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The history of food

If you buy vegetables from a sabziwallah then you may have heard the term ‘English vegetables’.

It is used to describe such vegetables as avocado, broccoli or asparagus. These are increasingly sold by fancy sabziwallahs who can’t find the Hindi (or any Indian language) name for them. So, they use the English names and describe them as ‘English vegetables.’


At some level, we accept this distinction. These are foreign vegetables we say, not like our gobi or our aloo. They are expensive sabzi meant only for the rich.


   I won’t comment too much on how rich you have to be to afford to eat avocado on a regular basis (pretty rich, I would say, looking at current prices) but I am always amused by the suggestion that there are desi vegetables and angrezi vegetables.


   The truth is that so many vegetables have been brought to India by Europeans that it is hard to say what is desi or firangi any longer. We have finally got used to the idea that so much of what we regard as Indian is actually a foreign import: tea came from China; the samosa came from Central Asia; coffee from Arabia; and so on. So, we are no longer very surprised when common dishes, drinks or ingredients tend to have their origins in neighbouring regions.


   But do we realise how many of the vegetables we regard as Indian staples were actually introduced to India by Europeans? Let’s leave out the potato (which was separately brought to India by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British) because it deserves a full piece of its own. Let’s forget the chilli whose South America roots I have discussed here before. But there are lots of others we have not considered.


   Take the cabbage. As Indian as you can get, right? Nope. It was introduced by Europeans after 1850. It has no Indian origin. Same goes for the cauliflower. Also brought here by Europeans.


   How about some staples? Well, let’s take rajma, that great North Indian favourite. That’s not at all Indian either.


   Rajmah is a name we give the kidney bean in North India. All kidney beans come from Mexico where they have been extensively cultivated for 2000 years. They belong to the breed Phaseolus Vulgaris, which is capable of many variations: haricot beans, pinto beans and the rest are all part of the same breed. The kidney bean came to India relatively recently—late 19th century perhaps—and was first grown by the French, and then by the British, who passed it on to Punjabis. There is a great rajmah tradition in Jammu and in Uttarakhand but it is not at all ancient: it probably evolved not much further back than the 20th Century.


   Why is it called rajmah? Probably because it looked like lobia, which we knew in India and called rajmasha for centuries.


"Everything is about sharing. Which is appropriate because food is about joy. It is about exchanging ideas and techniques and crops and dishes."

   While the British introduced many vegetables to India, it is the Portuguese who may have had the most impact on our eating habits. The Portuguese gave us the tomato; we called it tamatar after the South American ‘tomatl’. They gave us the chilli too. Try and think of Indian food without the potato, tomato and the chilli and you will see how much we have to thank the Portuguese for.


   But there are less obvious examples of the Portuguese contribution to our diet. The Portuguese brought the peanut to India from the New World. At first, consignments of peanuts reached Portuguese settlements in India, but by 1860, the Portuguese had begun cultivating peanuts in India. The demand was not so much for peanuts to eat but more for oil. Peanut oil soon became the dominant oil in Western India. (This may surprise you but peanut oil is more popular than olive oil in much of France too because it is better for frying.)


   Even the cashew nut, which we regard as an ancient barfi ingredient, is a South American nut (acaju, from which we get kaju, is the original name). It was brought to India by the Portuguese who taught the Goans how to make feni from it.


   So many of our fruits also came with European traders: the pineapple and the papaya, for instance. Less known is that the Portuguese brought the avocado pear to India centuries ago. It may only have become a trend recently, but we have grown it for a very long time. They also brought the guava which is called peru in parts of Western India after the country of its origin.


   The British may have been less influential than the Portuguese but they gave us many vegetables and crops as well. Apart from the cabbage, they introduced us to maize (corn) which was planted in the North of India and is used by Punjabis to make the makki ki roti which is one of their classic breads. (Well, recent classic perhaps, given that the British popularised its cultivation only in the 19th century.)


   South Indians often laugh when they hear about the relatively recent origins of such popular Punjabi dishes as rajma and makki ki roti. But the truth is that European influences changed the way people in the South ate as well. Today’s Andhra cuisine relies heavily on the chillies that the Portuguese brought to India. And Malayalis who are proud of tapioca, which they eat as a staple, don’t often realise that the tapioca plant is not native to any part of India, let alone Kerala. It is a South American plant introduced to India by the Portuguese.


   Then, there is the controversy over the splitting of milk. One view has it that because of Hindu objections to the splitting of milk, India was never able to make any cheese. The Portuguese may have encouraged Bengalis to break with tradition and split milk and this may have led to the creation of what we call Bengali mithais, many of which are milk-based.


   There seems little doubt that the Portuguese did have some influence on Bengal’s mithai inventors. But there is a view to the effect that we already had paneer in the North. This is difficult to substantiate because there are few medieval paneer recipes. So it could be that not only did Punjabis get rajma and makki ki roti from Europeans, but even their beloved paneer only developed in the colonial era.


   Does all of this matter? It does, if you are interested in the history of food. It can be fascinating to trace the path of the peri peri chilli from its original home in South America to Europe and then to Africa where the Portuguese planted it in Angola and Mozambique. It came from there to Goa where it became the basis of peri peri masala, one of the bedrocks of Goan cuisine. Now, Goan cuisine has evolved to the stage where they don’t regard it necessary to put peri peri chillies in peri peri masala.


   Unfortunately, all too often we allow ourselves to become narrow-minded and chauvinistic about food. We like to pretend that we discovered everything by ourselves and that stories of foreign origins are myths. This is silly: food is the original example of globalisation long before the term itself was invented.


   There are very few dishes anywhere in the world that can claim to be made only from indigenous ingredients using locally developed methods. Everything is about sharing. Which is appropriate because food is about joy. It is about exchanging ideas and techniques and crops and dishes.


   The colonialists took a lot from India. But we had our revenge. We managed to get some of our most interesting and enjoyable foods out of them.




  • Harry 23 May 2022

    Cool article, it'd be good to know what Indians are pre-arab/Mughal/British and European era. Maybe someday you can enlighten us with that knowledge too.

Posted On: 20 May 2022 11:55 AM
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