The Origins Of Some Of India's Most Famous Dishes

The Origins Of Some Of India's Most Famous Dishes
Sam Madhu For Homegrown

We’re a nation of hedonists and our choicest guilty pleasure is food. And for all our diversity, our communal love for food is the one common element that unites us all, despite the fact that cuisines from different parts of the country are incredibly varying. Still, you might have wondered while enjoying the rich culinary culture of the country, who developed certain staples like the biryani or a chicken tandoori, and how they came to be? No? Well, we weren’t either till someone casually told us the story behind biryani, and it got us hooked.

We’re a little etymologically-obsessed here at Homegrown (check out Hidden Histories: The Stories Behind Some Of Mumbai’s Most Frequented Locales as a case-in-point), but this time we decided to dig a little deeper than the name. Homegrown cruelly forced its writer to pen this while he was fasting, he did some scouring to find out the history and origins behind some of the most common Indian dishes we have all grown to love.

Since some accounts are largely dependent on oral histories, a few facts have gotten blurry as they’ve been passed down through the years, so bear with us regarding those that have multiple contradictory theories that even food historians can’t agree upon. That said, others are wholly reliable and incontestable. One thing is for sure though, trust us when we say that some of the stories we’ve unearthed are going to leave you utterly satiated.

I. Biryani

The word ‘biryani’ originates from the Persian word ‘birian’ which means ‘fried before cooking’. Legend has it that Mumtaz Mahal (1593-1631), Shah Jahan’s queen, once visited army barracks and thought that the soldiers were under-nourished.

Therefore, she asked the chef to prepare a special dish, which provided balanced nutrition. After a few rejections, she finally settled on biryani, considering it the ‘complete meal’ which could be eaten as a single serving.

So while the first origins of this dish have Persian and Afghani influences, the Mughals crafted it within the vast Indian subcontinent they ruled for years, proving the potency of the frequented spice route. Also, the next time you visit the Taj, make sure you give Mumtaz a small whisper of gratitude. 

Another theory suggests that a rice dish known as “Oon Soru” was found in Tamil as early as the year 2 A.D. Oon Soru was composed of rice, ghee, meat, turmeric, coriander, pepper, and bay leaf, and was used to feed military warriors.

Other theories involve Timor The Lame bringing biriyani down from Kazakhstan via Afghanistan to Northern India and nomads burrying an earthen pot full of meat, rice and spices in a pit, which was then eventually dug up to become biriyani.

II. Butter Chicken

The origins of butter chicken can be traced back to Old Delhi. It is said to have been first introduced by a man named Kundan Lal Gujral, who ran a restaurant called Moti Mahal Delux in Peshawar.

Shortly after partition, the restaurant called Moti Mahal moved to Delhi, cooked by Chef Simon Mahil Chahal. The story goes something like this: after the restaurant shut down late at night, the restaurant was visited by a VIP guest who asked for ‘some chicken dish’ to be prepared for him.

The chef looked into his supplies and discovered that he only had half of a Tandoori chicken to cook with. So, hastily, he improvised and tossed it with liberal amounts of butter, tomato, and garam masalas and prepared an unknown dish. What he didn’t know was that the dish he had made was for the ruler of Mareelun – who, unsurprisingly, loved it.

So, if someone tells you that butter chicken is a ‘complicated’ dish, remind them that it was made due to lack of ingredients, and not because of an abundance of them, as the legend goes. Today, even within Moti Mahal, there is no one consistent recipe.

After the original owner died, the Moti Mahal in Daryaganj passed out of his family’s control. Another chain ran many restaurants under the name of Moti Mahal Deluxe without the involvement of Kundanlal’s family. There are now over hundreds of Moti Mahals worldwide.

Maunika Gowardhan

III. Idli

The earliest story of Idli occurs in the Kannada writing ‘Vaddaradhane’ in 970 A.D., where it features as one of the eighteen items served to a Brahmachari who visits the home of a lady.

Yet, the three elements of modern Idli-making are missing in these references: use of rice grits along with urad dal, the long fermentation of the mix, and steaming the batter to fluffiness.

To get some answers, we have to travel further back into history. According to the Chinese chronicler Xuang Zang, there were no steaming vessels in India. It is said that the cooks who accompanied the Hindu Kings of Indonesia between 800-1200 AD, brought fermentation and steaming methods and their dish Kedli to South India along with them.

While this theory has been speculated by food historian K. T. Acharya, other food historians such as Lizzie Collingham, Kristen Gremillion, and Makhdoom Al-Salaqi (Syria) are sceptical, since references found at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University Library suggest that Arab traders brought in ‘rice balls’ to India when they married and settled down in the southern belt of the country.

The Arab settlers were strict in their dietary preferences; many of them came here when Mohammed was still alive and they were neo-converts to Islam from Paganism. They insisted on halaal food, and Indian food was quite alien to their palate.

To avoid all such confusion regarding what is halaal or haraam in food, they began to make rice balls as it was easy to make and was the safest option available. After making the rice balls, they would slightly flatten them and eat with bland coconut paste, sound familiar?

IV. Sambar

We all know that Idli and Sambar are inseparable. [1].

We can assume that Idli was created sometime between 800-1200 AD, as shown above. [2].

Therefore, by [1] and [2], we could speculate that Sambar probably originated between 800-1200 AD too, right? Here’s a shocker: sambar, as a dish, was created as recently as the 18th century! It is said that it originated in the kitchen of Thanjavur Marathas ruler Shahuji, who had an immense liking for a dish called amti.

The dish was special because it had kokum as one of its main ingredients. However, catastrophe struck when during one particular season, the kokum (which was imported from the Maratha homeland) ran out of supply. However, some brilliant adviser in this court suggested that they try tamarind pulp for the sourness–an ingredients locals swore by.

Shahji experimented the dish with tuvar dal, vegetables, spices and the tamarind pulp and served his cousin, Sambhaji, who was visiting him. The court loved the dish so much that they created a whole new supply of tamarind, and named the dish sambhar after their guest, Sambhaji.

Another theory goes to Maratha ruler Shivaji’s son Sambhaji, who attempted to make daal himself when his head chef was away. “He added a little tamarind to the dal that he made an the royal kitchen dared to correct him on the fact that tamarind was not used in dal,” says S Suresh, Tamil Nadu state convener of Intach, who gave a lecture on Tanjore Maratha history earlier this week. “He loved his own concoction, which was then referred to as sambar,” says Suresh.

V. Paneer

Paneer is a vital ingredient in most Indian dishes, Palak Paneer being the most famous of them all, especially in the umpteen vegetarian households that speckle the country. However, few people know that paneer, legend has it, was actually an accidental invention.

As the theory goes, the Mongols were out on a long trip, riding horses that were carrying milk in Mushkis (bags made of raw hide). However, the heat of deserts and the rennet in the leather turned the milk into paneer. They tasted the resultant product (kudos to their spirit of adventure) and found it to be rather delicious.

It was brought to India in subsequent years by the Mughals and was mixed with various Indian spices and vegetables, which eventually became a staple as we can all attest to today. Of course, that’s not all! Vedic literature refers to a substance that is interpreted by some authors, such as Sanjeev Kapoor, as a form of paneer.

According to Arthur Berriedale Keith, a kind of cheese is “perhaps referred to” in the Rigveda. However, another source, Otto Schrader, believes that the Rigveda only mentions “a skin of sour milk, not cheese in the proper sense”.Based on texts such as Charaka Samhita, BN Mathur wrote that the earliest evidence of a heat-acid coagulated milk product in India can be traced to 75-300 CE, in the Kushan-Satavahana era.

According to them, paneer is indigenous to the north-western part of South Asia, and was introduced in India by Afghan and Iranian travelers. Paneer may also have a Portuguese influence, with a technique known as “breaking milk”.

VI. Pav Bhaji 

Pav Bhaji as a dish originated in the city of Mumbai, legend has it. Every day, numerous mill workers would have lunch breaks that were too short for a full meal. As they had to return to rigorous physical labour immediately after, a light lunch was preferred to a heavy one.

Noticing the plight of the workers, a local vendor created the dish using leftover ingredients of other dishes available on the menu. Roti or rice, which would be saved for other dishes, was replaced with pav. Curries that usually go with Indian bread or rice were amalgamated into just one spicy mixture, the ‘bhaji’.

The tasty, spicy dish was an instant hit with these mill workers, and eventually found its way into restaurants only to become one of the most loved dishes all over the city. The first stalls were located near the old Cotton Exchange, because traders waited for the New York cotton prices (in the ’60s, these were carried prominently in all Bombay papers) that came in late into the night and early in the morning.

But soon the pav bhaji stalls spread all over the city and by the late ’60s such restaurants as Tardeo’s Sardar Pav Bhaji were packing them in.

VII. Samosa

The samosa is one of the most famous snacks in India today. However, its origins can be traced back to Central Asia. If legend is to be believed, various traders travelled to India using ancient trade routes from Central Asia.

Since heavy food could not be carried around, they started cooking small, crisp mince-filled triangles that were easy to make at the campfire during night halts, and were also convenient to be packed into saddlebags as snacks for the next day’s journey.

Eventually, it found its way to India through spice route travellers. However, since most Indians were vegetarians, they replaced the mince filling with vegetables or potatoes. Soon, the samosa was a huge hit, both among the locals and kings, as one of the theories goes. It is also said that the triangular potato/meat-filled savoury dish actually has origins in the Middle East.

Originally called ‘sambosa’, the Indian samosa was actually introduced to the country sometime between the 13th and 14th century by traders of the Middle East.

Representational image
Representational imageSimple Recipes

VIII. Vada Pav – The Real Fast Food

Vada pav, like the Pav Bhaji, can also trace its origins back to Bombay. As various food history documentations claim, this dish is credited to Ashok Vaidya, a snack vendor who ran a street stall just outside Dadar station.

Since Dadar was an important station, it was constantly spilling over with hordes of commuters. In a moment of culinary innovation, Vaidya reportedly came up with this recipe in 1971 to satiate the hunger of the hustling crowd in desperate need of a snack that could be consumed on-the-go. In a way, it was like his own version of fast food.

He served it up with fiery red chutney that could include coconut, peanuts, chillies, garlic and tamarind pulp. Safe to say, the rest is history.

IX. Kebabs – A Quick Fix

Although Kebabs are the pride of the Middle East and also find a place in the hearts of every Indian, one theory claims that the dish itself was invented during the Medieval Era in Turkey. The story says that in order to save meat during their travels, the soldiers cut it up in small pieces, grilled it on their swords and ate it with some bread. However, curiously, the term ‘kebab’ is said to have originated from the Arabic ‘kabāb’ which means to char or burn, while the Turkish version of the term is ‘kebap’. Still, it’s hard to trace the origins of kebabs in general, since this over-arching dish has many, many different forms, from the shami kebab (which reportedly comes from Pakistan) to the shish kebab to the typically Indian hara bhara kebab.The people who believe kebabs come from Turkey insist that soldiers used to grill chunks of freshly hunted animals skewed on swords on open field fires.The name was firstly discovered in a Turkish script of Kyssa-i Yusuf in 1377, which is the oldest known source where kebab is stated as a food item.

X. Chicken Tandoori/Chicken Tikka 

Remember the story behind the invention of Butter Chicken? Well, turns out, the same restaurant gave the world the lip-smacking tandoori chicken too! It is said that the dish originated in Moti Mahal Delux, of which Kundan Lal Gujaral was the head chef and owner. The chef was known to dabble around with his ingredients and loved his tandoor. So one day, as an experiment, he skewered some chicken, applied the spices, and left it in the tandoor. The result was so marvellous that it even impressed the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. He then made sure that Moti Mahal turned into his official banquet, as records claim.

Visiting dignitaries like American Presidents Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, Soviet leaders Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev, the King of Nepal, and the Shah of Iran, all were made to eat Chicken Tandoori by the Prime Minister himself. The subsequent fame of Tandoori chicken led to many variations. Eventually, boneless chicken started being used, and thus Chicken Tikka came into existence.In India, tandoori cooking was traditionally associated with the Punjab and became popular in the mainstream after the 1947 partition when West Punjabis resettled in places such as Delhi, although sources say that the tandoori style of cooking chicken could date back as early as the Mughal era.

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Representational imageRayaan's Oriental Restaurant

Representational image, source: Rayaan's Oriental Restaurant

Feature Image by Sam Madhu For Homegrown

[Note: This article was originally published on June 30, 2014, and some of the theories have been re-verified, updated and corrected since.]