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December 16, 2005

From Peasant Cuisine to Palace Cuisine By Ammini Ramachandran

        From Peasant Cuisine to Palace Cuisine
   An Introduction to the culinary history of India

From ingenious vegetarian offerings with a wide range of flavors to the elegant meat-centered feasts of Mogul emperors, India’s culinary traditions are rich, and as varied as her land and people. The country’s geography and climate ranges from landlocked high altitude mountains, to fertile river valleys, to arid plateaus, to verdant tropical coasts. In times past food production was totally dependent on geographic and climatic conditions, from which evolved the various peasant cuisines of India. Until the British conquest at the end of the eighteenth century, each region of India was ruled by its own royal family and each had its own provincial language, local customs, culture, and unique cuisine. The proficient palace chefs of these small independent kingdoms perfected the many elegant palace cuisines of India.

India’s population is very diverse and they follow many different religions. Food related taboos differentiating the sacred from the disrespectful are taken very seriously. Hindus and Sikhs won’t eat the sacred cow. Strictly vegetarians, mostly Brahmins, and Jains refuse even the spices associated with the preparation of meat, such as onions and garlic. The descendants of the Moguls of Delhi and Punjab, being Muslim, refuse pork, but are great experts in the preparation of meat dishes. Christians of India have some excellent beef and seafood dishes.

In spite of all these differences in culinary styles, the one unmistakable unifying feature of Indian cooking is the endless possibilities available for flavoring - spices differentiate one dish from the other, and define and intensify tastes. Flavoring with spices has evolved into a true art form; what any average Indian cook can do with a pot of simple boiled lentils and a few spices is incredible. Each of the many spices has its own unique function - some spices tenderize, some intensify heat while others cool, some augment color, some thicken, others bring a necessary tartness, and there are a few that curtail flatulence. Like colors on a palette spices are blended for both taste and harmony.

Regional Cuisines: For much of their history, the cuisines of southern and northern halves of India developed separately. In ancient times the hills and forests that sprawled across the center of the country made travel very difficult. While the people along the coastal regions, blessed with wide open waters and natural harbors, excelled in maritime trade with distant lands, the nomadic tribes of the plains and mountainous regions were mostly farmers and herdsmen. Their lives revolved around cultivation of staple grains and tending to cattle.

Foods of North India:  As the ancient nomadic tribes settled down in villages by 600 BC small kingdoms began to emerge in Northern India. In 321 BC the first great Indian empire of Chandragupta Maurya was founded. His chief minister was also the author of Arthasastra, a treatise on the art of governing a kingdom. It described everything, including cookery practices, in great detail. From the duties of the slaughter house employees to lists of ingredients required to prepare a meat dish were clearly explained in Arthasastra. Chandragupta’s grandson Asoka extended his territories substantially. However, horrified by the brutality of wars he turned to Buddhism for solace, and began spreading the message of nonviolence and vegetarianism. With the emperor’s endorsement there was a big move towards vegetarianism. This ancient cuisine developed during the time of Maurya period is still very much alive in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. 

Mogul invasions: Allured by the fertile plains of the Punjab and the fabulous wealth of Hindu temples Mahmud of Ghazni (modern Afghanistan and northeastern modern Iran) attacked northern India in 1000 AD. The Afghan and Turkish armies from central Asia began making repeated incursions and several Muslim kingdoms were established in northern India. The Mogul emperor Baber conquered India in 1526 AD and this Muslim dynasty ruled in an unbroken succession for nearly 200 years. The extravagant life styles of the Muslim emperors were heavily influenced by the Persians. North Indian food went through a profound transformation during this period. Palace cooks came from many parts of the world, each specializing in a particular delicacy. Ingredients were brought in from Afghanistan, Persia and other Middle Eastern kingdoms. Meats and breads grilled in clay ovens called tandoors and elaborate dishes – Kababs, pulavs and biriyanis - and sweets garnished with thin sheets of real gold and silver became the mainstay of Mogul banquets served at their capital Delhi. When the emperors conquered Kashmir and Rajasthan the cuisines of these regions also began to show Mogul influence. Kashmiris incorporated many Mogul recipes and cooking techniques to their repertoire while continuing to use familiar ingredients. Rajastani cuisine reflects Mogul influences in their elaborate rice and meat preparations.

Emergence of Independent Kingdoms and their Cuisines:
The dawn of 18th century saw the beginnings of the decline of the Mogul empire. The Mararashtrians of southwestern India rebelled and took independent control of their region. Their leader Shivaji renounced the lavishness of the Moguls. Maharastrian banquets became simple home cooked meals. The Brahmins of this region remained vegetarian while the warriors and fishing communities along the coast developed a versatile meat and seafood cuisine that used lots of herbs, garlic, onion, ghee and coconut.

By early 19th century The Sikh warriors of Punjab fought and won against the Moguls. Their leader Ranjit Singh became the king of an independent Punjab. The food served at his palace was the best of the robust Punjabi peasant fare, for Punjab still produces the best wheat, corn and dairy products in India. Meats sautéed in ghee and simmered with spices and herbs, chicken cooked with nuts and fresh herbs, bean dishes cooked with kidney beans and chick peas, leaf vegetables stir-fried with onion, tomatoes and home made cheese are some of the traditional dishes. Punjabi cuisine is a very rich; cream, ghee, yogurt, nuts, fruits and aromatic garam masala (a blend of several spices) are liberally used as flavorings.

As the rebellion against the Muslim emperors spread further the Nawabs of Awadh declared independence and ruled from Lucknow (present Uttar Pradesh). The lifestyle of the Nawabs was very similar to the lavish demeanor of the Moguls.  The well trained chefs of the palace refined the Mogul cuisine further and took it to another level. They considered the presentation of food equally important as taste itself; something that was very new to India. Exotic dishes of the Nawabi cuisine include gently spiced lamb and rice pulavs, fish cooked earthenware pots kept under hot charcoal, rice baked with chicken, cream and nuts, spicy okra, and several exquisite desserts.

The food of Bengal, along the northeastern shores, is famous for its ingenious seafood dishes and scrumptious milk based desserts. Even though coconut is used in cooking like in other coastal regions, cooking oil used in Bengal is mustard oil. Bengal is known for its rich sweets - rosgulla, sandesh, malai - made from milk and home made cheese.

By the latter half of 18th century the British had made strong inroads into the major coastal cities of India. The first large province they conquered from a local ruler was Bengal on the northeastern coast. Bengal’s capital Calcutta became the first capital of the British India. The Hakka and Cantonese Chinese migrated from Canton Province, China to Calcutta, India, to escape from opium warfare and other political issues. When the British lost the monopoly of tea trade from China, the East India Company began tea cultivation in India. British brought more Chinese workers from China to their tea plantations. Many Chinese settlements emerged in Calcutta. They introduced a new fusion cuisine – Indian Chinese - by adapting their food to suit the Indian palate. They used Bengali favorite - homemade cheese – and tamarind in their preparations, ingredients that are unheard of in authentic Chinese cuisine.

Orissa, further down along the east coast, has a cuisine that is a combination of spicy as well as sweet and sour. Seafood and rice are staples. The cuisine of Gujarat, along the upper region of India’s southwest coast, is a vegetarian gourmet’s dreams come true. Their specialties include leafy vegetables prepared in innumerable variations and subtly flavored with spices and sprouted bean and lentil dishes. The goodness of millet, yogurt, buttermilk, coconut, peanuts, and sesame seeds makes sure that this non-meat cuisine is not lacking in proteins. In contrast to the majority Hindus who are pure vegetarians, the Bohras of Gujarat, a community of Muslim traders, are famous for their beef preparations. There are many regional varieties that evolved to accommodate the availability of vegetables and meat in those regions.

The Parsi community, an important part of Bombay (Mumbai) society, does not observe any of the dietary restrictions of the Hindus or Muslims of India and prepare some very elaborate and exotic dishes. Another type of cuisine that has prospered in Bombay is that of the Sindhis. The Sindhis trace their roots to the Mohenjodaro-Harappan civilization.  Even though Sindhi food has absorbed elements from Mogul and Punjabi, it has retained its own special blend of flavors and fragrances. Some of their classic dishes are delicately flavored fish baked in sand and lotus stems cooked to succulent perfection in earthen pots.

Foods of South India: Native Dravidian communities of southern India were pastoral and subsistence economies supplemented by hunting and foraging. They were by no means vegetarians. Buddhism and Jainism spread and flourished in South India between 2nd century BC and 4th century AD. Ancient southern Indian kingdoms spanned more than a millennium, and many of these royalties became followers of Buddhism and Jainism and adopted a vegetarian way of life. These religions also became the ideology of a new class of merchants, long-distance and overseas traders, and craftsman in the coastal areas. But Buddhism and Jainism withered after the 4th century AD because of the spread of Hinduism, the coming of the land grant economy, and the decline of the Mediterranean trade. Hinduism spread far and wide. Upper caste Hindus, especially Brahmins and the ruling Kshathriyas, remained vegetarians while the rest of the population enjoyed meats and seafood. Arab traders who settled in south India converted numerous locals to Islam. It is believed that apostle Saint Thomas came to southern India in 52 AD and converted many to Christianity. These new converts as well as several Hindus continue to enjoy meats and seafood.

However, for both vegetarians and meat eaters of the south, rice is still the staple grain.  South Indian food, spices, as well as cooking techniques are very distinct. Various combinations of coconut, tamarind, mustard seeds, fenugreek, coriander, cumin and curry leaves impart a flavor quite different from that of northern Indian food. Fruit and dal (legumes) based paayasams (thick liquid desserts cooked either in milk or coconut milk) are some of the extraordinary culinary treasures of south India that have remained mostly anonymous to the western world. Although there are many similarities, the cuisines of the four south Indian states – Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu – have very distinct regional variations.

Andhra Pradesh, the land of chilies and rice, was once a part of the Maurya Empire and it was an important Buddhist centre. Vegetarianism was widely prevalent during these early years. Finally, parts of Andhra Pradesh succumbed to the rule of the Nizams of Hyderabad. The first Nizam Mir Qumaruddin was a Viceroy of the Mogul court, but with the fall of the Mogul empire he became the ruler of this small independent kingdom. He recreated the opulence of Mogul lifestyle and brought armies and workers from the ancient capital. Needless to say trained chefs were part of the contingent that arrived from Delhi. They integrated the predominant flavors of south India – coconut, curry leaves and peppers – and created some unbelievably delicious dishes such as baghare baingan, dalcha and lukmi. Today the foods of Andhra Pradesh are very spicy and hot. From the first bite of Andhra food the onslaught of chilies sets the taste buds tingling and the senses on fire. Mouth-watering aroma of the Gongura Mutton and the irresistible avakai (tender mango) pickle are a gourmet’s delight. People in the coastal areas of Andhra Pradesh enjoy seafood and coconut while people in the interior regions mostly live on vegetables and occasional chicken.

Karnataka cuisine is influenced by both Hindu and Muslim traditions brought by the different rulers of this region. Karnataka’s culinary repertoire encompasses earthy flavors of the interior regions, spicy dishes of the coastal region and the distinctive Kodava cuisine of the hill country. Food is comparatively mild and dishes prepared with sprouted beans are a specialty of this region. Their jowar rotti (millet bread) is a delicacy best savored with a variety of chutneys or spicy curries. Karnataka’s sumptuous Udupi vegetarian food is very popular throughout India. There is a vast range of rice-based dishes; the celebrated bisi bele bhath is a unique combination of rice, dal, tamarind, chili powder and a dash of cinnamon. Spicy fish delicacies are the favorites from the coast. Pork curry and kadumbuttu (rice dumplings) are the most delectable dishes in the Kodava repertoire.

Kerala has a distinctive cuisine, very unusual and different from the rest of India. This cuisine is comparatively hot and spicy. Several coconut based dishes, especially those that use coconut milk and spicy seafood curries are specialties of this region. Strange as it may seem, spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and pepper are grown here, but they are not generously used in Kerala vegetarian cuisine. Simplicity is the hall-mark of the vegetarian cuisine of the royal palaces and Brahmins of Kerala. Liberal use of coconut, coconut oil and chili pepper and locally available plantains, mango and jackfruit are common ingredients. Aviyal, thoran, plantain banana chips and the incredibly delicious paalada pradhaman are some of the vegetarian delicacies of Kerala. Kerala has large Muslim and Christian communities both of which have their own special dishes. Muslims excel in lamb and chicken dishes and tasty biriyanis, their Malabar biriyani is believed be brought across the Indian Ocean by Arab Seafarers.  Christians of Kerala excel in the preparation of beef and seafood dishes.

Tamil Nadu cuisine is well known for its vegetarian repertoire, but the coastal areas have a large selection of seafood. Indigenous dishes of the Brahmins of Tamil Nadu are exclusively vegetarian. Some of these orthodox communities prepare delicious simple food without using onion, garlic and spices considered associated with meat cooking. This is the land of satham (flavored rice) - each spicier than the other - yellow lime, golden tamarind, brown sesame seed, and curd rice -, delicious Pongal (rice and lentils cooked together and seasoned with spices), Idli and Sambar, and the famous dosa. Chettinad cuisine hails from the deep southern region of Tamil Nadu. It is one of the spiciest, oiliest and most aromatic in India; it has several hot and spicy variations of fish, mutton, and chicken dishes. Tamil Nadu is also known for its decoction coffee – an Indian version of latte.

Southern India and its Spice trade:
Southern India produces some of the world’s best spices. For Europe and central Asia, spices were the envoys from enchanted orient. From ancient times, long before the beginning of the Christian era, the monsoon soaked rain forests, home to several spices, especially black pepper, became a prime destination for many explorers. Nomadic Arabs, ancient Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans came to these shores for trade. By the early Christian period south India was transformed into a commercial hub linked to the West and the East through emporiums located along the coastal and inland routes. Our trade with the Romans was extensive and lasted through 4th century AD. Jews came from central Asia and African nations. Spice trade and commerce between China and south India by sea began as early as 2nd century BC. From the early centuries of the Christian era south India had close trade contacts with Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia. Many of these traders settled down in this spice coast. Both the Christian and Jewish traders received several favors from the king of Kochi (Cochin in Central Kerala) and became established spice merchants. The king of Calicut (Northern Kerala) bestowed privileges on Arab traders. During the latter half of 15th century, the royalties of Spain and Portugal financed dozens of expeditions in search of a sea route to the spice coast of India. The Portuguese arrived at the very heart of our spice country in 1498 AD. The Dutch and the British followed them. Spice trade was as profitable an undertaking as it was complex.

European Invasions and its aftermath: Kochi and later Goa along the west coast became the center of trade during Portuguese reign. Goa remained a Portuguese colony for 450 years. Portuguese married local women and converted many residents to Catholicism. From all this emerged a population that was Catholic and Portuguese speaking. Their cuisine became a medley of Indian cuisine strongly influenced by Portuguese ingredients as well as culinary techniques. Pork dishes practically unknown in most parts of India, is a major contribution of Goan cuisine. Spiced marinades for meats, spicy sausages and grilled peppery chicken are some of the other contribution of this branch of Anglo –Indian cuisine. 

Early British traders often married locals and adopted the Indian way of eating. Anglo-Indian cuisine is a delicious blend of East and West, rich with the liberal use of coconut, yogurt and almonds and flavored with an assortment of spices, Roasts and curries, pulavs and breads, cakes and sweetmeats, all have a distinctive flavor. The western bias for meats and eggs is offset by the Indian fondness for rice, vegetables, pickles and chutneys. And there is a great deal of innovation and variety in soups, entrees, side dishes, sauces, salads, desserts, snacks and refreshments.

Introduction of Foreign Ingredients: Many of the distinctive features of our cuisine are derived from the use of ingredients brought to us by foreign traders. Along with maritime trade began the transplantation of vegetation to India from other parts of the world. Tamarind is probably one of the earliest trees transplanted to India from tropical Africa; Arab texts from the Middle Ages refer to it as tamar-al-Hind or dates of India. Okra is believed to have originated in tropical Africa and introduced to India early on. Fenugreek, coriander, and cumin, all native to the Mediterranean and Near East, are three other spice plants that were brought to India. Nutmeg and numerous varieties of bananas and yams were brought from Southeast Asia.

As the Portuguese sailed south on a circuitous route they stumbled upon chili peppers at their trading posts on the east coast of Brazil. Chili pepper traveled with them as they rounded the Cape of Good Hope and followed the monsoon winds to the southern shores of India. Chili pepper’s entry in early 16th century had an enormous impact on the cuisines of India; it is hard to believe that it was not always grown in India. Because of their familiarity with pungent spices, Indians were quite taken with the fiery bite of chili. And unlike black pepper or long pepper it could be cultivated all over the country.

By late 16th century papaya reached India via the Philippines. Cassava or tapioca and cashew nuts were also brought by the Portuguese. Another plant that the Portuguese brought was pineapple, a native of Brazil. By the middle of 16th century pineapple cultivation began in South India. Potato was introduced in India during early 17th century. Breadfruit, native to the Pacific Islands, was brought during late 17th or early 18th century. Unlike many other New World products, tomato reached India through England around late 18th century. And, slowly but surely, all these new ingredients were incorporated in our regional cuisines.  Today, no one in India thinks of cayenne pepper, cumin, coriander, tamarind, cashew nuts, papaya, potato, tomatoes, pineapple, or breadfruit as foreign ingredients.  Slowly but surely, all these new ingredients were incorporated in our regional cuisines. 

Indian food abroad:  With the migration of Indian workers to the west during 18th and 19th centuries, the hardy dishes of Punjabi cuisine and the tandoori preparations of Mogul cuisine were the first to reach the western world. Even today this is the type of food that is served in most Indian restaurants abroad. A variety of Indian dishes from other parts of India is slowly but surely gaining popularity. The Jewish communities have taken a liking to the vegetarian cuisines of the south India.

The Indianization of world cuisines: From the vegetables and spices that we received from foreign traders centuries ago to the present day fare of the fast food chains that are springing up in every major city, Indians have welcomed them all, in their own special way.  The Indian palate has always embraced new foods; but only under its own conditions. With a sprinkling of spices or mixing of ghee or yogurt or with garnish of herbs or nuts Indians have changed the foods of the Arabs, Persians, Chinese, Portuguese, British, Italians and Americans alike to their liking. And the Indianization of food is a phenomenon that continues to this day. The McDonalds and KFC’s are very popular in India. McDonald’s serves the Maharaja Burgers prepared with lamb meat and their fries are spiced with black pepper. And the colonel’s secret spice blend for KFC’s chicken includes a few more secret Indian spices. Pizza is very popular too – the popular American pizza chain Domino's has launched different flavors in different parts of India. The deluxe chicken with mustard sauce and sardines remained confined to the east, mutton ghongura and Chicken Chettinad are popular in the south, and chicken pudina (mint) and olives and baby corn to the more cosmopolitan Bombay and the Punjabi types for north India include - Butter Chicken, Makhani Paneer and Chatpata Chana Masala.


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Wow! This is all great information. I just made my first Indian meal the other day -- Tadka Dal (lentils with spicy tempering). It's good to read about the culinary history of India. Thanks!


Très Bonnes Fêtes de fin d'Année ! Cordialement Nawal.

really nice one, ammini.

i would also like to add that the palaghat and konkani cuisine are two examples of cuisine that straddle the borders and borrows from either side becoming distinctive in the process. palaghat between tamilnadu and kerala. konkani between karnataka and maharastra. are there any other like that?

i also spotted recently a book about anglo indian cuisine.

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