Indian food history – spices and sugar in ancient India

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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.

Why chickpeas get ripe in the summer
Where does chicken come from?
Lots more India articles

Rice and chicken 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 cinnamon, cumin, cilantro (also called coriander), anise, and fennel.

History of cinnamon

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
Quatr.us home

By |2018-11-05T16:07:15+00:00July 20th, 2017|Food, India|15 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Indian food history – spices and sugar in ancient India. Quatr.us Study Guides, July 20, 2017. Web. December 12, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

15 Comments

  1. Karen Farmer December 5, 2018 at 2:22 am - Reply

    We have a new Indian restaurant opening up soon and was trying to figure out what they would be serving, this helped me out a lot, thankyou so much…

  2. Person December 4, 2018 at 6:03 pm - Reply

    What did the untouchables eat in ancient India?

    • Karen Carr December 5, 2018 at 8:40 am

      The same as other people, but they were generally poor, so they ate less food – they often went hungry. And they would have eaten very little meat, mostly rice and lentils and chickpeas, and greens. They wouldn’t have been able to afford much pepper or cinnamon or sugar. Or oranges, or coffee. But they would have had bananas, and probably fish.

  3. Ganesh November 5, 2018 at 11:13 am - Reply

    An interesting comment : The word Orange came from Naranja -> Naranga ( Sanskrit word for Orange)

  4. sanjana May 4, 2018 at 6:27 am - Reply

    माफ़ कीजिये + srry

  5. sanjana May 4, 2018 at 6:24 am - Reply

    bhaarat ke bhojan ke itihaas ka bahut achchha svaad dis india history of indian food is very gud to know..

    • Karen Carr May 4, 2018 at 9:42 am

      Thanks! I’m glad you liked it, Sanjana!

  6. Hammad April 24, 2018 at 3:21 am - Reply

    lemon is native to india not central asia.

    • Karen Carr April 24, 2018 at 7:53 am

      Citrons come from New Guinea and Australia, but lemons (which were bred by Iranian food scientists) come from Central Asia. I am pretty confident in our research. You’ll find more about the history of lemons in this article: https://quatr.us/china/oranges-lemons-come.htm

  7. Ranak April 18, 2018 at 5:47 pm - Reply

    It gave me everything I need for my project, Thank

  8. Eric April 2, 2018 at 12:16 pm - Reply

    Thank you, Karen! Was obesity ever a problem in ancient india?

    • Karen Carr April 2, 2018 at 9:42 pm

      Mostly people didn’t think of obesity as a problem. Only rich people could afford to be fat, so people admired fat people because it showed they were rich.

  9. Biplab Poddar March 28, 2018 at 10:31 pm - Reply

    Good to know the history of Indian food

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