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They were the first people in the world to domesticate jungle fowl. Indigenous spices included turmeric, ginger, tamarind and long pepper Piper longum. Their diet sounds far from appealing. Its staple was barley fried in butter, parched, ground into a meal mixed with yogurt, water or milk, or prepared as a gruel. Later they cultivated wheat, millet and rice. Dairy products, including yogurt and clarified butter, were widely consumed, as they are today.

Their religious practices evolved into what is today called Hinduism and a caste system took shape. The Indo-Europeans were not vegetarian and even ate beef. Vegetarianism became more common and austerity was associated with spirituality and high status.

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Its merchants exported pepper, cardamom, silks and other luxury goods to the Roman Empire via Egypt. Indian merchants sailed to South-East Asia, taking with them not only spices and textiles, but also Buddhism and Hinduism, art and dance forms, and Indian concepts of statecraft.

Some states are larger than most countries and have distinct languages, ethnicities, cultures and cuisines. Islamic warriors from central Asia began to invade north-west India, initially to plunder its wealth, later to stay and rule. By the mid-thirteenth century, the Gangetic Valley was part of an Islamic sultanate with its capital near modern Delhi. Asian dynasties whose opulent courts attracted scholars and religious leaders from throughout the Islamic world. From Persia came rosewater and saffron; from Afghanistan and central Asia, almonds, pistachios, raisins and dried fruit; from the Middle East, sweet dishes and pastries.

They introduced sherbets and other sweetened drinks; pulaos and biryanis, elaborate dishes of rice and cooked meat; samosa, a meat- or vegetable-filled pastry; dozens of varieties of grilled and roasted meats called kabobs; yakhni, a meat broth; dopiaza, meat slowly cooked with onions; korma, meat marinated in yogurt and simmered over a slow fire; khichri, a blend of rice and lentils; jalebi, coils of batter deep-fried and soaked in sugar syrup; and nans and other baked breads.

The Muslims influenced both the style and substance of Indian food. Babur even hired several cooks that had worked for the previous ruler of Delhi.

The imperial generals and noblemen, called nabobs or nawabs, had their own courts in Lahore, Hyderabad and Oudh Lucknow , where they developed local variations of the imperial cuisine. For centuries Europeans had sought a sea route to the Indian subcontinent. Spices were a great luxury, valued not only for their taste and medicinal properties but also as a way of showing off wealth. The most important ingredient, and one essential to the story of curry, is the chilli pepper.

The company built a chain of trading posts along both coasts and gradually extended their influence inland. During this period, they discovered Goan cuisine, which combines classic Portuguese dishes, often made with beef and pork, with local ingredients. The most famous is vindaloo from the Portuguese vinha e alhos, wine or wine vinegar and garlic — a sour, fiery hot pork curry made with coconut vinegar, spices and red chillies. When the British left, they took these dishes and their Goan cooks with them.

Both the territory and the administration are often referred to as the Raj. The so-called native states, ruled by local rulers, were in effect subordinate to the British government. Indian Foods and Cooking Techniques Until the end of the eighteenth century, there was little sense of racial superiority among the British, whose main motivation was profit. Their heavy meat-centred meals featured spicy rice pulaos and biryanis, kabobs, kedgeree, chutneys, kormas, kalias and other Muslim dishes. The first British settlers may not have considered the highly spiced cuisine of India very strange, since in the early seventeenth century English cooking continued the tradition of the Middle Ages with its heavy use of cumin, caraway, ginger, pepper, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.


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Then, as now, the food of the subcontinent was extremely diverse, reflecting regional, religious and social and caste differences, a discussion of which goes beyond the scope of this book. The most common cooking receptacle is a deep pot, karahi in Hindi, with two handles and a flat or slightly concave bottom. A common Indian cooking technique with no exact equivalent in the West is called in Hindi bhuna. Spices and a paste of garlic, onions, ginger and sometimes tomatoes are fried in a little oil until they soften. Small amounts of water, yogurt or other liquid are then added a little at a time.

This is the basic technique used in making the dishes called curries. The most distinctive feature of Indian cuisine is the use of spices and other strong flavourings, including garlic, onion and chillies.

Many reasons have been given for the use of spices — and most are mythical. Hot spices do not induce enough perspiration to cool people down. Nor do they mask the flavour of tainted meat, since those who eat such food would be likely to die, or at the very least become seriously ill. The latest theory, backed by scientific evidence, is that a taste for spices evolved because they contain powerful antibiotic chemicals that kill or suppress the bacteria and fungi that spoil foods. The antibiotic effects are even stronger when combined with onions and garlic. The gastronomical purpose of spices is to add flavour, texture and body to a dish.

For the poor, they liven up simple dishes at low cost. Spices can be added in different ways and at different stages of the cooking process. At the start A traditional way of preparing a meal in an Indian household. Whole spices may be boiled with water, vegetables or meat and bones to make a stock. Spices may be ground into a powder and stored in airtight bottles for a couple of weeks. Often they are first dry roasted to bring out their aroma. In Hindi, a spice mixture is called a masala. Its ingredients depend on many factors, including regional preferences, religion and the other components of a dish.


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The use of cumin, coriander and chillies is nearly universal throughout the subcontinent. Hindus commonly add a pinch of turmeric to dals and vegetable dishes to impart flavour and colour.

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Spices: A Global History

In Bengal, the basic spice mixture consists of cumin, black mustard seeds, nigella, fennel and fenugreek. Southern Indian vegetarian dishes are typically flavoured with coriander, cumin seeds, black pepper, mustard seeds, fenugreek, asafetida a substitute for garlic among orthodox Hindus and curry leaf.

The meat may be fried in butter, ghee, oil or fat, to which is added gravy, tyre [yogurt], milk, the juice of the coconut, or vegetables, etc. He gives four recipes for curry powder which call for the same ingredients in different proportions: coriander seeds roasted , turmeric pounded , cumin seeds dried and ground , fenugreek, mustard seed, dried ginger, black pepper, dried chillies, poppy seed, garlic, cardamom and cinnamon. A tablespoon of this mixture is recommended for a chicken curry together with six to twelve dried or green chillies!

- Spices: A Global History (Edible) by Fred Czarra

Tamarind, lime juice or mangoes, coconut milk or yogurt, and ginger can also be added. This veteran held tiffin parties at which he would serve eight or nine curries accompanied by fresh chutneys, grilled ham, fish roe and other condiments. Guests were expected to taste each curry, discuss its merits and ask for second helpings of the ones they especially liked. His elaborate and painstaking recipe for chicken curry remains a classic but would strain the resources and skill of most modern cooks. His recipe given on pp.

An important element is a hint of sweet acid from tamarind and jaggery unrefined brown sugar from palm sap. In England, acceptable substitutes are redcurrant jelly or chutney with a little vinegar or lime juice, or chopped apple and sour mango. Britain continued to consolidate its territory possessions in India and with this came greater insulation from the people they ruled.

Indian wives and mistresses were replaced by British wives, many of whom had little formal or domestic education and were ill equipped to manage the small army of domestic servants that was standard.

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They avoided Indian cuisine in order to distance themselves from those they governed and to distinguish themselves from the old company men. Entertaining was an important part of social and professional life among British officials. Recipes for Indian dishes were relegated to separate chapters and often referred to in derogatory terms.

The definition of what constituted a curry became more narrowly defined. It is a staple of English curry houses. Some are not curries at all, but rather accompaniments to an Indian meal see p. Some writers have classified curries by city or region, such as Bengal, Madras, Bombay and Ceylon. There was a tendency to combine elements from different regions, by, for example, adding coconut milk, a standard ingredient in southern India, to north Indian Muslim dishes equivalent, perhaps, to adding sesame oil to a coq au vin. Over time, curries became less authentic and more pan-Indian.

This homogenization was promoted by the constant movement of British officials. During their travels they stayed in dak Hindi for post bungalows — rest houses for travellers built every fifteen or twenty miles apart along main roads. The cooks would whip up a meal on the spot using whatever they could procure locally. One of the standards was country captain chicken, a dish that was to become very popular in the southern United States. See p. At the same time, some British dishes became Indianized. Meat casseroles made with carrots and celery in a wine-based sauce were made more interesting by a dash of curry powder.

Spices: A Global History (Edible)

Indian-style omelettes, made with chillies and onions, are to this day a standard of Calcutta breakfasts. A few Anglo-Indian hybrids became part and parcel of British cuisine. The breakfast dish kedgeree, a combination of rice, smoked fish, spices and hard-boiled eggs, is an elaboration of khichri, a simple mixture of boiled rice and lentils that is ubiquitous on the subcontinent. Another is mulligatawny soup, an adaption of southern Indian rasam, a thin broth of lentils, chillies and spices.

The British added chicken, lamb or vegetables and thickened the liquid with flour and butter. By the end of the nineteenth century, curry had become thoroughly integrated into middle-class British cuisine. More than eight thousand restaurants and curry houses and nearly as many pubs serve curry.

Ready-made Indian meals are staples of supermarket and department stores, while packaged and frozen curries are sold throughout the British Isles. As Cook observed, it is a reflection of the multicultural nature of Britain and the availability of Indian dishes and ingredients. Some British families had historical ties with the subcontinent dating back to the eighteenth century. Many lived in or near London. Just as the British tried to recreate their homeland while they were in India, now they tried to recapture something of their life in India after returning home.