The sambhar sets us thinking...

Be it potatoes, turmeric, onions or garlic, every ingredient has crosses millions of miles to reach our plate...

Such is the diversity of the origins of our food that we could be having the whole world on our dining table tonight.

The endemicity of different plants in my garden can give the passport of our sophisticated Prime Minister Narendra Modi a bad inferiority complex. The places of origin or the biogeography of the different food plants and ornamentals we commonly
see around us are so diverse and alien that many of us may not have an inkling about it.
Our most widely consumed beverage, coffee, is endemic to the Ethiopian Highlands of Africa. Also from Africa are yams and watermelon, while tea, citrus fruits, coconut, and mango originate from South East Asia. Pineapples, avocado, amaranth, papaya, corn, quinoa, and sweet potato are from the Tropical Americas. Cabbage and lettuce are from Europe. Olives, sage, grapes, and rosemary are from the Mediterranean, wheat and oats are from Central Asia. The bread-fruit is native to the tropical Pacific Islands, and so the list goes on.

Such is the diversity of the origins of our food that we could be having the whole world on our dining table tonight. Plants with such varied origins of cultivation have come together as ingenious dishes, shaping our diet and culture. Wherever humans have travelled, they have carried seeds and cultivated them, and along the way
they have brought in newer seeds, which cater to their gustatory and calorific needs in interesting ways.

Take, for instance, potatoes which are endemic to the Andes. Tomatoes, peanuts, pumpkin, and chilies have come from Central and South America. Turmeric and pepper are from the Western Ghats of India, while toor dal, brinjal, and curry leaves are from peninsular India, nutmeg is from the Moluccas of Indonesia, and the star anise is thought to have originated from southwestern China. 

Wild forms of mustard are endemic to the foothills of the Himalayas, and so is drumstick. Onions, garlic, cumin, and asafoetida are from the Mediterranean and Central Asia. The humble coriander is endemic to northern Africa and western Asia, while okra and tamarind are thought to have originated in West Africa.

All of the above-mentioned plants form a part of India’s most widely recognised and consumed dish, the sambhar, which is quintessentially a South Indian dish, and yet contains so many non-native ingredients.

Historians believe that chilies, potatoes, and tomatoes came with the Portuguese, 500 years ago, by which time they had already established colonies in South America. One
can say that these not-so-Indian ingredients are relics of that cultural exchange, a time when everyone wanted to establish trade with India. Other non-native food plants may have arrived in a similar way during various points in the timeline of the long, colourful history of our land. This sort of botanical and cultural exchange has happened whenever people of different communities, nationalities or ethnicities have met, all around the world, during different points of time.

But look at the ways in which we have incorporated these into our cuisine and cultural fabric. Chilies, tomatoes, and potatoes form the most commonly used ingredients in our Indian cuisine, and so popular are they in our recipes that it’s hard to imagine Indian food without these ingredients.

Likewise, can you imagine rasam without chilies and tomatoes, or the subtleties of the Mughlai cuisine without bay leaf and star anise? Such is the ingenuity of our people that these multitudes of ingredients with their different regions of origin, used in varied proportions, forms, and processes, form a part of the sheer variety of dishes in our Indian cuisine, which have also come to reflect the socio-cultural and biogeographical diversity of our great nation. Each dish by itself is a regional specialty of the place of its
origin, capturing the essence of the land, history, and spirituality, tantalising our taste buds and satiating our hunger and craving. Yet we remain oblivious to the foreignness of these ingredients. But we do not see why it should matter when everything is in harmony in our dish.

This brilliant celebration of our cuisine is happening as we speak. Flip your TV channel and you will see innumerable ads and food programmes on masala oats, quinoa upma, paneer pizza, chocolate burfi and whatnot. Food experiments are yielding sinful dishes as food is crossing borders. This is the best of times for the thrill-seeking, informed, conscious glutton. Food never tasted so good, and we are spoilt for choice.

This makes me wonder how the sambhar of the pre-colonial era tasted. Prepared with just the native ingredients. Maybe there was no sambhar then. It is probably a question for the historians and sambhar connoisseurs out there, but it makes me marvel about the evolution of our food.

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