Books by Pushpesh Pant and Salma Husain offer insights into the origins of several staples:
Indians were the first to taste sugar and share it with the world. Greek traveller Megasthenes, who visited India in the third century BC, reported seeing Indians drink honey out of giant bamboo canes (the Sanskrit synonym for sugar cane is ‘madhutrina’, or honey-bearing grass).
A dish with a thousand-year-old ancestry was called Purnima—night of the full moon, because of its visual evocation. It is commonly known as the idli today.
While aromatic rice today is synonymous with the basmati, ancient texts exalt the Mahashali, a larger grain that is rare today. A disciple of Xuan Zang, the seventh century Chinese monk who travelled extensively across India, wrote: “Mahashali is as large as the black bean and when cooked, its aroma and sheen are unmatched. It grows only in Magadha and is considered fit enough only for princes or high priests.” Pant says the Mahashali was valued for its therapeutic properties over the aesthetics of long-grained basmati, as nutrition is given top priority in Ayurveda.
Saffron and dry fruits entered the Indian kitchen in 1541 with the dowry of Humayun’s Iranian wife, Hamida Banu Begum (mother of Akbar). Husain says we owe the concept of aromatic spices to the Mughals, who brought them from West and Central Asia.
The biryani was invented circa 18th century as a variation to the ‘yakhni pulao’ (rice cooked in meat stock) by cooks in the court of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. It was imperative for the cooks to present a new dish to the emperor every day, and the biryani was born by layering rice and meat that was otherwise cooked together for the ‘pulao’.