Islamic Influences on Northern Indian Cuisine

One explanation for the diversity of Indian cuisine is said to be the number of invasions that the country has witnessed throughout its history – including those from Arabia, Central Asia and Persia.

The Persian Mughal Empire ruled northern India between the 16th and 19th centuries, and is said to have had the biggest impact on country’s diet and tastes. Although Muslims from western Asia had been introducing Mughlai cuisine to India for many years, it was the rule of the Mughal dynasty that really helped to shape India’s culture as we know it today. You will almost certainly recognise some of the most iconic legacies from the regime for example, both the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort in Agra are both Mughlai monuments. However, you may be less aware of the culinary impact of the Islamic rulers.

Each ruler brought with him a new flavour or ingredient, which in turn slowly became a part of India’s culinary heritage. By merging Middle Eastern cuisine with Indian spices and ingredients, some of the nation’s richest and most popular dishes were created. Mughlai cuisine favours heavier dishes based on thick gravies, butter sauces, and the use of milk and cream; meaning that some of India’s most loved and exported dishes, such as korma, have Mughlai origins.

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When Babur invaded India in 1526, he brought with him the use of fresh ginger – the predominant spice used in Persian cooking at that time. The emperor was a keen gardener, and enjoyed eating a variety of nuts and fruits, such as almonds, walnuts, apricots and pomegranates. Although he only ruled for four years, his tastes set a trend that continued to develop for centuries to come. His son Humayun not only continued to further his father’s tastes, but also introduced rice-based pilaus, incorporating nuts and fruits into rice, as well as sauces.

Shahjahan reigned from 1627-1658, and although he is historically remembered for building the Taj Mahal, his rein is also said to have had the greatest influence in terms of food. Cooking was at its peak during this time, with techniques such as tandoor and dum cooking becoming popular. One of India’s most iconic dishes, the layered rice dish biryani, was also created at this time – as was tandoori chicken. Richer classes ate naan bread with keema or kebab, whereas chapatis came into greater significance among the poorer members of society.

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The influence of Mughlai cuisine is also evident in the use of aromatic spices, as Mughlai food is quite spicy. Delhiand Lucknow in the north of India are the best places to find examples of this, having amalgamated Persian influences with typically Northern spices such as cumin, turmeric, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon and ground chillies.

You can experience some of the best examples of authentic Indian food in London’s top Indian restaurants. Serving a range of traditional foods, as well as contemporary innovations, you can taste for yourself the positive influence that the Mughul Empire had on the tastes and flavours of Indian cuisine.