Q: How was Indian food made spicy before the introduction of chilies from the Americas?
A: Indian cooking has used garlic, ginger, black pepper and a spicier variety of pepper (Piper longum or “Indian long pepper” – from whence the term ‘pepper’ itself originates, via Latin piper) – in spices. Indian long pepper itself was used in many formulas to dispel phlegm, improve rheumatic complaints and as a digestive aid.
Being more pungent than normal black pepper (Piper nigrum), when combined with other spices, viz. turmeric, ginger, garlic etc., it turns the food, or curry, quite spicy in itself.
Q: Indian cooking uses tomatoes. Was there anything used before this to ‘sour’ Indian dishes?
A: Yes! Tomatoes simply replaced the older Indian variants of making curries slightly sour in taste. The main traditional ingredient prior to the introduction of tomatoes from the Americas was tamarind.
However, dried mango powder, curds, buttermilk and lemon juice were used in traditional recipes in the periods of pre-Columbia contact, and are still used to this day.
Q: It is said that North Indian dishes with creams etc. are “Mughlai” dishes introduced by the Turkic invaders from Central Asia?
A: Actually, Central Asia was once a part of greater India that included Gandhara (Afghanistan) and Sindh (Pakistan and North-Western India) where the cuisine was much the same. 2,000 years prior to the Mughal invasions, the Ayurvedic texts as Charaka Samhita speak of people in Sindh consuming foods or curries mixed with dairy. Classic texts also speak of buttermilk, curds etc. mixed with foods.
In Southern India, due to the hotter climate, coconut milk and cream was used. Hence, creamy curries are not simply exclusive to Central Asia, though these people did prefer them from antiquity, due to the influences from ancient Buddhist regions as Gandhara they received influence from.
The ancient centre of learning for Persians, Indians and Central Asians – which included Ayurveda and also influenced regional cultures via architecture, dress and cuisine was in Takshashila (Taxila) in this region, which dates back to around 1200BCE, based on archeology.
Q: Was Tandoori chicken a thing in ancient India?
A: Tandoors date back as early as the Indus Valley civilisation, around 5,000 years ago. Chickens and other meats are said to have been barbequed, roasted etc., as in the later texts as Sushruta Samhita (c.2000BCE).
Various breads would have also been cooked this way as well.
In addition, chickpeas, lentils, dals and rice, as also wheat and amaranth were consumed some 5,000 years back.
Q: Were ancient Indians vegetarian?
A: No. Based on both the texts as the brahmanas as well as the Ayurvedic texts and archeological evidences, Indians ate beef, goat (also a speciality of Kashmiri Brahmins to this day), fish, eggs as well as chicken and exotic meats as tortoise, iguanas and even peacocks!