It’s a truism that India is the most diverse country in the world - ethnically, linguistically, culturally, and gastronomically. A debate about what constitutes India’s national dish - khichdi once proposed - may never be answered. Still, if we look into history, we find that while there may not be a national dish, there are commonalities of techniques, ingredients, and dishes that go back thousands of years. The main ones are the predominance of lentils and the extensive use of spices, especially turmeric, ginger, and black pepper.
Historically, the two core crops common to every agricultural civilization are cereals (annual grasses grown for their grain) and pulses (the edible seeds of leguminous plants). Both are relatively rich in carbohydrates and protein so that together they contribute to a balanced diet. In Mexico, for example, the dietary staples are corn and beans; in China, the grains were originally barley and later rice plus soybeans. Meat and fish, when available, played a secondary role. These core elements are supplemented by fruits, vegetables, and dairy products which provide the vitamins and minerals necessary for health.
In modern India, grains provide around 70% of Indians’ calorie intake, although this share is declining with increased urbanization. But which grains were grown and consumed changed over time. One of the earliest grains was barley, which was domesticated in the Fertile Crescent around 12,000 years ago and came to the Indus Valley via settlements in Baluchistan, notably the village of Mehrgarh just west of the Indus River. The site was first excavated by archaeologists in 1974. It has been found that during the second millennium BCE, barley was the main cereal consumed in India (and the only one mentioned in the Rig Veda), but today its consumption is minimal.
The Indus Valley Civilization, which flourished from around 3000-1500 BCE, at its peak, extended over more than a million square kilometers and reached almost to the outskirts of New Delhi. Archaeologists have discovered over 1500 villages and small cities and five large urban cities, the most famous being Mohenjo-daro and Harappa. Today much of this area is desert, but in ancient times it was fertile and forested, allowing the production of surpluses of wheat and barley and the technological competence to make the transition to urban civilization. Wheat was ground and most likely baked as bread in round clay ovens, similar to today’s tandoors.
Sugar was not yet known and sweetening came from honey, dates, palm sugar, and such fruits as jujube (ber), jamun, and mango. Pomegranate, grapes, apple, plums, apricots, pistachios, walnuts, almonds, and pine nuts were available from the highlands. The Indus Valley people grew lentils and other pulses, including peaks, chickpeas and black and green gram. Coconut, bananas, jackfruit, and citrus fruits were grown in the eastern regions. Sea salt and rock salt were available.
Cooking was done in butter and mustard and sesame seed oil. In addition to settled agriculturists, the Indus Valley Civilization included pastoral nomads wandering with their herds of buffalo. Water buffalo were an important source of milk. Goat and sheep were raised as pack animals, as a source of meat and dairy products and for their wool. There is evidence that chickens were first domesticated in the Indus Valley Civilization around 2000 BCE and from there spread around the world.
In the southern part of the subcontinent, the valleys of the Godavari, Krishna, Kaveri, and other river valleys were settled as early as the third millennium BC. In the Neolithic period (2800-1200 BCE), the staples were indigenous pulses and millets. Archaeological finds indicate that cooking involved large scale grinding and boiling. Cereals were ground into flour and mixed with pulse flour to make the ancestors of such typical South Indian foods as idli, vadai and dosa. The discovery of large open bowls and open pots suggests the boiling of flour-based porridge and gruels and communal dining.
In Western India, traditional grains were sorghum and millet which grow in poorer soils and an arid climate. India was home to three native millets - kodo millet, browntop millet and little millet. They were supplemented by varieties from Sub-Saharan Africa and perhaps China as early as the second millennium BCE, including finger and pearl millets and sorghum. Domestic consumption of millets has fallen sharply since India’s Green Revolution of the 1970s because of a preference for wheat which is softer, easier to use, and considered more ‘modern’. But recently there has been a resurgence of interest in these grains driven by health concerns . Some varieties have lower glycemic indices, which make them healthier for diabetics. Today India leads the world in millet production, most of it grown in the western part of the country.
Rice is the main grain consumed in Eastern and Southern India. The origin of rice has been the subject of considerable research and controversy. Domestication most likely first took place in the Pearl River Valley of China between 10,000 and 8000 BCE and was followed by the cultivation of the two main varieties: indica (long grain) and japonica (short grain). In the third millennium BCE, rice cultivation expanded into Southeast Asia, Nepal and India.
However, there is also evidence that a wild progenitor of rice grew in the Ganges plain much earlier. Archaeological finds at Lahuradewa in Uttar Pradesh put rice to use and pottery back as far as 6400 BCE. Today India is the world’s second-largest rice producer after China.
One of the most important components of Indian food ways is the widespread consumption of lentils. Lentils are consumed in many ways - boiled (dal), with rice (khichdi), or as a flavoring, especially in the south. The lentils grown in India have different origins. Pigeon peas (arhar dal) originated in Central India while urad and mung dal were cultivated in the grasslands of South India around the third millennium BCE. Chana dal, masur dal, green peas and grass peas came from Western Asia to the Indus Valley at the same time as wheat and barley. Hyacinth bean and cowpeas most likely came from the savannas of Africa to the grasslands of South India early in the second millennium BE.
Today dal is a staple of many Indian meals and has many incarnations, ranging from the light masur dal of the Bengalis to the spicy sambars and rasam of the south and the thick dal makhani of Punjab. Khichdi, cooked rice, and lentils is another nearly universal dish. In Bengal, it is eaten during the monsoon season, while in some other parts of the country it is a comfort food or a food for invalids. Khichri metamorphized into the British kedgeree, once a staple of British country house breakfast. While boiled rice is the base, the lentils have been replaced by smoked fish and decorated with hard-boiled eggs.
Read Part 2 of the Tracing India’s Food Journey series here
Read Part 3 of the Tracing India’s Food Journey series here
Born in Toronto, Canada, Dr. Colleen Taylor Sen is a Chicago-based author and culinary historian focusing on the food of the Indian Subcontinent. She is the author of many articles and author/editor or co-editor of seven books including Food Culture in India; Curry: A Global History; Turmeric: The Wonder Spice; A Guide to Indian Restaurant Menus and Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India (named one of the best food books of the year by Vogue and The Smithsonian Magazine).
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