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Indian food: rice, chapatis, sauces, lentils

Indian food: rice, chapatis, sauces, lentils

What did people eat in ancient India?

The earliest Indians, the Harappans, probably ate mainly wheat and ricemillet and sorghumchickpeas and lentils. Often they ate fish, if they lived near the coast or a river. Sometimes they ate beefporklamb and goat meat, and chicken.

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Rice and chicken, bananas and plantains and citron fruit seem to have come from Thailand. Wheat and chickpeas, lentils and lamb came from West Asia. Indian cooks used many Central Asian herbs and spices, like cumin, cilantro (also called coriander), anise, and fennel. They got cinnamon from Sri Lanka, an island to their south-east.

History of cinnamon
Where are bananas from?

Cinnamon sticks - brown hollow logs

Cinnamon sticks

Cooks made some of the grain into stews or soups. They baked grain into flat breads called chapatis or yeast breads called naan. Indian people also enjoyed chewing on sugar cane, which grew naturally in India.

History of sugar

Indian food and vegetarianism

But by around 300 BC, under the Mauryans, a lot of Hindus felt that animal sacrifices added to your karma. Eating meat kept you from getting free of the wheel of reincarnation. Animal sacrifices became less popular. Although people didn’t give up eating meat entirely, they ate much less of it. A lot of people became vegetarians. Mauryan food scientists expanded fruit choices for these new vegetarians by breeding two different kinds of citrus fruit together to get sweet oranges.

Oranges growing in China

Oranges growing in China

History of oranges
Who were the Mauryans?

About this time, these same food scientists also developed a better kind of sorghum, durra sorghum, that was easier to harvest. This new sorghum quickly spread from India to ChinaWest Asia (and from there to Europe) and East Africa.

Indians stopped eating beef

In the Gupta period, around 650 AD, Hindus began to worship a Mother Goddess. Cows were sacred to her, so Hindus stopped eating beef pretty much completely.

More about Hinduism

Sugar and lemons

About the same time, Indian scientists invented a way to make sugar cane juice into sugar cubes. More people started to eat more sugar and sugary desserts. By 900 ADlemons and purple carrots reached India from Central Asia too.

History of carrots

A fourteen-year-old Indian boy making bread

Indians stopped eating pork

And then around 1100 AD, with the Islamic conquests in northern India, most people in India stopped eating pork as well, because the Quran says not to eat it. People could still eat lamb or goats or chicken, but most of the people in India became vegetarians, and only ate meat very rarely or not at all. Along the coasts and rivers, though, people did still eat plenty of fish.

Islamic conquests of India

brown lentils: small lens-shaped beans

Brown lentils

The vegetarian food that Indians ate was mainly wheat flatbreads or a kind of flatbread made out of chickpeas, with a spicy vegetarian sauce with lentils, and yogurt. Or people ate rice, with yogurt and vegetables.

More about lentils
Where does yogurt come from?
How about rice?

Coffee comes to India

But if the Indian people gave up pork because of Islam, they also got a new drink – another food from Africacoffee, which Arab traders brought originally from East Africa. Coffee became popular in India, but it was very expensive because they had to buy it from the Arab traders and couldn’t grow it themselves.

History of coffee

Did you find out what you wanted to know about the history of Indian food? Let us know in the comments!

Learn by doing: go out for Indian food
More about cinnamon
And more about black pepper
More about chickpeas

Bibliography and further reading about Indian food:

Cinnamon – an Indian spice
More about ancient India home