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Evolution of Indian Gastronomy: A Tale of Fusion

The Indian culinary culture is a product of historical and cultural developments spanning over thousands of years. Indian cuisine can be best described as a “palimpsest”, which denotes something which contains multiple layers or aspects beneath the surface, with each layer exerting an unalterable impact upon the whole. Cultural exchanges occurring as a result of trade, travel, conquests and invasions have all contributed towards its culinary heritage.

Evolution of Indian Gastronomy

A spread of Indian dishes

Prehistoric antecedents: The Beginnings of Agriculture

Some of the earliest evidence for the beginning of agriculture in the Indian subcontinent comes from its north-western part. Archaeological evidence found in northern Rajasthan suggests that forests were cleared and crops were grown in this region as early as 8000 BCE. One of the most important prehistoric sites that is significant in terms of the development of agriculture is Mehrgarh in Baluchistan. Wheat and barley were grown in this region as early as 6500 BCE. By around the 3rd millennium BCE, settlements also came up in river valleys of the Godavari, Krishna and Kaveri, in the southern part of the subcontinent. The evidence of large open bowls and pots suggest that forms of porridge and gruel-like food might have been eaten during this period. It might also suggest the existence of the practice of community dining.

Indus Valley: Cities and Surplus

The Indus Valley Civilisation (3000-2000 BCE) or Harappan Civilisation, emerged along the fertile river valleys of the Punjab and Sindh. It is one of the earliest known urban civilisations of the world. Scholars suggest that the urban cities of this civilisation were supported by surplus food production in the outlying areas. The number and variety of crops cultivated greatly diversified during this period. Archaeological evidence suggests that wheat, barley, lentils, peas and sesame were some of the principal crops grown.

Evolution of Indian Gastronomy

Furrow marks on an agricultural field, Kalibangan, Rajasthan

Evolution of Indian Gastronomy

Mud oven, Kalibangan, Rajasthan

Although bread was the staple, rice was also eaten. Symbols of fish were widely found on the seals, which suggests that it formed a part of the diet. Archaeologists have discovered an agricultural field in Kalibangan (Rajasthan), a major planned city of the Indus Valley Civilization. The field contains scrapes in a crisscross pattern that have been identified as furrows caused by ploughing. It is interesting to note that even today this crisscross method of ploughing is followed by farmers in some areas around the excavation site.

In Kalibangan, several thousand charred grains of barley have also been identified indicating that it might have been a staple of the region during these times. Small ovens plastered in mud, closely resembling modern tandoors, have also been discovered at the site. As the principal cities of the Indus Valley were engaged in a brisk trade with Mesopotamia, culinary influences from the latter, especially in terms of cooking bread and meat might have travelled to the Harappan cities.

Evolution of Indian Gastronomy

A plough, Banawali, Haryana

Vedic Period: The Primacy of Gau and Yajnas

We sing your praises, O Food. From you we obtain as butter from a cow, our sacrificial offerings. O you, convivial feasts of god and men.

-Hymn 187, Rig Veda           

During the Vedic period, important developments in society influenced the growth of specific culinary habits. It was during this period that stratification based on caste or birth was introduced in the society which also brought in its trail the notion of purity and pollution associated with food. The religion of the Vedas was centred on the performance of yajna or sacrifices. The sacrifices involved offering cooked food to gods by a householder on the domestic hearth, elaborate public sacrifices and the drinking of soma (an intoxicating liquid). The cow was central to the society, economy and polity of the Vedic age. This naturally entailed the wide prevalence of dairy products in the culinary repertoire of this period. A preparation of milk with grains and parched barley was called odana. Barley was the principal grain of the period. Oilseeds such as sesame and mustard were also used. Among fruits and vegetables, one finds mention of bilva (bael), amalaka (myrobalan fruit) and mangoes in the Vedic literature.

Evolution of Indian Gastronomy

A painting depicting Sujata offering food to Buddha after prolonged fasting, Wat Kasatrathirat, Ban Pom, Thailand

Intellectual Moorings: Food as a Cosmic Principle

The period between the 6th and the 3rd century BCE in India is known as the second urbanisation and saw the growth of several urban centres in the Gangetic valley of India. This period also witnessed an intellectual ferment which gave rise to some of the major religious and philosophical schools of the Indian subcontinent: such as Jainism and Buddhism. This phase was marked by philosophical reflections regarding the nature of the self and the universe which in turn had implications for culinary trends in the region. Food was considered as the life-giving source of living beings and hence was equated with the being itself. In the complex cycle of life in the universe, a being becomes the food of another, which again is food for the third and the chain goes on. A popular legend in Buddhism recounts the tale of a devout lady Sujata offering a bowl of boiled rice and milk to an emaciated Buddha during his phase of severe penance. It is believed that Buddha was able to obtain enlightenment only after being revived by this food.

This incident is said to have encouraged him to abandon the principle of extreme penance for the Middle Path. Both Buddhism and Jainism stressed on the ideal of ahimsa or non-injury to living beings. Scholars argue that this encouraged vegetarianism among the common people. Hinduism was also influenced by such ideals. The timeless epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata were composed between the later half of the 2nd millennium and the first half of the 1st millennium BCE. Bhima, one of the Pandavas and a principal character of the Mahabharata, is known to have had a voracious appetite and exceptional physical strength.

Classical Age: The Growth of Trade, State and Orthodoxy

An important feature of the period between the 1st and the 5th century CE is India’s brisk trade with other South-Asian countries. This period also saw the rise of strong empires such as that of the Guptas which provided a further fillip to trade. Traces of cultural exchange via trade can still be found in the Indian cuisine. Spices formed a major commodity of commerce. The Gupta empire had major trade relations with the Roman empire. After the latter broke up, trade relations were continued with the Byzantine empire. Some of the major commodities of this trade were spices such as long pepper, white pepper and cardamom. Pepper was also exported to Iran in exchange for horses of superior breed. Another important feature of this period was the development of a class of Sanskrit texts called Dharmasastras which mention the code of conduct and moral principles (dharma) for brahmanical religion.

Evolution of Indian Gastronomy

Spices were a major commodity of overseas trade during the Gupta period

These texts laid down rules concerning cooking and consumption of food which had larger implications for notions of ritual purity and pollution within Brahmanism. It is difficult to determine the extent of legal authority that these texts enjoyed. Given the enduring heterogeneous nature of Indian society, the dietary regulations and injunctions mentioned in the texts were perhaps not followed to the letter. However, they were perhaps woven into the fabric of day to day life and enjoyed moral and spiritual importance in the society.

Evolution of Indian Gastronomy

Map of an overview of Indo-Roman trade

Puranic Hinduism and the Concept of Food as Naivedya and Prasada

Invoking daily god Visnu by chanting the aforesaid mantra, one should offer, with concentrated mind, articles of worship such as water for washing his hands and feet, and rinse his mouth and water for taking bath, silken garments, the sacred thread, ornaments, sandal-paste, flowers, incense, light, food and other articles.

-Bhagavata Purana, VI.19.8           

Evolution of Indian Gastronomy

Fruits are common offerings to deities in Hinduism

Starting from around the 5th century CE, an important class of religious texts called the Puranas were composed. This period is marked by the growth of the concept of personal gods in Hinduism. These deities could be appeased by offering puja (worship) which included offering specific food items as bhoga or naivedya. Each deity in popular Hinduism has his or her culinary preferences. For example, Visnu is generally offered ghee and milk-based foods. Ganesha is known for his love of sweets, especially a variety called modaka. After food is offered to the deity, the leftover called prasada is distributed among the devotees and is believed to be endowed with the deity’s blessing. Another important development during this period was the growth of Tantricism. In sharp contrast to mainstream Brahmanical religion, Tantricism considered mamsa (meat) and madya (wine) to be worthy offerings to god, and encouraged their use among devotees. Tantricism, as an ideal, sought to unleash the power of the forbidden substances as a way to reach the divine.

Evolution of Indian Gastronomy

Mahaprasada of Lord Jagannatha

Impact of Islamic culture: Food Fit for Royalty

Whosoever when hungry and with food before him, hears the supplication of a poor man and bestows it all upon him, will be rich and liberal.

- Ain-i-Akbari           

Influences from the middle east have over time made Indian cuisine rich in flavours and variety. Some of the earliest influences were brought by Syrian Christians from the Arab world which deeply influenced the cuisine of Kerala. It is fascinating that samosa, a popular snack in north India, probably had origins in the Arab world. The Arab cookbooks of the 10th and the 11th century CE mention meat-filled patties called sambusas. “The arrival of traders, spiritual leaders and conquerors from the Middle-east, starting from the 7th century CE on the Indian soil, introduced new elements to the cultural fabric of this country. It also brought about lasting influences in the gastronomical culture of the subcontinent.” Such culinary influences achieved the most refined and sophisticated form under the Mughals.  

Evolution of Indian Gastronomy

Biryani, a favoured delicacy of Mughlai Cuisine

Evolution of Indian Gastronomy

Chicken barbequed in Mughlai Style

Some of the important contributions of the Middle East to the Indian cuisine are the introduction of rich gravies with nuts, saffron and aromatic herbs, and various kinds of bread. The Ain-i-Akbari of Abul Fazal mentions dishes such as yakhni (a meat stock), musamman and stuffed roasted chicken, and also cooking techniques such as dampukht (a slow cooking technique) and biryani (frying or roasting). Breads such as sheermal, roomali and tandoori roti are also a gift of the Mughals to the Indian cuisine. It is believed that kulfi, a popular contemporary Indian dessert, also originated in Mughal India. The Nimatnama-i-Nasiruddin-Shahi was a medieval cookbook commissioned by Ghiyath Shah (1469-1500 CE), the ruler of Malwa. This text ,composed in Persian, is a compilation of medieval recipes enhanced with rich illustrations.


Samosas being served to Ghiyath Shah, ruler of Malwa, the Nimatnama


Art of preparing kheer, the Nimatnama

The Europeans in India and Culinary Arrivals from the New World

...Julienne soup, full of bullety bottled peas, pseudo-cottage bread, fish full of branching bones, pretending to be plaice, more bottled peas with the cutlets, trifles, sardines on toast: the menu of Anglo-India.

- A Passage to India           

The Europeans who started coming to the Indian subcontinent by the 16th century brought many novel items of food to the Indian subcontinent. The Portuguese introduced potatoes, chillies, papayas, pineapples, peanuts, guavas and tobacco to the Indian culinary basket. The potatoes in India came to be known as alu, a generic Sanskrit term for tuber. Portuguese influence enriched the cuisine of Goa, which was their capital. Similarly, the cuisine of Pondicherry reflects the legacy of French colonial influence.

Evolution of Indian Gastronomy

Chillies were brought to the Indian subcontinent from the New World

Evolution of Indian Gastronomy

Potatoes were introduced in the Indian subcontinent by the Portuguese

The British, who ruled India for 200 years, introduced the cultivation of tea to the Indian soil in the form of large plantations. Many vegetables which were initially grown in India by the British for their use, were harmoniously incorporated into the Indian cuisine such as, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach and carrots.

Modern Trends: The Vibrant World of Cafes, Dhabas and Online Apps

The Indian cuisine continues to evolve over time. The restaurant culture in India is a product of modern times. Traditionally, caste norms associated with commensality prevented Indians of different social groups from dining together. However, taverns and inns that served a variety of food items existed since ancient times. A category of restaurants called dhabas have become quite popular during the present times. Originally patronised by lorry drivers, these eating spaces have become popular among the urban youth of today. The intermingling of culinary cultures of India and China has resulted in a new genre of Chinese food, popular in India, called the Indo-Chinese. Another important development is that street food in India has moved beyond the streets and been taken over by large food chains. With the recent introduction of mobile-based applications associated with food, the access to a variety of cuisine from the comfort of one’s home has become possible.

Evolution of Indian Gastronomy

A scene from a modern-day restaurant in India