unique dishes and to bring out together a meal that is a happy symphony of tastes, flavors and textures and has dishes that are authentic to many different ethnicities, some that are fusion and others that are modern and inventive takes on age old classics.  But again, her home is private.  And she takes great pride in keeping it as such.  So much so, that when these magazines and books have done photographs of the home, the family and the foods never get featured.  Food and family, remain concealed.  On my post in reply to Cabrales, you will find the answer to why food is given such respect.

Are there chefs that puree spinach?  Moi!  Have they done it publicly? Yes.  For India's 50th anniversary of independence, I was the caterer at Carnegie Hall with Stephen Heinzerling the chef there.  I created a menu that was executed by us together.  The Saag Paneer was exactly what we serve in my home.  For at least the 2 decades I remember.  Nothing was changed.  We always pureed the spinach.  Since we were plating the food, it was served as you suggest.

We did whole breasts of chicken with an apricot and plum sauce, that too was presented in Haute style.  Again done by an Indian and not uncommon from what I have seen and eaten in Indian homes.  

The chefs are there, the evolution has and will continue to take place, will we see it successfully translated into restaurants, yes, but in time.  

To give you an example about how private we are, my lover always wonders why I have no pictures of my family.  He has no gumption about framing his family portraits.  We tend to memorialize the dead in such frames.  Those living are loved without a need for pictures.  But as with any statement, there are certainly millions of Indians that have pictures hanging around.  In fact, since my siblings left home, my mother has had to resort to hanging our pictures in a hidden wall in her bedroom.  

As more Indians come overseas and have lived here longer and felt established enough to not fear discrimination for being different, we will see a new breed of restaurateurs that will change the very life of Indian restaurants.  They will bring from their culture that which remains to be shared yet.

But also remember, pre-plated food is not an option most Indians want.  They are happy and feel comfortable and sincere when eating and sharing at the same time.  To Moslems in India, that is a part of their very intimate code of living.  They eat from one plate many times.  So, while you may not consider something Haute, it has a much deeper meaning to another. Far more cultural, philosophical, deeply spiritual and significant.  Do not underestimate the power of spirituality.  Not all things that seem Haute may have substance and not all things that seem spiritual have any depth.  Somewhere in-between is reality.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Robert certainly there are restaurants that want to mask bad meat with fiery marinades, but that does not change the fact that marinades were not made for that goal.

In fact in many Indian homes, meat has been one thing that the man of the house often cooks himself.  Why?  For two reasons, first, for women were often vegetarian.  Secondly for the man would go hunting and come back with the meat, the household help would clean and butcher in his presence and then the man would instruct and get the meat prepared for consumption.  There was no room for error with such close supervision.  And the meats were always fresh.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Cabrales, you wrote a great post.  I have begun writing a response, but then I was distracted by Steve P's post and now I need to get ready for lunch.  Later today or early tomorrow, I will share with you my thoughts.  I am sure Vivin, Anil, Ajay, Simon and others would have much to share with you as well.  Where are they???  We need you now.

And Steve P, this is a lunch Chuck and I are eating at a friend's home on the UES.  She lives with 3 full time live in household workers and a live in Nanny for her kid.  She happens to be one of the more celebrated dealers of antique jewelry and textiles from India.  At her home, all 3 meals of the day are served in the very High Haute fashion of a royal household from another era of the world.  But right in our very own NYC.  My point is to illustrate to you that what we cannot see does not always mean it does not exist.  It simply is waiting to be discovered.  This friend's home, jewelry, textiles and serving platters and artifacts have been used in many magazines and dailies.  Town and Country, W Magazine, In Style, Elle, etc... Her stuff has been the set for Jean Paul Gautier's collection I believe no more than a year ago.  The entire collection was shown in this home.  India was Haute Hot that year and was beginning to make a dent in America.  

My point here is to not brag about this friend.  I leave her anonymous just for that reason. It is to share with you another face of India.  In fact none of those magazines are ones I ever read. They do nothing for me.

My point here is to highlight to you that not only is Haute a way of life for many in India, but for several Indians living here.  It just is not Indian to expose ones intimate life with everyone.  We are extremely private in many ways.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I'd appreciate it if, in discussing the evolution of Indian cuisine taken in at restaurants or at home, members could include a description of the service expected to be associated with that cuisine. For example, at the private banquets that Suvir has described, are there "full-time helpers" attending to each guest's every need?

Other themes potentially worth consideration:  (1) How do Indians tend to view their cuisine (e.g., refinement, complexity, range) relative to other Asian cuisines and to European cuisines?  

(2) Has there been a fusion-like trend of incorporating European ingredients, or a trend towards foods that require less time to prepare and/or consume?  If not, could there be such a trend as time progresses?  

(3) In connection with Indian weddings, I have heard of celebrations spanning several days. Could the sharing of food during weddings and other special events (e.g., holidays) result in meals melding into one another, and what effect (if any) has that tendency had on the evolution of Indian cuisine?

Suvir -- I do not intend to add to the items for your consideration and for the consideration of other members by adding the above factors.  :confused:

Link to comment
Share on other sites

"Haute cuisine" as we describe it is really the advent of restaurant cuisine.

Absolutely.While there are some fine restaurants in India there is no restaurant culture in the sense that the overwhelming majority of the population never eat in a restaurant.Indian cuisine therefore tends to develop slowly within families and communities and according to the prevalence of local and affordable ingredients.

Marinades are not used to disguise poor quality meat but they are used as tenderisers for meats that are not specially bred for tenderness as they are in the West.This necessity has led to invention and the marinades themselves now represent the raison d etre of many meat dishes much as sauces do in the West.

The great "haut cuisine" extravaganzas as described by Suvir has only the most remote connection to the culinary lives of the mass of the population.I have attended such events in Pakistan. There is a greater connection with the masses there because a lot more meat is eaten there and generally people are wealthier than in India (relatively) but these feasts are still displays of exclusivity and not in the least designed to demonstrate a "cutting edge" cuisine for the rest to follow.

Having said that, some of the greatest food I've ever eaten has been in India and Pakistan,both in elite and "ordinary" homes and in one or two restaurants-(the Raan in Saloos in Lahore was one of the greatest lamb dishes ever).Much of the glory of Indian cuisine lays undiscovered in the West despite all the "Indian " restaurants in Britain, and recent attempts to produce Frenchified versions to please Michelin (viz;The Cinnamon Club) have resulted in watered down hybrid abominations.The great chefs are out there but its like French food 100 years ago-they're (nearly) all working for the "aristocracy".

I'd like to think that the next step for Indian restaurant food is a return to rustic integrity but with a new twist and edge which reflects the boundary pushing which is still available only to the wealthy few on the sub-continent itself. The possibilities are endless but the notion of pleasing those who are only interested in the hegemony of French food must be forgotten.

Link to comment
Share on other sites


How well you write. Thanks.

As for comparing the rich of India and Pakistan, you could not be more wrong though.  You are comparing apples and oranges.

The rich of India are filthy rich and have money not only invested in India, Pakistan and other Asian countries but also Europe and America.

Where Pakistan beats India is in living a more feudal lifestyle even today.  India moved into a democracy and with that into a fair viewing of poverty in its land. In Pakistan, poverty is hidden and enslaved.

Living a feudal lifestyle where domestic help lives in a fashion they did in pre-independence and Brithish rule India should not give one a sign of richness of the masses. In fact, it should be a clear sign for us to figure that the masses are so poor and destitute that in this century, they are willing and are reduced to that position.

India had that happening upto maybe 20 years ago, today, the rich of India find it difficult to find good domestic help.  Since the economy has other jobs that employ people.

Take a cab ride in NYC and the Pakistani Taxi Drivers can tell you about real lives there.

India is a billion plus people, Pakistand a mere 100 odd million.

Pakistan as a nation does not have money to support itself for even a week, Indias bane of exitsence has been its ability to be self-reliant in many ways.  And that has led to our leaders, do very little to open the Indian economy and make it more vibrant.  They care little about foreign pressures, since they are not reliant on next weeks governing fees coming from a foreign power.

But this could be a topic debated and studied in great detail in another bulleting board I suppose.

You could not have sumeed the food aspect better.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Steve P--we used to hear a similar myth trotted out about food in the Middle Ages being heavily spiced because it was rancid and of poor quality--until enough food writers read Mennell and Barbara Wheaton to reach critical mass and have that myth dispelled.  If they could afford the expensive, rare and complex blends of spices--they could certainly afford the freshest meat and game, which was less expensive and less troublesome to procure right from their backyards.

The more we get into the possible historical parallels between the development of Western haute cuisine and Indian cuisine, the yin/yang between the aristocracy and the masses, the curiouser it all gets.  There was always public display of culinary wealth in Europe and the aristocracy saw public feasts and banquets as a necessity, a vital way to reinforce their elitism, wealth and privilege among the masses and lesser nobles alike--and this pre-dates the restaurant version of haute cuisine which Steve P. rightly points out.  Only in this case--as royalty toured the domain and feasted--the idea was for the regions and provinces to emulate--not go home and improve.  

All of Cabrales's potential themes are on point--and we've dealt with some already on this board--namely the evolution of Indian cuisine taken in at restaurants or at home and direct comparisons to the development of two parallel but diverging tracks of cooking styles and methodologies in France--and also some speculation of the fusion aspect of Indian cooking in Western restaurants and what that might portend for the future.  I guess India has had at least as many (if not more) significant internal bouts with fusion as the French went through new waves of "nouvelle" cooking seemingly every 50 years or so.

And, I personally don't care whether the leading Indian culinary lights are working for the aristocracy one wit--I want to know whether they are evolving and pushing successfully in new directions yet or just creating "watered down hybrid abominations."  If this is happening in the privacy of elite homes--eventually it will leak out and filter down.

I wonder if this is happening at all and rely on other more experienced and nuanced travellers to report.

Steve Klc

Pastry chef-Restaurant Consultant

Oyamel : Zaytinya : Cafe Atlantico : Jaleo


Link to comment
Share on other sites

Maybe it is time for people to take a trip to India.  And if you plan it right, you could take a tour with George Michael, archaeologist from India or even John Fritz or both.  And in their tours, or through their extensive research on Indian history, culture and society, you will perhaps be able to see an India that does not open itself to foreigners.  And a foreigner is not a term I use to describe non-Indians but people that may belong to simply another group of people.

Will the recipes eventually trickle out?   After many decades, maybe.  The chefs that work in homes, including our own Panditji, will never be disloyal to their homes and families and to their art.  The recipes are guarded as one would the pride and historical significance of a home or lineage.  

At the lunch and tea that I attended at our Friends home yesterday to which I had made mention above, these two archaeologists were present for the tea service.  I had made Pavlova as dessert that was served with tea.  I chatted about egullet and the debate.  The reaction was from non-Indians that what would an average American ever understand or know about India.  They dismissed the very notion that an American has any semblance of knowing even remotely what it takes to be Indian and secondly to understand India.  They said the Europeans had a direct and very immediate association that haunts them to date.  And that it is an association that left such emptiness in the day to day life of an entire generation that saw this closeness severed, that to date, a generation or so later, the wounds have not healed.  An analogy that was made was to America's umbilical ties with Israel and Britain's close association with India.

The many social historians and travelers I speak with share with me two very distinct thoughts. Firstly, finding India very difficult to sell to an American.  And secondly India being that most amazing place to take people on a guided tour.  When I ask why?  The answers are always similar.

1) Americans have trained themselves more so than the rest of the world to live a life that has everything reduced to black and white.  India thrives and lives in that which most often cannot be reduced that easily into black and white alone.

2) The hidden and magnificent surprises that await a historian, anthropologist, or die-hard tourist are so many and so intricate, that one that wants to discover, learn and watch, can find endless opportunities.

Religion and Indian food:

Indian food had its creation in a time older than any known to mankind in terms of its history.  The Vedas described a way of life that studied the impact of food, exercise and mental health as a connected form of being.  In Ayurveda and Yoga, one finds the remnants of those times.  Food, spices, exercise and meditation were grouped together for the ultimate well being of the human form.  The Vedic times saw cow and human sacrifice as the highest form of sacrifice to the higher powers.  And after sacrifice these were to be eaten by humans.  So, the oldest Hindus ate beef.  But in Puranic times, things changed, the priestly class (Brahman) tried to put into code the Hindu way of life.  It was this that changed Hinduism drastically.  Hindus then became vegetarian etc.  But even within Hinduism, there are many exceptions to the vegetarian rule.  The Kashmiri Brahmans do not eat garlic or beef but eat lamb and chicken.  The Bengali Brahmans will eat seafood and call it Jol Torai (vegetable of the ocean) and so on and so forth.  So even some Brahmans would eat flesh in some for or another and justify it to suit their local needs.  

To most Hindus food is regarded so highly and with great reverence due to the tradition of Navaidyam.  It is the art of cooking food for the higher powers, feeding them a portion of the meal in a leaf or plate.  Saying prayers, and then taking a spoonful of each dish from the offered portion and putting back into the large containers in which food was cooked.  The remainder of the food from the leaf/platter is offered to the birds.  And food from the containers after this prayer has finished is served to the family members.  In this act, Hindu food is blessed before consumption.  It is for this reason that most Indian cooks never taste as they cook.  To taste food as it cooks is to defile and pollute the food that has to be served to the higher powers.  Thus chefs like myself and most others in India, will rely on their other senses to check for salt, seasoning and done-ness of food.  We learn the hard way, but have to. So this is what gives food a great religious association.

And then there are Indian religious beliefs about how every home must have a certain minimum amounts of Pickles, chutneys and condiments in their pantry.  There are other beliefs that dictate how many textures and flavors must be present in all meal.  But this is only the Hindu aspect.  Certainly many other religions and traditions have left their own mark on the Indian landscape and with that its cuisine.

Religion has played a great role in shaping India's food.  Hinduism is the predominant religion in India.  Even though India has the world largest Islamic minority.  The worlds second largest Islamic population after Indonesia.  We have thriving numbers of Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and Christians.  The worlds only fairly significant population of Zoroastrians (Parsis) and also had a Jewish community that was thriving till they were given gilded greetings to another land and they left. Sadly, we house the oldest Jewish Synagogue in Asia and only have a few Jews left to enjoy it as a place of worship.  Jews have never been persecuted in India.  The ruling King that welcomed the Jews into India was very clever, he had the Synagogue built sharing a wall with the Hindu Temple, this ensured that the Hindus would always protect the Synagogue.  Destruction of the Jewish Temple would bring destruction to the Hindu Temple.  With so many religions existing in mostly harmonious manner, it is impossible to not have had fusion and yet also many followers of each faith ensuring their unique identities.

India was created as a Secular nation and has done a commendable job in remaining so.  There have been gross tragedies in the India soil perpetrated by miscreants under the name of religion.  And these have left deep wounds.  But did the Government join and partake in any of this?  For the most part, no.  But today, in Gujarat, our elected Hindu Fundamentalist Party has made a mockery of the secular traditions.  But the resilience of the Indian democracy will certainly prevail in the long run.  

Being a secular state with clearly no affinity to any one people, religion or ethnic group, the Government has never made it an issue to really go out of their way to preserve any one groups heritage.  And for the longest of time, India was too poor to be able to use the limited resources to worry about such things.  Hunger, poverty, natural calamities, illiteracy and many other more pressing issues were of importance to the state and its leaders.  Philanthropists were few and those that did give, gave for those causes.

Religion has for the most part been left as a relationship between individuals and their own belief system.  Yes there are plenty of temples and places of worship scattered all over, but none is evangelical or pushy for attention.  Food like religion has been a very private affair.  The restaurants for the most part thrived on national highways, where they were places for drivers to find homey food at reasonable costs and also find a place to rest between work and long journeys.  

Restaurants in cities began in 1947 after partition of India.  They cater mostly to those working in offices and the younger generation that may need a place other than home to meet with friends.  The adults across class and economic divide I have understood are more comfortable and prone to entertaining in homes.  It is not for economic reasons, but for a more intrinsic one, the ability to share a very personal generosity of self and ones family and life in doing so.  It is that which makes a meal in even the poorest homes a treat.  I remember growing up that the meals I was served even in the most humble of homes, by people that had very little, were always rich in a way that restaurant food seldom is when eating in India.  Similarly when traveling across India, one sees in a train car, how people from different walks of life bring similar dishes but with a unique expression.  So, in a train ride across India, you will see beautifully rolled flat breads stuffed with dried potatoes. Each region will have its own variation on a classic preparation.  And the way the rolls are wrapped would change.  In some places the rolls are wrapped in parchment, in others in banana leaf, in others in a dry lead and in some places with recycled paper or even plastic.  

Vivin's family started what many believe to be the first restaurant of any repute and fame in New Delhi.  It is called Moti Mahal.  It presented to people of Delhi food from Northern India, cooked in a style that was familiar to those that lived in this region, but was still food that would not be cooked often at home.  The breads, the meats and the veggies prepared at these restaurants were a household item, but after a certain time in history, very soon after partition, as people started living in clearly urbane environments, those recipes which were more involved or tedious were left for such restaurants to adapt and perfect and recreate.  Moti Mahal was the beginning of Indian restaurants as we see them.  In fact, it is sad that while Moti Mahal consistently churned out great meals from that region, restaurants serving Indian food across India and overseas, that copied it, never bothered to learn what Moti Mahal knew.  Many Indian restaurants want to serve that food, but have made little if any effort to study the cuisine and understand what that food is all about.  Tamarind, Bukhara Grill, Bay Leaf, Dawat are all restaurants that serve the same food, but in different settings.  But the food does not come anywhere close to the food one can eat even today at Moti Mahal.

Are Indian private chefs cooking innovative stuff?  Surely.  In fact more creative than I have seen private chefs anywhere.  Why is that happening?  Because the employers maintain several properties, have peoples from many parts of the world visit and stay with them, the employers want their chefs to be able to meet the needs of these guests.  So at many such homes, when meals are served at such times, food from different countries is served at the same time.  Some fusion dishes and many authentic dishes from different regions.  This is done to ensure that all kinds of taste buds will find food.

How do Indians view food from other cultures?

I was speaking with a Sanskrit scholar and head of the department of Sanskrit in Delhi University about food.  This is how she summed it for me:

The food of the west and especially the Christians is the prettiest, the food of the Hindus is the most healthy and medicinal and that of the Moslems the tastiest.

I asked her what she thought of Asian cuisines, she felt that Indian food had evolved much deeper than any of the others.  The centuries of invasions from so many different regions had brought to this old culture the very best of the new conquerors and together with this new knowledge the old stuff was continuously updated to become increasingly better.  She felt while the Chinese had great insight into healing powers of foods and ingredients, they were not as keenly aware of them as the Indians.  As for the rest of the cuisines in Asia, she said while these foods maybe tasty, they are poor adaptations of Indian cuisine.  And very often not very well translated.  She felt the dominant cuisines were Indian and Chinese.  

Fusion Trend:

It has happened and continues to happen.  In fact in our home, Panditji makes what Chuck and several of my American friends call the best Pizzas they have ever eaten anywhere.  How does he make them?  The basic pizza dough is made; the sauce is your regular tomato sauce that is prepared by frying whole dried chilies in the oil at the beginning of cooking to give the sauce the heat that Indians love and also a flavor of chilies that is lent into the oil by the frying of the chilies.  Also he fries home dried basil leaves into the oil in the very beginning.  The toppings are seasonal and always include very finely chopped green chilies that give a zing to the pizza.  The result, a pizza that has amazing flavors.  Some friends that live in NYC have compared his Pizza as being as wonderful as that they get at Two Boots.

I was getting a cooking lesson from a Pakistani friend last weekend.  After seeing her cook teach me his recipes, I realized the difference between contemporary Indian cooking and that of the past.  Indian cooking has become very light in oil and seasoning, as the need to be opulent has disappeared.  There are no fancy Mughal Banquets taking place, there is no need to show off ones richness through the lavish and rich meals one can prepare.  So, in India, an entire generation has grown up eating very light, subtle and very well balanced meals.  This Pakistani chef was trained in the feudal style of another lifetime.  He used several cups more oil than I would use in any recipes.  Where I would be skeptical using a 1/4-cup of canola for a serving meant for 8, this chef used 2 1/2 cups oil.  And he thought he was cooking with a light hand of oil.  

Fusion restaurants are thriving all across Bombay.  One of them is called Indigo.  The food is like that served in any of the fancier restaurants in NYC… and the setting simply amazing.  If one could transport Indigo from Bombay to NYC, it would get recognized in some time as being a leader in the restaurant world.  It was no wonder to me then, that ex pats and diplomats and young socialites were all fighting to get their reservations here.  

I ate one of the best Salmon Tartars in Bombay.  It was infused with fennel.  Served with Indian Jaali Chips (waffled cut potatoes).

In Goa I ate the most wonderful and light crabmeat beggars purses.  Large fresh chunks of Sri Lankan crab meat was spiced with fresh cilantro leaves, just the flesh of green chilies and a Kashmiri Garam Masala and beaten together with eggs and some hung yogurt and toasted ground chickpea flour bread added for binding.  I was amazed at how wonderful these crab cakes were.  They were placed atop a salad of baby greens and mint-ginger sauce and a star fruit and fennel sauce.  It was served in hand painted limoge plates.  The dish was spectacular.  

And there were many other wonderful dishes.  They have done what Tabla has done in NYC and taken it to the next step.  Not every dish is a winner yet, but they are getting there.

And yes there are now many women chefs, but I fear the ratio in comparison to men would be almost similar to that in the US.  Maybe in India there are more women chefs.  But perhaps it is a very close ratio.

If one is to believe the facts shared by Elizabeth Bumiller the current NY Times White House Correspondent in her book, May You Be The Mother of a Hundred Sons, one realizes that Women found emancipation in India way before they did in most other parts of the world, including India.  Yes India was also the land where Sati (self immolation by a widow) was practiced.  But as often is the case in western media, attention is given to the flaws in poorer nations, but what is to be celebrated and used as a learning point, is ignored.  Women have had more presence across the many sectors of employment in India.  They were given voting rights in India even before the US.  They were allowed into politics and held positions of majority leadership in political parties before any other western nation.  And of course India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have all had women heads of states.  But I am not sure what the exact ratio of women chefs is compared to male chefs.  I do know that a woman headed the Taj Group of Hotels, one of India's leading hospitality groups for years.  She retired last year. In fact she wrote a good Indian cookbook called the 50 Great Curries.  Camellia Punjabi is her name.  She is a partner at Chutney Mary Restaurant in London.  And has been featured in many US Publications as a world famous food personality and power broker.

Indian Weddings:

Indian weddings can be very challenging for the parents of the bride and groom.  Especially the Hindu weddings.  Many Hindu families want to have no meat cooked during the wedding.  To ensure complete accordance to later day Hindu puritanical practices.  Some families do not care.  Some will serve meat for most all functions but the night of the wedding ceremony itself.

My sisters' wedding was an arranged marriage.  It took place no more than 8-9 days after she decided she was ready to marry the man my parents had introduced her to.  Friends and family descended from around the globe in the next 2-3 days.  And that began a weeklong celebration for t he wedding.  Except 2 meals all else were served in our home in Delhi.  There were three meals served daily for t hat week.  And of course the snacks that are indulged in all day.

We had Pandiji preparing the foods that most every guest was craving for.  He would prepare foods that were recipes from our family and served during special feasts.  And he would always have very light foods prepared for those that wanted to give their appetites some rest.

There was a Misrani (Female chef, wife of a Brahmin) who cooked Vaishnav foods for guests that did not eat even onions, garlic and any other foods that would be considered inappropriate by those very staunch Hindus that follow Vishnu.  She would cook dishes at every meal for those that ate only her food.  But invariably everyone ate many of her vegetarian dishes.  They are very light and subtle and as ancient as Hindu customs can be.  This chef was also in my eyes, playing the role of the female energy that is so very important in India.  Since mother is the primordial deity.

And then there was Gyaneshwar.  He was a chef that was private chef to Indira Gandhi and had at that point been training chefs for a large conglomerate in India.  He created Fusion dishes that would sate the appetites of the young and the "western" guests.  He also would make desserts and pastries, Pavlovas, Trifle Puddings, Soufflés, Cookies and Biscuits, Pot de crème, etc… I was later told by my brother, that he was able to make all the savory dishes and the pastries and desserts as he could work for 16 hours if given a daily bottle of Black Label Scotch.  

And then there was the Halwai (Indian dessert chef) whose job it was to make sure the hundreds of guests that would come in and out of the house around these meals would be served Indian sweets better than at any sweet shop around Delhi.  Our family and I especially, are fanatical about desserts and their being authentic and perfect.  Those that cannot be found in Delhi to be as good or better than the source from where they are found are never served in our home, unless brought from that place.  We are exceedingly fussy about desserts.  

All these chefs had their own separate stations on the terrace.  Panditji was the only one that worked from our home kitchen.  Since he is the master of that one.  No one is allowed to enter it without having followed many strict requirements.  

Also in my sisters wedding we served only vegetarian food.  So Gyaneshwar, the one chef that would have created dishes with meat, was challenged to create dishes that would sate the hunger for meat in those stomachs that crave it.  And he did very well.  To this day, people remember the food at the wedding as being sensational.  No one seemed to care that there was no meat.

The one night we served meat was the night of the Sangeet (music and dance gathering).  It was organized at a hotel and so we could get away with serving meats.  As is the custom in many weddings in India.  The hotel had organized satellite kitchens around the gardens and each of these fed to a beautifully designed food station that served food from a particular region.  There were also the usual inclusion of Indian Chinese and Thai food.  There were several stations.  My memory fails me; I was totally lost in ensuring the success of the musical end of that night, since I was the lead singer.

The wedding dinner was vegetarian. My parents or my sisters' in-laws would not have had it any other way.  Again an elaborate menu was prepared and with many stations serving many different foods.  Including fusion dishes.  

Weddings are a great way of exploring the regional variances in Indian food.  They bring about in the open the many differences that make India a mind-boggling experience.  They also make India seem a winner in unity in diversity.  And of course, you always have those tourists, often the American ones that gatecrash and are desperate to witness in such over the top decadence.

These weddings have certainly made for many fusion dishes to develop.  And also give Indians a refresher course on how diverse and regional Indian food is.  


The full time household help is certainly attending to every guest's individual needs.  In fact, for my sisters wedding, friends and relatives had sent their most trusted employees to our home, to help our own family and staff to serve our guests better.  Even as my parents and siblings and I were doing many chores needed to be done by us alone, we were also running around chatting, serving and working the masses of friends and family that had descended upon our family to share in our celebration.  It was a natural thing to do, and it was t he only thing we are meant to do.  When my sister had been married and the celebrations had come to a close, it took me 3 days to come back to a routine.  My family and some friends had all been surviving with no more than 3 hours of sleep a day for over 10 days.  And we had lost a sense of date and time.  We were functioning and working, and serving and singing, and praying and dancing and drinking and decorating and giving gifts.  And then it all ends.  And there is emptiness.  Only then does one realize that a huge change has taken place.  

While we may not know the customs of French Style Service in India, we can certainly boast of much more intuitive, hospitable and humble service.  There is this very deep-rooted sense of servitude.  Which can be clearly seen also in Singapore and Morocco and other parts of the old world.  People seem to thrive in being able to serve.  It is not just a job; it is a way of life.

Going back to marriages, we had around a hundred close friends and family that had come from overseas for the wedding.  It was my families' duty to provide room and boarding and transport for every family.  There was no compulsion, but we would not do it any other way and no one would think about even questioning that rule.  It is so natural.  In fact a couple of years ago, an acquaintance of the family was married in London.  A very rich Indian industrialists daughter.  A vintage Bentley or some such car and a driver in ceremonial attire received every guest that flew in from overseas.  The families had them for the duration of the wedding and the family paid for all the accommodations. And I am talking an expense of hundreds of thousands of dollars.   In fact I remember several Indian friends that were not invited and would not want to be, complaining about how sad that was.  That the money wasted at that wedding on such trivial rubbish could have fed villages of Indian with food for months.  This is an industrialist who owns one of the top American Clothing Labels.  He is the silent owner, whose company is run under the name of a Caucasian Designer.  So, yes, service is critical to India lifestyle.  And service is not left to just hired help; it is a mix of both.  At weddings, the brides' immediate family often serves the grooms' family.  To show respect for them.  And in our family, the brides' family never eats food the day of the wedding.  We fast until the next morning.  So one actually fasts for over 24 hours.  No food.  And as little water as one can survive with.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Tremendous post, Suvir.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I am suitably embarassed and blushing    :smile:


I guess the credit goes to every member at egullet, since without an inspiration, it would not be easy to write even 5 words, forget about 5000.

I hope I answered all of Cabrales's questions.

And yet, there is so much more to share.

Will keep sharing as the occasion comes.

And thanks for all your kinds words.

Link to comment
Share on other sites


  • Create New...