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The Contribution of the Europeans in the Making of the Indian Food Culture

The Portuguese have played a central role in contributing to the Indian cuisine-in-the-making. Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to India via the Cape of Good Hope and reached Calicut, a thriving port in the Malabar coast of India. In 1501 he was granted permission by the maharaja of Cochin to buy spices and ship them back to Europe. The Portuguese continued extending their empire to the Western Hemisphere and Africa and their trading posts became the hubs of a global exchange of plants- know as the Columbian exchange- which contributed greatly to changes in Indian and world cuisine. Fruits, vegetables, nuts and other plants were exchanged between the Western Hemisphere, Africa, Philippines, Oceania and the Indian subcontinent. Various new fruits and vegetables were introduced in India which became an intricate part of Indian food culture. The Portuguese introduced potatoes, chillies, okra, papayas, pineapples, cashews, peanuts, maize, sapodilla, custard apples guavas and tobacco in India.

However, some writers have argued on the basis of temple carvings dating back to 11th-13th centuries in Karnataka that maize, pineapples, sunflowers and cashews were indigenous to India. Moreover, they say that the new plants were not integrated into Indian cuisine at the same time. By the mid-sixteenth century, three types of chillies from various parts of the New World began to be rapidly adopted as a substitute for black pepper, since they grew virtually wild. The introduction and incorporation of tomatoes to India however cannot be precisely dated. According to some sources while the Spanish began introducing several agricultural commodities into the Philippines in 1571, it is possible that tomatoes had been taken from Spain to Asia much earlier, perhaps just a few years after the discovery of Philippines by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521. Trade between the Philippines and China, Japan and India may have been responsible for the spread of tomatoes into those countries. The British, Dutch and French may also have introduced tomatoes into their Asian colonies.

Another Portuguese contribution to India maybe cheese, including the only indigenous Indian Western-style cheese, Bandel, probably still sold in Kolkata's New Market area. Many food historians have argued that that the Portuguese were responsible for the creation of chhana, the curds made by curdling milk, used in sandesh, rosogolla and many other famous Bengali sweets.

The second biggest European contributor in the development of Indian food culture are the English colonists. It was the British who introduced tea-drinking to India. Afternoon tea with cakes and sandwiches, and such Indian snacks as samosa and pakora became an important meal, especially in Calcutta. However, tea did not become a mass drink in India until the 1950s, when the India Tea Board, faced with a surplus of low-grade tea, launched an advertising campaign to popularize tea, especially in the north, where the drink of choice was milk. In South India, coffee is the drink of choice, especially at breakfast. Although it had been grown earlier, the British built the first large-scale plantations in the hills of Karnataka in the 1830s, thus making it available for consumption on a larger scale amongst the British colonists and Indians.

Another British contribution to India was beer. A popular beverage among the English in India from the early seventeenth century, especially porter and pale ale, it was originally imported, but in 1830 the first brewery was set up in the Solon District of Himachal Pradesh (it is still in operation). By 1882 there were twelve breweries in India.

Furthermore, many vegetables originally grown by the British for their own use were quickly assimilated into Indian cuisine, including cauliflower, orange carrots, cabbage and spinach.

There have been regional influences too. The Portuguese capital, Goa, became famous for its meat dishes, especially those using beef and pork. Even today Puducherry has a French flavour. The local cuisine has a few dishes that may reflect the French legacy, including a stew called ragout, heavily flavoured with garlic and aromatic spices; dishes called rolls (lamb stuffed with minced lamb), which are served on New Year’s Eve; meen puyabaisse (fish bouilla baisse) and Pondicherry cake, a rum-soaked fruitcake served at Christmas.

Thus the Europeans profoundly influenced and shaped the food we today call "Indian cuisine".

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Sayak Chatterjee

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I am a student of Presidency University, am on the verge of completing my BA History Hons.