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How invaders and travellers shaped Indian cuisine

In an age of culinary exclusion, a reminder of how iconic Indian food, such as the vada pav, streamed in from distant lands

Masala tofu (Photo: Samar Halarnkar)
Masala tofu (Photo: Samar Halarnkar)

Our breakfast arrived amid the clank of backhoe excavators, a particularly noisy pile driver and Sunday morning traffic careening and honking to reach god knows where —a steaming hot deep-fried potato patty wedged between a soft bun sliced in half, garnished with a garlic chutney and a green chilli.

In other words, a vada pav, the appropriately diverse culinary symbol of a city built by myriad races and communities. The vada pav inspires poets, song and copy writers (“In a world full of expensive dates, when he asked Italian or Thai, she winked: vada pav and chai” or “a car runs on petrol, a Mumbaikar runs on vada pav”), appears in advertisements and movies, and, in my humble opinion, isn’t worth the hyperbole.

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I am safely back in rainy Bengaluru, out of reach of potentially outraged Mumbai folk (just as well, considering how many issues are now the subject of outrage and lynch mobs).

In the event, there we were, standing outside Ladu Samrat, an iconic central Mumbai restaurant that serves one of the city’s best vada pavs. We were on a walking tour of one of my old haunts, Lalbaug, where I went to office for a couple of years. Our guide, an enthusiastic lawyer called Siddhartha, held up the vada pav.

“When you think of it,” he said, “this vada pav is so symbolic of Mumbai but every ingredient is foreign.” I hadn’t looked at it that way. The pav is almost entirely the pao of the Portuguese, who also brought the potato and chilli to subcontinental shores during the Middle Ages. Garlic likely came in eras earlier, from the Babylonian and Assyrian empires of Central Asia and Iran.

The reason I take this long view of the vada pav today is to remind Indians that our culture owes its richness and intrinsic character—much as the country’s ruling party would like to emphasise otherwise—to travellers and invaders. The golden age of ancient India that many of us, radicalised by WhatsApp forwards, believe in and believe is at hand again, is only evidence of a mouldy intellect that I find easier to discern than ever. As the writer Paul Theroux wrote, it is only with age that you acquire the gift to evaluate decay.

A clear sign of that decay is the free hand given in parts of north India to vigilante mobs that try to enforce a mythical vegetarianism during the Navratras, nine days that celebrate the victory of good over evil, part of a larger effort to deny Indians their meat-eating culinary heritage.

India’s heritage came to us via travellers and invaders. It defines who we are, how we live and, in the context of this column, what we eat. Lord Ram travelled, Adi Sankara travelled, the sages travelled, and it is no coincidence that ancient Tamil Sangam literature uses a device called the Aatrupadai, songs in the form of a travelogue, written as an ancient traveller guiding a new one.

This is why Tamils were India’s paramount globalisers, spreading their influence over the Far East, their cuisine the most accepting and diverse in terms of what they eat. This is why Hindus in the temple town of Madurai flock to, or do not object to, goat brain, kidney, intestine and every other kind of offal, available aplenty in the lanes of the holy city.

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In my own home state of Goa, there is no better culinary satisfaction to be had than in the form of pao meeting pork sorpotel meeting fish curry, the cultures and experiences of travellers and invaders coalescing, explaining why there are commonalities in cuisine between Margao and Macau.

In keeping with our gaze East, I thought it appropriate to dabble with tofu—literally, bean curd—which supposedly originated in ancient China and travelled outwards. I knew tofu had been Indianised when a local family we source Punjabi home meals from listed “masala tofu” on their menu. Suspicious at first, we found that like paneer, tofu took to spices well. I tried my own version recently, merged with another invader, the tomato—another entry to my family’s culinary memory.

Serves 3-4

1 packet tofu
1 onion, chopped
3 tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 tsp chopped garlic
1 tsp peppercorns
Half-inch piece cinnamon
1 tsp garam masala
Half tsp turmeric powder
Half tsp coriander powder
Half tsp cumin powder
Half tsp red-chilli powder
Half tsp pounded aniseed (saunf)
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tbsp chopped, fresh mint
Salt to taste

Heat the oil in a wok. Drop the pepper and cinnamon into the oil for 30 seconds. Add garlic and sauté for a minute. Add onions and sauté till they start to brown. Add the tomatoes and sauté for two minutes. Add saunf, coriander, cumin, turmeric, garam masala and red-chilli powders. Mix well, reduce heat, cover and cook for five minutes. Open, add tofu and salt and cook for another five minutes. Garnish with fresh mint before serving.

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. @samar11

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