Our relationship with food is intimate –– from the heritage and history of each kind of ingredient to shaping our childhood by way of likes and dislikes, food’s complexity extends beyond our lifetimes.
It helps to remember that food always holds a past. With each cuisine comes its own cultural, political, and geographical influences that nudged it into the form it takes today. Indian food, in that sense, is packed with tales to be narrated. Today, let’s look at one of them — the India-Pakistan partition and Indian food.
The tandoor and tandoori food have not been around forever and are not typically native to India. Delhi was home to Mughlai cuisine with dishes like shabdegh (turnips with meat), pulao, and more. While these still exist, the immigration of people introduced a new technique and range of flavours –– the tandoor. The cylindrical clay oven was originally used in Western Punjab but overtook Delhi’s food as the dominant cooking method.
Refugee Kundan Lal Gujral set up Moti Mahal in Delhi, where tandoori food and dishes such as Butter Chicken were popularised.
Image Courtesy: No Worries Curries
The Changing Face Of Snacks
Pre-partition, the snacks vocabulary was somewhat limited to things like bhel puri –– a traditional mix of puffed rice with sauces, spices, onions, and tomatoes. As the Sindhis from Karachi made their way to Indian territory, dishes like dal pakwaan and sai bhaji came to be.
It is not simply the fact that newer snacks and small dishes were being introduced - this change was accompanied by Western snacks making their way out. As the popularity of Indian snacks grew and Indians began to take to their natural taste preference of spices and bold flavours, British snacks such as scones and cutlets began to fade away. Establishments such as United Coffee House and Kwality in Delhi did serve straightforward European food, but as the tandoor and Indian palate became stronger, they too had to pivot what they served. There are a few remaining European picks available on their menu now.
United Coffee House | Image Courtesy: Anoothi Vishal
What Makes An Indian Gravy, Indian?
Outside India, the generic idea of an Indian chicken gravy equates to either Butter Chicken or Chicken Tikka Masala. Within India, the types of chicken gravies are endless –– from Chicken Stew in Kerala to Bukhara Chicken in Kashmir, the dish takes on new and extremely different flavours.
Around partition, Mughlai food’s yogurt-based curries with several spices saw a decline and punchy tomato-based gravies were on the rise. The most-widely prepared and sold chicken gravy now begins with a base of tomato, onion, and garlic –– the Indian cuisine’s holy trinity. From there, various spices (and their levels), and other ingredients give it the final desired shape.
Post-partition, Indian food began to gain solid regional identities. What had started out as an amalgamation of influences from cultures and people, was on its way to forging its own culinary identity. Native vegetation, climate, resources, and more deeply affect the cuisine system of a region, resulting in the wonderful food we see today. ‘Indian’ food is a large, large umbrella term for these influences and how they have evolved, and we are lucky enough to be at this end of the result.
The partition transformed many other aspects of India as well as Pakistan. After 1947, India’s food culture never truly remained the same. With independence also came a sense of Indian identity through food and something to call our own. Of course, British influences remain here and there, but it’s the journey we seek to appreciate, love, and remember.