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The story of desi cuisine: Timeless desi dishes
Dishes that span centuries and continents (clockwise from left): Mappila biryani, Goan paella, dhaniya kaju korma and chicken tikka masala.
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Feb 07, 2008 04:30 AM

On the eve of his departure to India last February, Hollywood star Will Smith said he hoped to achieve two things on his visit: to meet Aishwarya Rai and to taste authentic chicken tikka masala. But finding the divine Ms. Rai would probably prove easier for Smith than hunting down his favourite dish.

Chicken tikka masala is a preparation that few Indians had heard of until quite recently. And it’s doubtful whether there is anything like an authoritative version. Dozens of recipes exist, most bearing little resemblance to one another.

Accounts of the origins of the dish usually point to a curry house in Glasgow, where an irate customer sent back the order of chicken tikka that he found too dry. The Bangladeshi chef whipped up a spicy tomato sauce (one variation has him using Campbell’s tomato soup), poured it over the chicken and created an instant hit.

Chicken tikka masala is now the most popular item on restaurant menus in the U.K., where it has been hailed the country’s true national dish.

Chefs on the subcontinent, initially baffled by requests from British tourists wanting to taste the genuine item, quickly invented their own versions. Today, chicken tikka masala is increasingly well known in its supposed land of origin.

The convoluted history of this dish demonstrates the difficulty in trying to identify “authentic” Indian cuisine. Indian food has been shaped by millennia of foreign influences, including migrants introducing their traditional recipes; conquerors imposing new palace cuisines; merchants importing unfamiliar plants; and new religions with their own dietary laws. South Asians have assimilated all of these ideas, interpreted them in their own unique way, and created the range of cooking styles found across the subcontinent today.

If you had been invited to an Indian banquet 2,000 years ago, what would you have found on the menu? Rice, accompanied by chickpeas (chana) or kidney beans (rajma). Lentils (urad, moong, masoor), either boiled, made into a batter and deep-fried (vade), or rolled into thin papads. A variety of vegetables, including squash, bitter gourds (karela), peas, sweet potatoes and lotus stems. The food would have been well spiced, using generous amounts of turmeric, cumin, asafetida (hing), pepper, mustard seeds and fenugreek. Coriander, lemon and ginger would have been used for added flavour, but garlic and onion would have been frowned upon. The food would have been cooked in sesame or mustard oil — or, on special occasions, ghee — even though the great physicians of the time, Charaka and Sushrutha, warned against eating too much fried food.

People with a sweet tooth would be satisfied with apupa (barley or rice cakes deep-fried and dipped in honey), kheer from rice cooked in milk, and mandaka (parathas stuffed with sweetened lentil paste). A variety of meats were offered, including chicken, goat and venison — but the taboo against eating beef was already established, and vegetarianism was becoming widespread.

A modern guest at this ancient feast would have been equally struck by what was missing, as many of the ingredients indispensable in Indian food today would have been absent. Potatoes and tomatoes were still unknown in India, as were chilies — the only heat in the spicing came from black pepper and mustard seeds. There were no nuts or cream.

If your dinner invitation were to be postponed by about 1,500 years, a very different menu would greet you. The arrival of Muslims altered Indian cuisine, though in different ways in the south and north of the country.

In Kerala, Arab traders were frequent visitors, attracted by the flourishing spice trade, and many married and settled there. Their history is reflected in the name given to the Muslim community, Mappila, derived from the Malayalam for son-in-law. Arab influences are clear in Mappila food, including an elaborate repertoire of biryanis and pulaos and dishes such as aleesa, a sweet porridge of wheat and ground lamb.

In northern India, the Muslim influence was very different and far deeper. Afghans, Turks and Persians came as invaders, not traders. Muslims had conquered parts of the north as early as the 13th century, but the people with the greatest influence on India’s culture, for whom an entire cuisine is named, were the Mughals. Babur, founder of the Mughal dynasty, hailed from a tiny principality in central Asia. He found himself master of the north in 1526, after defeating the sultan of Delhi. Babur did not think highly of his new kingdom, complaining about the lack of ice, grapes, melons, good food and bread.

The Mughals set out to refashion their court according to their own ideals of good taste, drawing inspiration from Persia, the centre of Muslim culture. Persian poets, architects, craftsmen, artists and musicians were all invited to the Mughal court. Persian chefs came to India and introduced the cuisine of Isfahan, their royal capital. Indian cooks mastered this new cooking style but adapted it to their traditional spices and ingredients, creating a fusion cuisine that we now know as “Mughlai.” Indians learned Persian techniques of marinating meat in yogurt, and of cooking with dried apricots, raisins and almonds. Kebabs and kormas became the mainstay of Mughal banquets.

Muslim cooks used garlic and onions liberally in their food, and Hindus who had previously shunned these ingredients for religious reasons began to use them, too. Kashmiri Brahmins refused to do so and roghan josh, originally a Persian dish, was adapted by Kashmiri cooks using fennel seed and asafetida instead of onions and garlic for flavouring.

Saffron had long been held in great esteem in Arab and Persian cultures, where the golden hue it imparted to food was a symbol of festivity and well-being. Echoes of this tradition can be found in modern restaurants, where food colouring is used to dye tandoori dishes orange.

The centrepiece of any Persian meal was delicately scented polo, platters of rice cooked with butter and saffron. Rice, which had been grown in India for millennia, was so rare and expensive a commodity in Persia that only the very wealthy could afford it. Elaborate recipes were developed to make the best use of the treasured ingredient. When polo was brought back to India, Mughal cooks added spices, vegetables and meat to the mix to create pulaos. Taking the idea one step further, they created biryani, in which rice was layered and cooked in a meat curry, infusing it with the flavour of spices.

Many of the sweets most loved in India today were developed in Mughal times. Halwa, a favourite of the Arabs, is made from grated vegetables or semolina cooked with milk and sugar. Barfi, so called because of its resemblance to snow, which is burf in Persian, is made from thickened milk, nuts and sugar. And jalebis are deep-fried spirals of fermented batter in syrup, whose name is derived from the Arabic zalabia.

Europeans had arrived by ship in India a few decades before the Mughals, but their political impact remained insignificant for centuries. Their greatest effect was on Indian cuisine, which they were to transform.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in India, seizing Goa in 1510 and holding it as a colony for the next 450 years. The Portuguese encouraged marriage with Indian women, creating hybrid households and a unique cuisine that blended Portuguese cooking methods with distinctively Indian spicing. Goans, who eventually became Catholic, had no religious objections to eating pork, and Goan cuisine has a lot of pork dishes that are rarely eaten elsewhere on the subcontinent, such as chourisam (a spicy sausage prepared from pork marinated in ginger, garlic, spices and vinegar) and sorpotel (pork curry with vinegar and tamarind juice). Vindaloo, the best-known example of Goan cooking, is made by cooking meat marinated in vinegar. Its name comes from the Portuguese vinho e alho, meaning wine and garlic.

The Portuguese went to great lengths to bake leavened white bread, not only for their dinner tables, but because it was essential to the rites of the Catholic mass. They lacked yeast to make bread rise, but toddy (fermented palm juice) served quite well. Goans baked white bread rolls known as pão, the predecessors of the pao-bhaji served today on Indian street corners. Arabs had introduced Persian polo to their territories in Spain, where seafood was added to create paella, a distant relative of the Mughal pulao. In an odd loop of history, the recipe for paella was carried back by the Portuguese to Goa, where it was given a new twist with the addition of coconut milk and Indian spices and herbs.

The Portuguese effect on Indian cuisine extended far beyond the boundaries of Goa. From their colonies in the Caribbean and Brazil they imported a variety of fruit and vegetables that were previously unknown in Asia, and these altered Indian eating habits forever. Fruits such as pineapples, papayas, guavas and lychees all found an enthusiastic reception on the subcontinent. Cashew nuts were grown in Goa and used to brew the potent liquor known as feni. Corn was planted across the country and became the staple food of Punjabi peasants who used it to make makki di roti. Potatoes and tomatoes were introduced, though they were not widely used until the 19th century.

But no Portuguese import had as much impact on Indian cuisine as chilies. Chilies were brought to Goa a few decades after Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the New World and they were imported under the name achi, which still lives on in the Hindi word achar, meaning pickle. The plant itself was renamed mirchi in most Indian languages, the name previously used for black pepper. South Indians took to eating chilies with gusto and by the mid 1500s the Kannada poet Purandara Dasa was writing odes to the “saviour of the poor, enhancer of good food.”

The British ruled India for more than two centuries and left behind impressive architecture, parliamentary democracy and cricket, but they had surprisingly little effect on local food. Cutlets and custard, the mainstays of Anglo-Indian cuisine, survive in railway restaurants and army messes, but never became popular.

The absorption of foreign influences by South Asian chefs continues today, producing strange hybrids found on restaurant menus, such as pizza-uttapam and couscous upma.

The process of culinary exchange is by no means a one-way street. In Toronto, Pizza Pizza now offers a chicken tikka masala-topped pizza and several restaurant chefs are experimenting with fusion cuisine, blending subcontinental and Western styles of cooking.

The future, obviously, holds many delicious surprises.

Sanjeev Chandra is a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Toronto with a keen interest in history. Smita Chandra is a Mississauga-based freelance food writer. Email


This rich, flavourful biryani shows how to give Arab rice dishes Kerala flavours. You only need to add raita (yogurt relish), crisp papad and lime pickle to make a satisfying meal.  Assorted vegetables may be substituted for the chicken if desired. For coconut cream, chill a can of premium coconut milk for 30 minutes; use cream skimmed off top.

Chicken curry
Walnut-sized piece of seedless tamarind
1/2 cup water
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 inch piece ginger, halved
1 medium onion, peeled and quartered
1/2 cup fresh coriander leaves and tender stems
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves
40 fresh curry leaves, divided
2 hot green chilies, stemmed
6 large canned whole plum tomatoes,
lightly drained
2 tbsp plain Balkan-style yogurt
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground coriander seeds
1 tsp ground cumin seeds
1 tsp garam masala
1 tbsp ground fennel seeds
Salt to taste
1/2 cup coconut cream
10 boneless skinless chicken thighs,
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tbsp ghee or unsalted butter
1/2 tsp black mustard seeds
1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
20 raw cashews
1 bay leaf
11/2 cups basmati rice, washed and drained
6 cups water
Salt to taste
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 medium onion, sliced into thin half-circles
2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled
2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander leaves
2 tbsp unsalted butter

Put tamarind and water in microwave-safe bowl and cook on high for 2 minutes. Mash with fork, let rest 5 minutes. Pour into fine-mesh sieve set over bowl. Squeeze out liquid and discard fibrous residue. Set tamarind extract aside.

In food processor, mince garlic, ginger, onion, fresh coriander, mint, 20 curry leaves and green chilies. Add tomatoes, yogurt, spices, salt, coconut cream and tamarind extract. Process, transfer to mixing bowl. Add chicken, coat with marinade. Cover, refrigerate 1 to 4 hours.

Warm oil and ghee or butter in non-stick skillet on medium-high. Add mustard seeds, fenugreek, cashews, remaining curry leaves and bay leaf. Sauté 30 seconds. Add chicken and marinade. Stir, cover and boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook 30 minutes until chicken is done. Uncover, increase heat to medium and thicken sauce 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, bring rice and water to a boil, then simmer 8 minutes. Drain and spread on tray to cool.

For garnish, warm oil in non-stick frying pan over medium-high. Sauté onions until golden, 10 minutes. Cut each egg into 6 pieces.

To assemble biryani, preheat oven to 350F. In a large, flat, ovenproof dish, spread half the rice thinly on bottom. Using slotted spoon, lift chicken pieces out of sauce and spread evenly over rice. Cover with a layer of remaining rice and drizzle sauce evenly all over. Spread fried onions and eggs (yolk side up) on top and sprinkle with fresh coriander leaves. Dot evenly with butter. Cover tightly with foil and bake 30 minutes. Let biryani rest another 10 minutes before transferring to platter.

Serves four to six

Rice cooked with sautéed chicken, chorizo sausage, assorted seafood and spices

The chorizo, vinegar, paprika and white wine in this dish are Portuguese contributions, while the spices and herbs are purely Indian. It’s best not to rush the sautéing, as the chorizo needs to impart colour and flavour to the paella while it is being cooked in oil.

1 lb fresh mussels, scrubbed
1 cup white wine
11/2 cups basmati rice
4 tbsp vegetable oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 sweet red pepper, finely chopped
1/2 lb hot chorizo sausage, thinly sliced
4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, quartered
1/2 cup canned crushed tomatoes
1 cup canned unsweetened coconut milk
Salt to taste
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp toasted crushed cumin seeds
1 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp smoked Spanish paprika or plain paprika
Generous pinch saffron strands
2 tbsp white vinegar
6 large scallops, quartered
20 raw, peeled and deveined shrimp
2 tbsp chopped fresh coriander

Rinse and clean mussels. Discard any that do not close when tapped. Place mussels and wine in deep saucepan over high heat. Cover, boil, then reduce heat to medium and cook 5 minutes. Remove mussels, reserving 1 cup broth. Discard mussels that haven’t opened. If desired, discard shells and reserve mussels.

Wash rice in several changes of water, cover with water, soak 15 minutes. Drain in sieve.

Warm 2 tbsp oil in deep heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onions, garlic and sweet pepper, sauté 4 minutes until softened. Add chorizo, sauté 4 minutes. Add chicken, sauté 4 minutes.

Add tomatoes, reserved mussel broth, coconut milk, rice, salt, pepper, toasted cumin, garam masala, cayenne pepper, paprika, saffron and vinegar. Stir gently, cover and boil over high heat. Immediately reduce heat to medium-low and cook 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, warm remaining oil in non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Add scallops and shrimp, sauté 4 minutes, until just cooked through.

After paella has been cooking 25 minutes, remove lid and gently fold in reserved mussels and sautéed seafood mixture, lifting it out of any cooking juices remaining in pan (discard juices). Fold in chopped fresh coriander.

Cover, cook 5 minutes. Let paella sit 5 minutes before transferring to platter.

Serves four to six

Chicken cooked with yogurt, cashews and fresh coriander

Imbued with the fresh flavours of coriander, this korma is loaded with cashews to add richness and a nutty flavour to the sauce while thickening it at the same time. Paneer may be substituted for chicken for a vegetarian option.

12 skinless, boneless chicken thighs, halved

1/4 cup raw cashews
1 tsp ground coriander seeds
1 tsp ground cumin seeds
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
Salt to taste
1/2 + 1/4 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp turmeric
1 cup plain Balkan-style yogurt
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 inch piece ginger, quartered
1 cup packed fresh coriander leaves and
tender stems, washed and drained
1 hot green chili, stemmed
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup raw cashew nuts
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp toasted crushed cumin seeds

Wash chicken and set aside in colander to drain. Powder cashews in coffee or spice grinder. Transfer to large mixing bowl, add ground coriander seeds, ground cumin seeds, cayenne pepper, ground black pepper, salt, 1/2 tsp garam masala, turmeric and yogurt. Mince garlic, ginger, fresh coriander and green chili in food processor, add to yogurt and spices. Mix, add chicken and coat with marinade. Cover, refrigerate 1 to 4 hours.

Warm oil in non-stick skillet over medium-high, add cumin. After 30 seconds, add onions and cashews. Sauté 10 minutes, until lightly golden. Transfer to small bowl; leave behind as much oil as possible. Add chicken and its marinade to skillet on medium-high. Stir, cover and boil. Immediately reduce heat to medium-low. Cook 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Fold in onions, cashews, lemon juice, toasted cumin and reserved garam masala. Uncover, turn heat to medium-high, boil off sauce 5 minutes.

Dish can be made up to 3 days in advance.  

Serves four


1 1/2 lb boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into 1-inch cubes

2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 inch ginger, minced
2 tbsp lemon juice
3/4 cup plain Balkan-style yogurt
Pinch saffron strands
Salt to taste
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp ground coriander seeds
1 tsp ground cumin seeds
1 tsp garam masala
1 tbsp kasoori methi (dried fenugreek leaves)
1 clove garlic, peeled
1/4 inch piece ginger
1 small onion, peeled and quartered
2 cups whole canned plum tomatoes, lightly drained
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp ground coriander seeds
1 tsp ground cumin seeds
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 tsp garam masala
Salt to taste
Pinch saffron strands
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp kasoori methi (dried fenugreek leaves)
1/2 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup water
1 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp toasted crushed cumin seeds

Place chicken in large mixing bowl. Mix in all marinade ingredients. Cover, refrigerate 1 to 4 hours.

Preheat outdoor barbecue to medium.

Thread chicken onto skewers and grill 5 to 7 minutes per side until almost done. Slide chicken off skewers and reserve.

If grilling indoors, preheat oven to 400F. Line baking tray with parchment, place grilling or cookie rack over top. Coat with non-stick spray. Evenly spread marinated chicken in single layer. Bake 10 minutes. Turn over with tongs to cook on other side, 5 minutes. Transfer to bowl, reserve.

Mince garlic, ginger and onion in food processor, transfer to bowl. Puree tomatoes in food processor. Set aside in separate bowl.

Warm oil in non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Add minced onion mixture, sauté 4 minutes, reduce heat to medium. Add tomatoes, cook 4 minutes, stirring. Add ground coriander, ground cumin, ground black pepper, garam masala, salt, saffron, cayenne  and kasoori methi.

Cook 2 minutes, add whipping cream and water. Cook 5 minutes on medium-low heat, stirring.

Add chicken, cook 5 minutes, fold in lemon juice and toasted cumin, serve.

Serves four

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