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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.

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December 11, 2005

Mappila Cuisine of Kerala

         

Mappila Cuisine of Kerala by Ammini Ramachandran

The Muslim influenced Tandoori dishes of Mughal cuisine with its unique technique of marinating meats and vegetables with a careful blend of choicest spices and aromatic herbs have been a gourmet's delight the world over. With the migration of Indian workers to the west during 18th and 19th centuries, the tandoori preparations of Mogul cuisine and the hardy food of the Punjab region were the first to reach the western world. Even today this is the type of food that is served in most Indian restaurants abroad.

Mahmud of Ghazni (modern Afghanistan and northeastern modern Iran), lured by tales of the fertile plains of the Punjab and the fabulous wealth of Hindu temples first attacked northern India in 1000 AD. The Mogul emperor Baber conquered India in 1526 AD and this Muslim dynasty ruled in an unbroken succession for nearly 200 years. North Indian food went through a profound transformation during this period. 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.

Many years before the advent of central Asian Muslim invaders to the northern frontiers, coastal region of the Indian Ocean between India, the Persian Gulf, East Africa and the China Sea was an area of active commercial exchange. People along these coasts, blessed with wide open waters and natural harbors, excelled in maritime trade with distant lands. Indian merchants and the inhabitants of the Persian Gulf regions were active traders and intermediaries long before the birth of Prophet Muhammad.

For Europe and central Asia, spices were the envoys from enchanted orient. From ancient times, the monsoon soaked rain forests, home to several spices, especially black pepper, became a prime destination for many explorers. Ancient southern Indian kingdoms enjoyed a flourishing spice trade with the Arabs of coastal Yemen and Oman. 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. Spice trade was as profitable an undertaking as it was complex.

When the maritime trade routes spread beyond the Nile and Euphrates, Greeks, Romans and later the Portuguese ventured to trace new routes to the source of spices and exotic things. However, the old Arab channels of trade continued to flourish thanks to the age-old alliances and agreements between the original Arab and Indian traders. Interestingly cinnamon, the spice that made fortunes for the Arab traders in earlier times still remained an Arab monopoly. The Romans could find it only at Arab ports; the source of cinnamon in India was scrupulously guarded from them. Throughout the Malabar Coast the Romans were offered only malabathrum, the leaves of the same tree that produced the fragrant bark.  Such was the loyalty between the ancient traders of the Indian Ocean.

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