The story behind popular Indian dishes

The story behind popular Indian dishes

By Anupama Sreejith

India is a nation of hedonists and our choicest guilty pleasure is food. And for all our diversity, our communal love for food is the one common element that unites us all, despite the fact that cuisines from different parts of the country are incredibly varying. Still, you might have wondered while enjoying the rich culinary culture of the country, who developed certain staples like the biryani or a chicken tandoori, and how they came to be?

While watching one of a TV program about the origin of popular Indian food, I was fascinated to find out the history and origins behind some of the most common Indian dishes we have all grown to love. Since some accounts are largely dependent on oral histories, a few facts have gotten blurry as they’ve been passed down through the years.

  1. Samosa

Everyone’s favourite tea-time snack is believed to have originated in the Middle East before the 10th century. Originally known as a ‘sambusa’, the Indian version was introduced by traders from Central Asia somewhere in the 14th century. Ibn Battuta, a 14th-century traveller and explorer, describes a meal at the court of Muhammad bin Tughluq, where a small pie stuffed with minced meat, almonds, pistachios, walnuts, and spices, was served. While the Muslim community still relish the Mughal version, the vegetarian version has also become very popular in all parts of India.

  1. Idli

One of the healthiest south Indian breakfast, rich in carbohydrates & proteins, is actually not from India.  According to the Chinese chronicler Xuang Zang, there were no steaming vessels in India. It is said that the cooks who accompanied the Hindu Kings of Indonesia between 800-1200 AD, brought fermentation and steaming methods and their dish Kedli to South India along with them. The Arab settlers were strict in their dietary preferences; many of them came here when Mohammed was still alive and they were neo-converts to Islam from Paganism. They insisted on halaal food, and Indian food was quite alien to their palate. To avoid all such confusion regarding what is halaal or haraam in food, they began to make rice balls as it was easy to make and was the safest option available. After making the rice balls, they would slightly flatten them and eat with bland coconut paste, sound familiar?

  1. Sambar

We all know that Idli and Sambar are inseparable.

Sambar, as a dish, was created in the 17th century! It is said that it originated in the kitchen of Thanjavur Marathas ruler Shahuji, who had an immense liking for a dish called amti. The dish was special because it had kokum as one of its main ingredients. However, catastrophe struck when during one particular season, the kokum (which was imported from the Maratha homeland) ran out of supply. However, some brilliant adviser in this court suggested that they try tamarind pulp for the sourness –an ingredients locals swore by. Shahji experimented the dish with tuvar dal, vegetables, spices and the tamarind pulp and served his cousin, Sambhaji, who was visiting him. The court loved the dish so much that they created a whole new supply of tamarind, and named the dish sambhar after their guest, Sambhaji.

  1. Gulab Jamun

The sweet, derived from a fritter, that Persian invaders brought along when they came to India. The dessert got the first half of its name, ‘gulab’ from the Persian words ‘gol’ (flower) and ‘ab’ (water), referring to the rose water-scented syrup that the fried khoya balls are dunked in. The original preparation known as ‘luqmat al qadi’ consisted of soaking the khoya balls in honey syrup and then having them drizzled with sugar.

  1. Dal- bhaat

Talk of coming home after a long day of work and roughing it out in the rains to the goodness of some steamed rice and dal, a.k.a. dal bhaat, with some tangy mango pickle to go with it, and nothing feels more satisfying. This simple comfort meal too isn’t Indian in origin. Actually of Nepali origin, the dish entered Indian kitchens through North Indian influences, spreading across the country’s vast geography to be adapted for different palates.

  1. Rajma chawal

When someone from the North of India moves elsewhere to study or work, it isn’t unusual for him or her to complain about how the rajma doesn’t taste anywhere close to what is found in the North. And though rajma chawal continues to be a well-loved staple, particularly in the Northern states, the preparation technique for it comes from outside as well. To begin with, the kidney bean was brought to India from Portugal and the technique of soaking and boiling beans is borrowed from Mexican cooking traditions, the bean constituting their staple diet too. A rich and thick rajma gravy prepared with chopped onions, garlic, tomatoes and other spices, the Indian variant is very different from the Mexican preparations of the kidney bean. Probably next after dal bhaat on the list of comfort foods, this dish goes best with some steamed rice, especially during winters.

  1. Filter coffee

While 99.9 percent of Indians link filter coffee to South India especially Chennai, this sleep jerking drink is actually of Yemen origin. The drink known as Kaapi, is the South Indian phonetic rendering of “coffee”. A definite must for a South Indian breakfast today, Filter Coffee is believed to have been introduced to India by Sufi saint Baba Budan who discovered it while on a pilgrimage to Mecca. In order to show its taste, the saint carried along seven coffee beans from Mocha, Yemen to India. On his return home, he planted the beans on the slopes of the Chandragiri Hills in Kadur district, Mysore State (present-day Karnataka). The seeds were also planted in parts of TN and Kerala. Those days, many Indians due to their faith, were prohibited from consuming alcoholic beverages and this black coffee came as a substitute for it due to its bitterness and dense taste.  Subsequently the milk coffee became popular through the famous Indian coffee houses during the mid-1940s.


This is one dish which is popular in every part of India. While Mughals introduced this dish in the northern part, Arabs brought it to the south.

The word ‘biryani’ originates from the Persian word ‘birian’ which means ‘fried before cooking’. Legend has it that Mumtaz Mahal (1593-1631), Shah Jahan’s queen, once visited army barracks and thought that the soldiers were under-nourished. Therefore, she asked the chef to prepare a special dish, which provided balanced nutrition. After a few rejections, she finally settled on biryani, considering it the ‘complete meal’ which could be eaten as a single serving. So, while the first origins of this dish have Persian and Afghani influences, the Mughals crafted it within the vast Indian subcontinent they ruled for years, proving the potency of the frequented spice route. Also, the next time you visit the Taj, make sure you give Mumtaz a small whisper of gratitude.

Other theories involve Taimor The Lame bringing biriyani down from Kazakhstan via Afghanistan to Northern India and nomads burying an earthen pot full of meat, rice and spices in a pit, which was then eventually dug up to become biriyani.

So, one can conclude that historical events such as foreign invasions, trade relations, and colonialism have played a huge role in introducing certain foods to this country.


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