The Indian Kitchen: Crossroads of Cultures
I want to start by reminding us all that the entire history of humankind is held together by one thread: food. Why is that? Because everybody everywhere no matter who they are has to eat. To eat is to stay alive. As you know, when we get our lips on something safe and delicious, we all want more. It not only ensures our survival for another day, it give us pleasure. So we seek encores. What you might not know is we as humans will even fight and kill for a tasty dish. Just think banana republics or the whole slave trade set up to grow sugar. So history is the illustrated and mapped need to find food.
It’s flavored by geography, where food is located. Some places have it all, others very little and are obliged to get it from somewhere else. We in Maine ship lobsters to Saudi Arabia and California, and are shipped quinoa which only grows easily in the high mountains of Bolivia. In Bhutan I met a man whose business was driving apples down to Bangladesh which it too hot to grow them. The food network is enormous and nonstop and as old as time. India’s place in it as a land of plenty has not been as an importer so much as an exporter—all that basmati rice, ginger, coconuts, tamarind and onions. It is also now a major exporter of peanuts, which originate in South America.
Sometimes a tasty dish discovered far from home is no problem to recreate because the ingredients are within reach. Sometimes though we can’t make that dish because those original ingredients are not available. So before Google and Amazon Prime, humans in motion like those along the Silk Road and those fishing on the Arabian and Bengal Seas tried to make favored food available by carrying some form of it back home—the original takeout. That is the story of the spice routes, wheat Spanish missionaries brought to the Americas to make communion wafers, miso, siracha, and all the tea in China.
Fortune shone when transported foods like wheat, soybeans and tomatoes could be adapted to the local landscape. It’s what North American natives did with Peruvian potatoes and look at us now. But life wasn’t always that beneficent. Desired food that could not so easily be carried away and transplanted had to be wrested from those who had it by the conquest of their land. Getting Spanish olive oil began the Roman Empire. The Greek Empire extended to the fertile soils of Sicily and Tunisia. Our American empire began with the fuss over bananas. Wars were fought for salt; the Dutch committed genocide for nutmeg. Hitler invaded eastern Europe, Ukraine and northern Europe for what he called “lebensraum” or living space by which he meant wheat, dairy and other food for the German people.
Also contributing to history is habit or stability. People grow very attached or accustomed to eating certain foods or dishes they like, especially if they’re connected to childhood. Often because we are what we eat, those foods become entwined with our identity like cheeseheads and Beantown, Jewish deli, French fries and Brussels sprouts. This is why there is a fight over whether basmati rice can be called Indian or Pakistani, why France doesn’t let California call its sparkly wine champagne and why we bicker over New England versus Manhattan clam chowder. It’s why Hitler dictated that Germans could only eat German food: cabbage, potatoes, pork—and arrested those who tried English roast beef.
What happens to habit and stability when humans change cultures, when they emigrate and immigrate? Humans are so afraid of unfamiliar food—that primal fear it could be poison—that wherever they go, they will take with them or seek out favored eats. This is why so many immigrants open restaurants that serve their native food or a version adapted to their new country’s tastes. It is why you will find Chinese restaurants in nearly every corner of this Earth: the Chinese will not eat non Chinese cooking. And it is why there are Indian kitchens along both coasts of Africa. I asked a Zambian immigrant in Portland what the food of his homeland was and he said “British and Indian.” So you know whose moved where by restaurant choices.
This explains chicken tikka masala. Robin Cook when he was foreign secretary of Great Britain called this close relative of popular butter chicken the “true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences. Chicken Tikka is an Indian dish. The Masala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy.”
The story is the same for mulligatawny soup. The name combines the Tamil words for black pepper and water because originally mulligatawny was a flavored broth that fed the poor of Sri Lanka and India’s deep south. The Brits in the Raj found this broth delightful but were used to having a hearty soup in their bowl, so accommodating Indian cooks bulked up the broth with chicken and vegetables. The resulting dish is described as Anglo-Indian. Adaptation like this also gave Americans Chinese chop suey, General Tso’s chicken and Italian spaghetti with meat balls.
Which brings us to the question of what’s authentic? And what can authentic mean when in the remains of a ceramic urn in a house on the banks of the Euphrates River that burned in 1721 BC, archeologists found cloves which are only native to atolls in the South Pacific?
So if we’re going to talk about the Indian kitchen, we have to include history and geography. We must refer to the original geographical Indian subcontinent because it was only sliced up less than 100 years ago so Muslims and Hindus could self-sort. What today we call Pakistan was part of that subcontinent as was what we call Bangladesh in the great Ganges delta. Both became Muslim dominant countries while what was left of India remained Hindu. And you see that determination to be Hindu enforced now with a vengeance against the remaining Muslims.
Thanks to the British, before partition India had absorbed formerly Himalayan land that belonged to Bhutan: Tibetan Buddhist Darjeeling and Kalimpong, and after partition it annexed their hilly but lush neighbor Sikkim, home of cardamom. These areas whose kitchens are Tibetan or Lepcha or Nepali are now called West Bengal, Bengal being the area below around Kolkata. India also forcefully absorbed the high altitude Tibetan area known as Ladakh. And there is the still disputed Kashmir in the far north. In both of these realms, walnuts flourish and uniquely show up in local chutneys and sweets.
Then there is all that coastline! India borders on the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal and what we call the Indian Ocean. To the west on the Arabian Sea, Pakistan in what was formerly Baluchistan borders on Iran, historically known as Persia. Also from here it is a quick boat trip to Oman on the Arabian peninsula. To the east along the Bay of Bengal, the strategically acquired territories of Assam, Manipur and so forth bring India around Bangladesh to the border of Burma and the Andaman Sea, which provides closer access to the spice islands than ports around Chennai, formerly Madras. On both sides down south, the coastline is defined by what are called Ghats, mountain ranges that graduate downward like steps from inland to the sea, and because they are hot and cold and coastal at the same time, they are areas of extraordinary biodiversity.
The Tropic of Cancer runs across the middle of this whole landmass. Temperate Delhi is to its north, Mumbai way south, Ahmadabad– the Gujarati capital, and Bhopal sit almost on it, Kolkata just below. The Deccan, the well-watered plains around Arab -oriented Hyderabad, are halfway between the Tropic of Cancer and the Equator and the Equator almost touches the tip of the Indian subcontinent and its teardrop island Sri Lanka. It snows in Kashmir and Ladakh.
The weirdest part of the subcontinent is first, down in the very south with its oppressive heat and fierce monsoons, there are cool mountains –the Ghats– were coffee grows and exiled Tibetans live. And secondly, Himalayan hill towns like Dehradun and Darjeeling, which have the fog and chill of heights are in these tropical zones. Tea grows so easily in this climate, Darjeeling has become its eponym. Leaves grown on slopes and ridges leading up to five-mile high Kanchenjunga, the Himalaya’s third highest peak, are literally top of the crop, grown much higher than the same tea in the hills of Japan and China. Camellia sinensis needs sun, but not continually, and at this height daily fog, mists and low hanging clouds intervene to shade it. The tea bush is insatiably thirsty, requiring a minimum of 55 inches of rain a year, and up here where a bush gets more than twice that amount, steep slopes provide natural drainage that prevents it from being bogged or swamped. Cold air drifting down nightly from the five snow-tipped peaks of Kanchenjunga not only wicks away any moisture lingering on the leaves, but its chill slows down bud growth, which intensifies flavor. This cold night air, daily fog and reliable monsoon, this exceptional intersection of high altitude with semi tropical latitude produces a brew better than all the tea in China, one universally considered the champagne of black tea. But let us remember tea is native to China and was secretly brought to India by the British under cover of the Opium Wars which they deliberately started to do this.
I tell you this because food depends on geography, the landscape, or as the French put it: the terroir. As you can see India has it all. This is why its food is so rich and varied and stubbornly traditional. Most importantly this explains why—although there have been internal battles and takeovers– it has never needed to invade its neighbors or create a foreign empire like Greeks and Romans, just to eat well. In this respect it has been content. The same is true of Egypt but not many other cultures can make this claim.
As it happens, all this glorious food was the propeller of Indian culture and remains its center today. The hearth is the heart of the country. Preparing food is noble. Doing it with care and consideration is righteous and rewarding. This may be why restaurants were late to open in India compared to China, Persia and Europe—and began mostly inside hotels for foreigners.
Food informs India’s epic literature and its religions. You’ve all heard of Ayurveda, the traditional Indian medical practice that is at least 5,000 years old and still India’s main form of healthcare. We also have practitioners right here in Portland, so this is very much alive for us.
Ayurveda literally means science of life. Like early Greek medicine which was significantly influenced by it, it aims to equalize the natural energies of wind, fire and earth as they affect mind and body. Known in Sanskrit as Vata (Wind), Pitta (Fire), and Kapha (Earth), these primary forces shape how we act and think. Each of us is a custom made mix of the three forces, a mix which give us our temperament. If Vata or air is dominant, we tend to be thin, light, enthusiastic, energetic, and changeable. If Pitta or fire predominates, we tend to be intense, intelligent, and goal-oriented with a strong appetite for life—Type A. When Kapha prevails, we tend to be easy-going, methodical, and nurturing.
This Hindu science of life posits three food categories. Tamasic foods are leftover, stale, overripe or spoiled. They’re also heavy, animal based—the sort of food whose digestion slows you down and makes you sleepy. Red meat, cheese, alcohol, fried foods, white sugar should be avoided, for they require too much energy to be digested, and that leaves the spirit dull or confused. Rajasic foods are hot, spicy, sweet and salty. They unleash energy that can stimulate but also irritate. So moderation is crucial. Also if taken at noon and not at night, rajasic caffeine, chocolate, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, broccoli, pickles, fish and chicken can be useful. Bland Sattvic foods such as juicy fruits, watery vegetables and whole grains are so easily digested by the stomach, they don’t use up energy, giving you strength and focus to conquer your mind. They’re ideal for spiritual quest.
Ayurveda’s modern practitioners are horrified by America’s endless obsession with “diets”: low-carb or no-carb, just juice or strictly protein or whatever. They believe a diet that deliberately excludes foods will destroy the possibility of body balance. Because every individual is a unique organism, Ayurvedic healers, as one of them advertises on the Internet, design individualized diets, based on factors such as age and gender, body tendencies, the strength of the tissues and digestive fires, the level of toxins in the body. Geography and seasons also influence diet choices, along with foods that affect “the non-physical aspects of the physiology: mental clarity, emotional serenity and sensual balance. These foods–almonds, rice, honey, fresh sweet fruits, mung beans, seasonal vegetables and leafy greens– help coordinate body, mind, and heart.
The Hindu religion per se has many food prescriptions and proscriptions, especially about clean and unclean food and these are not the same as Muslim Halal or Jewish Kashrut. All food in its original form is thought to be clean. Preparing it is the problem because that is where the food is opened up, cut into. And here’s where caste comes in. A Brahmin cannot eat food touched by a member of the lower caste, these people considered to be dirty. Ditto people who have committed dirty deeds. Hygiene logic forbids the sale of any animal that died of natural causes.
About 2700 years ago in India, a religious text appeared called the Abhidharma, which is still in use today. It begins with the words “all beings exist on food.” The authors then insist it is crucial to understand how food works. Without an xray machine, an MRI or PTscan, the Abhidharma clearly explains the metabolic process that breaks down every ingredient we ingest, how our digestive system rips it apart into various chemical elements that then individually act in diverse ways, moving into the bloodstream or kidneys, or through the intestines. If there is too much going one way creating a dam, or not enough going another creating an outage, or too much that is chilling or burning, the body slackens, weakens, ceases to function.
The new Buddhist religion accepted this dharma guidebook as its own, relying on its science to promote vegetarianism as a righteous and healthy lifestyle. At the time, the unrestrained Hindu Brahmins were confiscating the entire continent’s cows for their dinner parties—feasting on beef depriving the peasantry of animals to till their field or provide milk or the cooking fuel called dung. They were starving to death in droves. By focusing on this monstrous inequality with promises to rectify it, the Shakyamuni Buddha was able quickly to spread his new religion. He relentlessly emphasized that India’s unique drought resistant Zebu cow was worth infinitely more as a plow, milk bottle and dung fuel source than as steak for priestly dinners. It deserved to live. Thus the concept of the sacred cow came to pass. It was so popular, the Brahmin Hindus recognized defeat, and embraced this Buddhist prohibition as their own. It is now enshrined in the Indian Constitution. That’s why you don’t find beef in most Indian kitchens. Vengefully accusing pork phobic Muslims of sacrilegiously killing the sacred cow for their supper has been the ruse that allows Modi and his minions to wage recent war on India’s remaining Muslim population—with side warnings to refugee Tibetan monasteries.
Muslims are forbidden to eat pork. You don’t find much of it in Indian kitchens not only for this religious reason, but because pigs cannot live in hot, steamy climates and don’t do well on high mountain slopes where herding is required. So pigs are not a viable food source in much of the country. Those who aren’t strictly vegetarian dependent on pulses, beans and dairy will eat chicken and fish, lamb and goat—and if feeding Westerners, Indians will call that goat “mutton” because in the Raj they learned Europeans recoil at this unfamiliar meat.
The do no harm Jains came into existence at the same time as the do no harm Buddhists, with even more to say about eating. There are still about 4 million Jains in India and they are all eating under tight strictures that descend 2700 years. It is of course impossible to survive without killing or injuring some form of being, so Jains strive to avoid doing intentional harm. Thus, they are not supposed to be farmers, because tilling the soil would kill life; perform jobs involving fermentation, digging, and selling weapons or pesticides; or trade in meat products, honey, eggs, silk, or leather. While all observant Jains avoid certain foods that are absolutely forbidden, including meat, fish, honey and eggs, there are variations in what they otherwise eat, depending on family customs, sect, age, sex, time of year, personal circumstances, etc
There is a lot of fish cooked in Indian kitchens everywhere, mostly in curry form because if you don’t take time with preparation and balance the elements of the dish and just, say, through fish on the grill, you are being disrespectful. But the climate, the terrain and the unique religions have made India the world’s primary and largest vegetarian culture. The plant and dairy based diet with eggs started in Indian kitchens and spread across east Asia with its Buddhist monks. This emphasis on vegetarianism, which is a way of saying emphasis on limitations, put India in direct contrast to China whose citizens, it has been said, eat everything that flies but a kite and everything with four legs but a table. Some people like to say this ethos called vegetarianism, or not harming, is what makes India relatively peaceful vis a vis its neighbors in a world where too many others are always at war.
Now let’s look into some regional kitchens and what they cook.
Perhaps the most native, distinct and least fusioned cooking is in the deep south, home to darker skinned Dravidian peoples thought to be India’s only original inhabitants. These Tamil and Tegolu and others were already trading with the Roman Empire in 200 BC.
South India’s star ingredient likely traded back then with Rome is the dried local berry we know as black pepper. The peppercorn grows on a vine native to what’s called the Malabar Coast in southwest India—a vine resistant to transplant. So to get black pepper has always meant getting to India and the world has done just that because for one thing, the black peppercorn has antibiotic properties. Perhaps more valuably in the human stomach, the chemicals of this dried berry encourage the production of hydrochloric acid which is the main component of the gastric acid that breaks down food. In other words, black pepper makes meat easier to digest.
Human lust for these black peppercorns made a harbor town in the center of the Malabar coast, Cochin, into a legendarily wealthy spice center, a cosmopolitan enclave of Jews, Chinese, Arabs, and European Christians who all lived in harmony with local Hindus and Dravidians–and cooked their distinct dishes. There are traceable Chinese influences in the cooking of Kerala and Jewish Indian cooking from people who call themselves Bene Israel. You can find their cookbooks on line. This international enclave of people coming and going from coastal Cochin has left the state of Kerala far more open and progressive than the rest of India.
And by the way, just to show you how food is the root of all history, it was the new Spanish crown’s greedy wish in 1492 to get to India faster and monopolize the pepper trade that put Christopher Columbus on the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria looking for a shortcut.
The curry leaf used in southern Indian cooking the way Europeans use the laurel or bay leaf also comes from trees that survive this hot, steamy land. Curry leaves are a key ingredient in the local spice mix: sambar powder which includes dried lentils. Another spice native to the area is cinnamon, which in its purest uncommercialized form is the bark of a tree that grows in Sri Lanka. And because spices from islands to the East and eventually chilies from the west were landed here as part of world trade, the foods of the south in Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu make maximum use of them. They are India’s hottest.
And because I’ve mentioned the curry leaf, let me clarify that what we call curry comes from the Brits in the Raj who considered everything with a flavorful sauce to be a “curry.” The locals themselves thought of anything with spices on it, even dry, to be a curry, but as Indian food went out into the world with migration, the British version stuck.
Meat animals cannot survive in the oppressive steamy heat of south India but there is plenty of fish and some chicken—a native fowl of nearby Burma and Malaysia. It’s also way too hot for wheat so there’s no bread as we know it. Instead there are pappadums, that thin cracker like bread made by deep frying dried black lentils. This is so authentically and uniquely Indian, you are now likely offered with a mix of “chutneys” at the start of your American Indian meal. Pickling or fermenting vegetables is a way of preserving them without refrigeration. There is also dosa, a useful dough made from fermenting a mix of those black lentils with rice.
As it happens, lentils—often called pulses here– are the mainstay of the southern kitchen along with tropical fruits like mangoes, guava, tamarind, coconuts—the main source of cooking oil, and the banana whose leaves are traditionally used as plates. That banana is native to New Guinea and was evidently brought here millenniums ago by an Indian Ocean fisherman who liked it. India is where Alexander the Great first tasted this yellow finger and was so impressed, somewhere around 327 BC, he sent his troops ships back to Greece laden with Indian bananas.
Rice is the other mainstay as there is plenty of water to grow it. So kitchens make pancakes called idli from steamed rice flour and uttapams from a batter of rice and lentil flour. Medieval Italians like Marco Polo working the eastern trade routes got such a taste for this grain which they found all over India, they brought plants back to Europe, giving us the joy of risotto and pilafs.
When we move slightly north and inland, we come to the river crossed Deccan plains and the Nizam city of Hyderabad with its Arab influences and what’s known as Andra cooking. The Nizams were Turkic and Hadhrami Arab. Nizām is Arabic meaning order, arrangement. They are thought to be descended from Abid Khan, a Persian from Samarkand, whose lineage is traced to Sufi Shihab-ud-Din Suhrawardi (1154–91) of Suhraward in Iran. In the early 1650s, on his way to hajj, Abid Khan stopped in here, where the young prince Aurangzeb, then Governor of Deccan, cultivated him. This immigration gives Hyderabad distinct cooking of rich and elaborate Middle Eastern lamb and chicken dishes, often combined with rice, cooked not in coconut oil but ghee, yet flavored with the tamarind and spices of the south.
The end of India’s Arabian Sea coastline is the partly peninsular and temperate Gujarat, whose western border is with Pakistan. It has long been known for its unique vegetarian cooking, due to its very fertile land, abundance of fruits and large Jain community. Much fish but little meat is consumed and many dishes are sugar sweet. It’s been said because their geography mostly puts their back in India, Gujaratis tend to be outward looking globe-trotters, with a large Diaspora overseas and around all of India, there are many Gujarati farsans, snacks and mini-meals that are designed to travel and keep well – for instance khakras which are crisp wafer-like rotis made from wheat, corn meal or lentils that can be carried and eaten with vegetables or accompaniments or dhebras which being made from a mix of flours travel better than rotis.
Between the 8th and 10th Centuries when the new Muslim religion was launching its jihadist armies, Gujarat became a refuge for Zoroastrians fleeing Persia, today’s Iran. These refugee worshippers of Zarathustra became the Parsi whose language after centuries in India is still Farsi, the language of Iran, and whose cooking remains a reflection of their Persian heritage– especially on the solstice of March 21, Nowruz, the Persian new year. But they have adapted the local taste for sweetness. Spicy-Sour-Sweet is the kitchen’s Holy Trinity, and perfecting a balance is the goal. A quintessential example is dhansak, a much-loved lentil and meat dish, the king of all foods Parsi.
“Per edu” is a term that means “topped with an egg.” Almost any vegetable like okra, potatoes, coriander, tomatoes, or spinach can be topped with akuri (spiced scrambled eggs) or a “Parsi omelet” made with vegetables, herbs, and chickpea flour. A final reflection of their Persian heritage is the use of vermicelli –tiny noodles—in the sweets for which they like Persians, are famous.
When the British came to India, the Parsis who had been farmers in Gujarat, migrated to the growing city of Bombay where they became very prosperous merchants such as the Tatas and respected artists such as the orchestra conductor Zubin Mehta. Partly because of their outsized role in making Bombay an international center of commerce, Parsi cooking is dominant there.
Although at the end of the Raj, New Delhi became India’s capital and overshadowed it, Kolkata was historically the cultural artistic center of the subcontinent. In those centuries without cars and planes, its location on plains near the great Ganges delta made it accessible by boat or foot. Kolkata is the center of Bengal, the south central eastern part of India that once included what is now Bangladesh. A common flavoring in its cooking that spread east to Assam and north to Darjeeling is panchphoran which literally means five spices. It should be called five seeds because uniquely it’s a crushed blend of mustard, cumin, nigella, fennel and fenugreek seeds. Mustard oil is the main cooking medium but you will find coconut milk in some curries. A Bengali is often typified as a ‘Maache-Bhaate-Bangali’ : in Bengali Maach means fish and Bhaat means boiled rice. Lentils and beans are not featured as prominently as they are elsewhere. The Muslim invasion eventually brought Persian Arabic food to Bengal, resulting in the luscious biryanis or Indian pilafs made with local rice. Yogurt is also fashioned into very sweet desserts. Perhaps the most distinct feature of a Bengali kitchen is the idea of separate courses. In much of India you get everything at once—on a banana leaf in the south, on a copper or brass Arabic style thali platter in the north, but in Bengal you get one course after another.
Not too far north of the plains that create Calcutta, instantly out of nowhere the Himalayas confront you like a sky high wall. You don’t see gradual rolling hills or foothills, just the towering mountains. As you wind and climb into what’s now called West Bengal, you get Tibetan food with its Chinese influences of noodles and dumplings, food not fiery with chilies but spicy with garlic and ginger. You get milk tea and butter tea because the only Himalayan pass open in winter came down from the Tibetan plateau into Sikkim and Kalimpong and Tibetan traders flowed through on their way to Nepal and India. You can also get English tea at 4 PM with lots of sweets resembling European pastry in the teahouses left from the Raj hill station days. And for dinner you get mounds of plain rice because the plant grows so well in Sikkim, its name actually means “valley of rice.”
Now we descend and turn westward into the Indian heartland to encounter what’s probably the best known and most exported Indian cooking, the ubiquitous food that’s come to represent all of the subcontinent. It comes from the opulent camel filled oases in the great desert of Rajasthan and crowded streets of Delhi, from the foothills known as the Punjab and magical landscape of Kashmir. It’s called Punjabi or Mughlai. It’s that saag paneer, tandoori chicken and lamb korma you find on every Indian menu in our country because it’s what the world calls Indian food.
But is it? Just look at what cookbooks call it: Mughlai, to us Mogul. In the Indian kitchen Mughlai means food of the Muslims or Mughals, recognition that the subcontinent was invaded from all sides by Islamic adherents who brought their cooking with them. The Mughal dynasty that ruled much of India from the early 16th century to the mid-18th century when the British took over, began with Bābur, the all-powerful descendant of the Mongol Genghis Khan. So the word also carries hints of Mongol rule. A subsequent Moghul ruler was Shah Jahan, builder of India’s most famous monument, the Taj Mahal. Born in Lahore which is now in Pakistan, he was the fifth Mughal emperor, reigning from 1628 until 1658. It was his son who placed the Turkic/Arabic Nizams on the throne and into the kitchens of Hyderabad.
Islam originated on the Arabian peninsula and its eventual armies of jihad moved out in all directions, getting to the west as far as Sicily and Morocco, thus eventually into Al Andaluz or Spain. They easily went north into Persia and Afghanistan, then flowed through the Kyber Pass into what’s now Pakistan but was then known on the subcontinent as the Punjab, land of five rivers. So those kebabs and kormas in which meat is braised in yogurt and all those dried fruit dishes called Kashmiri came from Persian kitchens and became Punjabi food, aromatic but not fiery—thus acceptable to European and American palates. Butter chicken, dal makhani, kidney bean curry and all those flatbreads—roti, paratha and naan– reminiscent of the Middle East originals, saag paneer and tandoor cooking in which chicken or lamb is marinated in yogurt before hitting the hot oven, it’s all Mughlai cooking that became Punjabi in the Indian kitchen. This is why the most wildly popular so called Indian restaurant in San Francisco— always packed by migrants from the subcontinent—is owned and run by Pakistanis.
The Mughals also brought with them the Persian pula: a dish in which meat and perhaps vegetables, even fruits like apricots, are cooked in rice, mixed right into it. In early centuries necessity dictated a solution like this because there was no such thing as silverware. Everybody ate with their hands and rolling food in sticky rice was a good way to get it into your mouth. As the dish traveled, the name morphed from the original pula to pulao, pilaf, plov, and paella. Its glamorous version, biryani, in which cooked rice is layered with meat and vegetables instead of cooked in broth and mixed with them is what you likely find at a premium price on Indian restaurant menus. It’s especially linked to the Arab Samarkand Nizams of Hyberadad.
Punjabi cooking took hold early in Rajasthan, which borders Pakistan, and became the food of its maharajas. But they and their warrior people were not happy converts to Islam. So somewhere around the 12th Century, they fled their homeland and the murderous Muslim invaders now crossing from Pakistan. The Rajputs escaped as far east across India as they could, eventually seeking safety above its plains in the Himalayan mountain valleys. One of these was the happy valley of the Newari people, original inhabitants of what is now Nepal. The invaders’ observation that these natives lived in wooden houses and had erected a great wooden pavilion in the center of town made them call this ancient inhabited valley Kathmandu, place of wooden structures.
Of course they brought their Punjabi food with them. It differed from local Newari cooking which is very scientific and medically reasoned and based on all the local greens the Newars pioneered and gifted the Chinese. It is still intact in many Kathmandu kitchens. But over the centuries, as the Rajputs became the dominant people of this country – -Hindus with a caste system, warrior mentality and cooking style, they came to define it. That is why a Nepali menu is hard to differentiate from a Punjabi or Mughlai one. This especially explains the kitchens of Darjeeling: to create their tea plantations, the British imported the Gorkha, sturdy warrior Nepalese of Tibetan and Rajput ancestry, people used to whacking machetes known as kukris and terracing slopes into gardens. Naturally, they brought their cooking with them. Today the Brits are gone but the Nepalis still tend the tea so the linga franca and menus of Darjeeling are theirs, although tourists consider the food Indian.
This conflation of cultures is why the three most popular Indian restaurants in southern Maine—Tandoor, Hi Bombay and Shere Punjab—are all owned and operated not by Indians but Nepalis. Which brings me to our other guest speaker, a native of Pokhara, Nepal: Pushpa Regmi of Hi Bombay! whose website says it all: We are a team dedicated to crafting quality Indian dishes with Himalayan flavor.
By Sandra Garson