The greatest developments in the story of India have come through civilisational dialogue with other civilisations. It is this dialogue from the earliest times, that makes the Story of India timeless and eternal.

Five thousand years of unbroken civilisation draw sustenance from this ancient land. Unique civilisational dialogues, scientific and philosophical thought and travelogues   have shaped the experience of Bharatvarsh, a land girdled by snowy mountains to the north and oceans to the south, west and east, which pose not barriers to the land’s munificence, but offer passage to the hungry heart. Mastered in the centre of such a vast network of land and sea routes, the kitchens of India reflect a shared heritage born of continuous accretion as well as skilful adaptation to make something uniquely our own. To contemplate India’s cuisines that are as varied and as ancient as the land they flavour, is to contemplate the heart(h) of civilisation, its muldahara.

At the heart of this vibrant exchange and dialogue is Taste - the taste for pepper and spices; indeed it was a grand appetite that saw different cultural narratives dovetail into an extraordinary, vibrant, intricate mosaic to complete the story of India. In many ways, the story of India is the history of the cuisines, fragrances, fabrics and architectural styles that have come with successive waves of immigrants and been seamlessly synthesised with the indigenous culture and practices.

2300 BC
By 2300 BC, the first villages in the Indus Valley develop into planned and walled cities in the Harappan civilisation. Impressive granaries at Lothal, Mohenjodaro and Harappa, brimming with barley, wheat, oat, amaranth, jowar, sesame, chickpeas, oilseeds, masoor, mung, dates and pomegranates, testify to the technological sophistication and palate of the Indus Valley people. Trade with Mesopotamia appears the lifeblood of this essentially urban civilisation; barley and sesame and linseed oils are among the foods exported.

2500 BC
A variety of enriching influences shape the development of Southern India, including connections with Africa and South East Asia, which account for the transfer of food plants such as ladyfinger, some gourds and tamarind. Ragi, bajra, jowar, panicum samai, mung and horsegram are among the ancient foods cultivated at the ancient sites of Brahmagiri in Karnataka which provides evidence of food production by 2300 BC and Nagarjunakonda which shows evidence of food cultivation by 2000 BC and of fish and meat consumption by 1500 BC. Rice comes to dominate the palate after 1600 BC so much so that paddy (along with salt) becomes the principal measure of value. Alcoholic beverages are imbibed across sections of society, even by women in the company of their lovers. Wine brewed from germinated grains in pots is frequently mentioned and
chewing ginger is the recommended antidote to the heavy drinker.

1500 BC
Sometime between 1575 and 1500 BC, nomadic Aryans from the north settle in the ruins of the Indus Valley. Aryan mealtimes of rice, cereal, meat, green leafy vegetables and pulses tempered with turmeric, coriander, pepper, cumin, cloves, asafoetida and mustard (and, the occasional sips of the intoxicating soma), speak of appetite attuned to nature’s bounty and shaped by the Ayurvedic ideal of six essential rasas (tastes). Ayurvedic discourse emphasising well-being through a thoughtful diet influences the Aryan diet in imaginative and insightful ways.

1424 BC
The great Bharata War grows out of a complicated genealogical tangle over inheritance; the Pandava brothers win in a bloody massacre. Vyasa’s epic Mahabharata, composed around 200 BC from oral tradition, reflecting the life of such kshatriya princes, describes the most wonderful royal repast, including Yudhistir’s feast that honours ten Brahmins with venison, pork and preparations of milk and rice mixed with ghee and honey, fruits and roots.

1400 BC
Around 1400 BC, the Aryans begin to compose the Rig Veda, the earliest collection of Indian hymns. The compendium of hymns subsequently composed reflects the agricultural, pastoral and philosophical Vedic culture of the Aryans who are keenly alive to the force of nature. A prayer from the Yajurveda, composed around 800 BC reads like a litany of foods: A rigorous kindness flavours food that the Jains, adherents of his teachings, partake of, Ahimsa (‘non-injury’) being a cardinal tenet. Most extreme in their interpretation of non-violence and practising a kind of vegetarianism that allows only ‘absolutely innocent’ food, they are perhaps the original vegans. Practising Jains are forbidden even food in which injury is not apparent, but possible; this includes food that has potential for life to manifest itself in it, such as vegetables with underground roots and tubers, pickles more than three days old. The cuisine that evolves under such strict scruples, cooked without onion and garlic, proves itself among the gems of the Indian kitchen, and finds diverse expression in culinary adaptations around the country.

534 BC
Prince Siddhartha Gautama, later known as Buddha, hopes to come to peace with the inevitability of decay and corruption; his ultimate enlightenment comes with the realisation that humans must be free from samsara or existence in order to be free from desire. The Middle Path that Buddha teaches, between extreme indulgence and extreme austerity, is born of his six years’ experience of wandering emaciated in search of true knowledge until the simple, nourishing bowl of milk-rice gruel Sujata offers him, teaches him how important it is to nourish the body to attain peace of mind. Eight kinds of juices are allowed to Buddhist monks: juices of the ripe mango, jamun, banana, grapes, phalsa, coconut and edible water lily roots and diluted honey. Seeking a middle path, Buddha enjoins that meat, if offered, is to be accepted with grace, but the meat should be blameless: the killing should not have been either seen or heard or suspected by the monks (‘adrastam’, ‘asrutam’, ‘aparivirtakam’).

700 BC
Philosophical writings attached to the Vedas establish the cornerstone of Vedanta philosophy. A verse in the Taittiriya Upanishad reads: ‘From earth sprang herbs, from herbs food, from food seed, from seed man. Man thus consists of the essence of food... From food are all creatures produced, by food do they grow... the self consists of food, of breath, of mind, of understanding, of bliss’.

527 BC
By the 6th century BC, India’s rigid hierarchy is fully entrenched in society. Nataputta Vardhamana, born in 599 BC, later known as the Mahavira, rejects the wealth and privilege of his birth and spends twelve years in silence and meditation.

350 BC
Panini, a Sanskrit grammarian, resident of Gandhara, standardises the grammar and morphology of Sanskrit in the text Ashtadhyayi; his standardised Sanskrit is called Classical Sanskrit.

399 BC
Travelling mostly on foot from Central China, taking the southern route through Shenshen, Dunhuang and Khotan, crossing the Himalyas into Gandhara and Peshawar, and thereon to Magadha, Fa-Hien becomes the first Chinese monk to travel to Jambudwipa as India is then called. The travelogue he subsequently composes, ‘Record of Buddhist Countries’ later known as ‘Travels of Fa-Hien’, is the first invaluable  and comprehensive eyewitness account of cultures and landscape along the Silk Route. Fa-Hien notes that while Indian peasants are vegetarian, subsisting on a diet of roots, leaves, stalks, flowers and fruit, the rich enjoy meat flavoured with spices, cardamom in particular.

327 BC
Sikander-e-Azam, the most successful military commander in the ancient world, rides forth from his empire in Ancient Greece and conquers the Persian Empire, before he arrives as far as the Punjab. Ambhi at Taxila surrenders his kingdom, but King Porus puts up a fierce fight at Hydaspes. Alexander’s invasion lays the ground for GrecoBuddhist art and a flourishing Indo- Greek culture.  Alexander’s Indian campaign assumes significance for another reason: He may well have been among the first Europeans to have tasted a banana; in fact, he mentions the banana specifically in his records. Greek travellers who follow open a window to India.\

321 BC
Chandragupta Maurya, ruler of the Magadha kingdom, conquers the Punjab region and founds the Mauryan dynasty. He extends his empire to Persia, becoming the first  emperor to unify almost all of India under one administration. The Greeks know him as Sandrakattos. When Selecuid general Seleucus Nikator cedes to the Mauryan king in battle, their treaty of mutual accommodation has them exchange territories and elephants, Megasthenes is appointed Greek ambassador to the Mauryan court and Helen, daughter of Seleucus, marries Chandragupta. The event heralds a new era in cultural exchange between two distinct worlds.

300 BC
The Cholas hold sway at the southern edges of India, from Tanjore. During their reign from the fourth to the twelfth century, the Cholas build many temples as well as sculptures; most famous is the bronze image of Nataraja, the divine dancer Shiva, dancing the dance of death and destruction. Tamil literature collectively called Sangams records feasts as early as 300BC of spit-roasted wild boar, which are fed on rice and kept apart from sows to improve flavour. Rice is a main staple, mixed with vegetables, cooked greens, tamarind and yogurt; dosa is made from lentil; wheat flour forms the base of breads and snacks; pepper, turmeric, salt, fenugreek and asafoetida are common spices. It is only in 400BC that the rasam and sambar, considered the cornerstone of Southern Indian cuisine today, find a mention. Parpata (papadom) is referenced around 500BC in Buddhist writings that describe women specialists who spend a lifetime learning this skill. The idli we tuck into today, never failing to marvel at its suppleness, is born from the exchange of knowledge, ideas, philosophy and cultures along the  ‘maritime Silk Route’ that develops when the mighty Cholas take to the seas. Cooks accompanying the Hindu kings of Indonesia between 800-1200 AD bring fermentation and steaming methods and their dish ‘kedli’ to Southern India.

260 BC
The Battle for Kalinga in 261 BC, so fierce and bloody that the Daya river beside the battlefield bleeds red, moves Emperor Ashoka, third king of the mighty Mauryan empire, to issue Dhamma edicts preaching ‘harmlessness to living beings and non-killing of living beings’. Ashoka’s Dhamma sets in stone an ethical code of conduct that holds sway over the Brahmanas, Ajivikas, Buddhists, Sramanas, the atvikas (forest  dwellers) and his subjects on the north western border alike. ‘Formerly, in the kitchens of Beloved-of-the- Gods, King Piyadasi, hundreds of thousands of animals were killed every day to make curry. But now with the writing of this Dhamma edict only three creatures, two peacocks and a deer are killed, and the deer not always. And in time, not even these three creatures will be killed.’ – First Rock Edict. Once the emperor converts to Buddhism and becomes a practising vegetarian, his Edict insistence on non-violence towards animals (backed by fines levied on poachers) tempers the diet of the Mauryan empire.

40 AD
Whence the Greek merchant Hippalus ‘discovers’ that the monsoons which nourish India’s pepper vines reverse direction mid-year, a fact the Arabs have known and kept secret for centuries, the Romans ride these trade winds. They charter a direct route from ports at Red Sea to the ancient port of Muziris in central Kerala, the aromatic source of pepper and other southern Indian spices that have featured as essential ingredients listed by Apicius as early as the fourth century BC. After the fall of Rome, Arabs gain monopoly of the spice trade, with bustling market centres at Constantinople and Alexandria. The Venetians, with their mighty presence in the Adriatic Sea, control the distribution of pepper and other spices from the Mid-east to Western Europe.

52 AD
St Thomas the Apostle is said to have landed in Kerala in 52AD to found the Syrian church at Muziris (Cranganore), described by Pliny as ‘primum emporium Indiae’. Those who take heart in what he preaches come to be known as Syrian Christians. Their cuisine dips liberally into the generous natural bounty of the land: spicy offal, chicken, duck, shellfish, fish, beef and wild boar, prepared with coconut and spice masalas.

69 AD
It is again to Cranganore and Cochin, at the crossroads of the ancient world, that the first Jews arrive after the destruction of the second temple and the final desolation of Jerusalem.

127 AD
King Kanishka comes to control the Kushan empire in 127 B.C., commanding the middle kingdom between the Aral Sea and the Bay of Bengal. Once the Kushan dynasty’s vaulting ambition of establishing trading routes connecting the Mediterraean, Arabia, Egypt, Persia, China and India is realised, Mathura emerges as an international buzzing trading hub at the junction of these splendiferous trading routes. Pepper, betel, coconut, sugar, garlic, ginger, kohlrabi cabbage, onions, cucumber, indigo and cinnabar, perfumes and medicines such as sandalwood oil, musk and aloe, cotton, wood such as teak and ebony, pearls, ivory, diamonds and rubies from India are traded along the continental ‘Spice Route’. India becomes as much a passage as the nerve centre for the exchange of ideas, plants, dishes and cooking techniques to and from the rest of the world.

320 AD
Chandragupta I ascends the throne of the northern Gupta territories and makes a beneficial marriage to Kumaradevi, the princess of the rich ruling family in Magadha. The Gupta period sees the concurrent refinement of mathematics, medicine, sculpture, painting, technology and thought reflected in the food of the time. The light and crisp Gupta palate is enlivened by asafoetida imported from Afghanistan and homegrown spices such as dry ginger and cumin accent the food cooked in vessels crafted from gold, silver and a variety of metals. Melons, pear, apricots, plums, grapes and peaches are cultivated alongside an intriguing variety of rice.

629 AD
The Chinese monk Xuan Zang spends 16 years in India, visiting ‘110 of the 138 kingdoms’ in every part of the country. In his Indian travelogue, he marvels, ‘With respect to the different kinds of wines and liquors, there are various sorts. The juices of the grape and sugarcane are used by the Kshatriyas as drink; the Vaishyas use strong fermented drinks; the Sramans and Brahmans drink a sort of syrup made from the grape or sugar cane, but not of the nature of fermented wine. The mixed classes and base-born differ in way (as to food and drink) from the rest, except in respect of the  vessels they use. There is no lack of suitable things for household use. Although they have saucepans and stew pans, yet they do not know the steamer used for cooking rice. They have many vessels made of dried clay… they eat from one vessel, mixing all sorts of condiments together, which they take up with their fingers. They have no spoons or cups, and in short no sort of chopsticks. When sick, however, they use copper drinking cups.’ sail from the port town of Hormuz in seven  junks, arriving first at the island of Diu.

850-700 AD
Fleeing Arab persecution once Islam is established in their land, a group of Parsis sets sail from the port town of Hormuz in seven junks, arriving first at the island of Diu. Nineteen years later, they set sail again, arriving at Sanjan, on west coast of India, and build their first fire temple. With their assimilation, savoury Gujarati cuisine finds itself sweetened with the Parsi penchant for combining sweet and sour.

1000 AD
Apart from the indiscriminate destruction and plunder, the invasion by Mahmuz of Ghazni is notable for the arrival of Alberuni in India, who eventually writes the authoritative Tarikh Al-Hind, an impartial and unrivalled account of 11th century India. Observing local customs, he writes: ‘The Hindus eat singly, one by one, on a long tablecloth made of dung. The earthen plates from which they have eaten are thrown away after the meal. They have red teeth on account of eating areca nuts (supari) with betel leaves (paan) and lime. They drink wine before eating anything.’

1288 AD
The Italian explorer travels across India and is awestruck by India’s rich bounty. Describing trade at the port town of Kollam in his Travels, he remarks: ‘When you quit Maabar [Malabar] and go 500 miles towards the south-west you come to the kingdom of Coilum [Kollam]... A great deal of brazil is got here which is called brazil Coilumin from the country which produces it; ’tis of very fine quality. Good ginger also grows here, and it is known by the same name of Coilumin after the country. Pepper too grows in great abundance throughout this country, and I will tell you how... You must know that the pepper-trees are (not wild but) cultivated, being regularly planted and watered; and the pepper is gathered in the months of May, June, and July.’

1498 AD
Arab and Venetian monopoly of pepper trade ends in 1498 when Vasco da Gama, riding the winds in search of the fabled land of spices, for pepper in particular which is prized as ‘black gold’, rounds Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and reaches the southwestern shores of India. As they land on the shores of Kerala, it is said that the men shout ‘For Christ and spices!’ Legend has it that before leaving, Vasco Da Gama dares to ask the Zamorin of Calicut whether he may carry a pepper stalk back with him for replanting. While the Zamorin’s courtiers are outraged, the Zamorin calmly responds, ‘You can take our pepper, but you will never be able to take our rains.’ It is one of history’s ironies that  chili eclipses pepper during the subsequent 400-year-old Portuguese affair with India that transforms the culinary landscape of India. Pineapple, guava, chili, potato, tomato and cashew from Brazil introduced to India by the Portuguese take root in the Indian soil and become indispensable kitchen essentials.

1206 AD
The establishment of the Sultanate in Delhi in the early 13th century opens Delhi’s doors to multiple ethnicities such as the Turks, Taziks, Uzbeks, Mongols, Arabs, Afghans, Iranians, Syrians and Abyssinians from Central and West Asia, among others. The Indo-Islamic society that emerges incorporates aspects of both the nomadic immigrant cultures and settled indigenous ones. The dietary needs and preferences of the Central Asian immigrants transform the markets of Al- Hind: the sweetest yellow melons from Central Asia are cut into strips, dried and packaged to be sold in Delhi, along with the choicest variety of other Central Asian fruits such yellow plums and grapes of different kinds, as well as dry fruits such as almonds, pistachios and raisins imported from Bukhara. A bewildering variety of meats, fish and birds like chicken, waterfowl, pheasant, partridge, quail and buttonquail are also available. The fundamental difference that emerges in the market places in the Sultanate is the opening of catering shops or dukanan-itabbakhan where cooked food is sold; restaurants selling baked breads and meats become commonplace in the market squares. Around 1300, royal  poet of the Delhi Sultanate, Amir Khusro, describes princes and nobles enjoying ‘samosa prepared from meat, ghee, onion and so on’. These are still popular when 14th-century traveler and explorer Ibn Batuta visits India. He describes a meal at the court of Muhammad bin Tughluq, where the samushak or sambusak, a small pie stuffed with minced meat, almonds, pistachio, walnuts and spices, is served before the third course of pulao. Hungering for a taste of home, when the Portuguese experiment with making cottage cheese in India, ‘breaking milk’ by using acidic materials, they galvanise culinary traditions of Orissa and Bengal - the chhana mishti in its various sinful avatars that almost everyone is susceptible to finds its humble beginning in this experiment. In 1503, the Portuguese take over the kindgdom of Kochi, creating the first European settlement in India.

1526 AD
The imperial kitchen is recorded in fascinating detail in the gazetteer of the Mughal empire, the Ain-i-Akbari, written by courtier Abul Fazl, testifying to the culinary sophistication of the Mughals. Abul Fazl writes that the kitchen department is helmed by Mir Baqawal (master of the kitchen), an officer of the rank of 600 horses (in Akbar’s reign), who supervises an army of cooks, tasters, attendants, bearers and a special officer for betel. A hakim (physician) of repute assists in the preparation of the daily menu keeping in mind the temperament of the emperor and the nutritive value of the food served to him. The recipes he provides make apparent not just the Central Asian and Persian influences, but also indicate that Mughal diet heavily relies on rice, wheat, gram, barley and some other lentils. This is corroborated in the accounts of the French traveller Berneir, personal physician at the court of Aurangzeb for many years, when he describes how the shops are stacked with pots of ghee, rice, wheat and endless variety of other grains. The handwritten account of the royal kitchens of the Mughal emperors reveals that very few spices such as cumin, coriander, ginger, pepper, cinnamon, cloves and fennel are used in cooking. Instead, nuts, raisins, saffron, and sugar with lemon juice are added to dishes to make them more exotic and befitting the imperial table.

1589 AD
The city of Hyderabad, established by Mohammad Quli Qutbshah and the Muslim royalty, creates a haute cuisine that is greatly celebrated. The composite culture of Hyderabad is reflected in its cuisine of distinctive flavours that represents a superb example of the imaginative use of local ingredients to create totally new concoctions as well as the inimitable fusion of indigenous culinary traditions of the Vedic and Aryan people, with the foods of Arabia, Persia, Afghanistan and the Turkish nations and, later, European accents. The synthesis of North Indian spices such as cumin with the South Indian accents of mustard, curry leaf and sour tang contribute to the Hyderabadi palate. It is said that the kind of souring agent used in dishes is a marker of privilege: the poor use tamarind leaves, the lower middle classes use tamarind fruit and lemon, the middle classes use raw mango, the upper middle classes use under-ripe grapes and the wealthy use seeds of the pomegranate.

1605 AD
Merchants of the Dutch East India Company establish themselves first at Pulicat on the Coromandel Coast, looking for textiles to exchange with the spices they trade in the East Hyderabadi Biryani Indies. By the time they establish themselves at Surat, Ceylon and Bengal, the Dutch command a lucrative trade in pepper, ginger, turmeric, saltpetre, opium, pepper, indigo, precious stones and silk from India. An enterprising Dutchman sets up a bakery in Surat to give the Dutch their daily bread. When the Dutch leave  India, Faramji Pestonji Dotivala, a trusted employee, takes over, renames it Dotivala Bakery. Faced with declining orders, he innovates with ‘Irani Biscuit’ by drying slices of stale left-over bread in the oven. As the enterprising baker becomes more, the Dutch Butter Biscuit become ‘Farmasu’ or ‘Surti Batasa’; the Puff Pastry is ‘Khari Biscuit’, a salty version spiked with ajwain; and, the Dutch Butter Biscuit combined with a local sweet called Dal, creates the Nankhatai. It is transported to Bombay in huge amounts, where it becomes a popular teatime treat with the Gujarati diaspora. In North India, the Nankhatai, made without any leavening, produces something akin to the European shortbread cookie, and becomes a teatime staple during the Raj.

1612 AD
Sir Thomas Roe, the English emissary of the Queen of England, describes in wonder, the   court feasts brimming with ‘fifty dishes of meats and rice of all types and a spicy venison dish as the most savoury I have ever tasted’. The subsequent steady expansion of the English East India Company thereon to Madras, Bombay and Dutch East India Company factory at Hooghly Calcutta, sets the stage for a more aggressive phase of annexations and alliances through which they control vast swathes of India on behalf of the British Crown, to whom the lands are eventually turned over. Tiffin and tea-drinking become abiding habits in India even as the British Railway Mutton Curry and Mulligatawny is entrenched at the British table.

1668 AD
Setting up its first factory in Surat in 1668, the French East India Company establishes its presence at Pondicherry, Karikal and Yanaon on the Coromandel Coast, Mahe on the Malabar Coast and Chandernagar in Bengal. Under the Nawabs, Awadh concedes to selective European influences, French refinement primarily. Even as Awadhi courtly cuisine imbibes the best of culinary traditions such as fine straining, a critical practise in classic French cuisine, the French pate surely learns from the exquisite meat formulations that, by all accounts, are sublimated in Awadh.

1620 AD
The king of Tanjore leases out the village of Tarangamabadi to the Danish East India Company in 1620 and grants them permission to build a fortress. Danish colonial presence reshapes this ‘land of the singing waves’ as the fabled Tranquebar.

1919 AD
A carefully considered gastro-politics of freedom channels the collective will of the nation for independence. The Amritsar Congress adopts ‘Swaraj through Swadeshi’ in its December 1919 meeting presided over by Motlilal Nehru, and the subsequent Swadeshi agitation boycotts British manufactured sugar, salt and cotton textiles on account of their ‘alien’ origin. The hope is that this will lead to a revival of the plough and the spinning-wheel and age-old cottage industries, focal points of India’s prosperity and glory. The idea of ‘Swaraj through Swadeshi’ finds an early expression when the Sugarcane Breeding Station at Coimbatore is established in 1912, when Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya questions the rationale of India importing sugar from Java despite already having an established tradition of using sugarcane as a sweetener. Sugarcane finds early commendation in the Atharvaveda and all the Samhitas and it also had Nearchos of Crete, among Alexander’s bravehearts, wonder at a reed tree that ‘produced honey without the association of bees’.

1947 AD
The tri-colour flag of a newly independent nation, with the spinning wheel at its heart, is hoisted from the historic ramparts of Red Fort. In a jubilant corner of Shajahanabad in 1947, tiranga toffees are distributed to the school children of Independent India at the  Mazahrul Islam School in Farashkhana. The vision for a modern, secular, independent and prosperous nation is reflected in the architectural aesthetics that develop as well the resilience of those displaced by Partition. The tandoor, the roadside dhaba (a kind of new age sarai) and the culture of community kitchens known as sanjha chulha develop as the recently displaced settlers set up earth ovens to address yearnings of their appetite and rally community spirit around the communal hearth.