Influencing each other across the centuries, the confluence between India and the Middle East creates exceptional cuisine that continues to enthrall.
Rich, flavorful, spicy, and incredibly delectable are interchangeable descriptions of both Gulf Arab and Indian cuisine. Though two very differing cultures, the similarities in dishes, spices, and ways of eating are a testament to how both sides absorbed a diversity of influences, enriching their respective cultures. The culinary bequest of the Indian and Gulf Arab interaction is remarkably impressive. Centuries of trade relations and cultural exchange resulted in a significant influence on each region’s cuisines. Food historian based in Delhi, Pushpesh Pant remarks that “intrepid seafaring Arab traders braved the waves of the ocean and rode the monsoon winds to reach India. They were a crucial link in the Spice Route that connected Southeast Asia with Africa and Europe via India. It is not surprising that this interaction resulted in the exchange of diverse influences including culinary.”
Geographically speaking, the interlinkage of the two cultures has always been inevitable. The waves that wash on the shores of Western India, the Arabian Sea, is the body of water that bridges India with the countries of the Arabian Gulf. Research and development executive chef of Gathering Food Group Kuwait Jomana Jaffar exclaims, “Gulf cuisine is generally influenced by Indian cuisine because historically, India was a main source for importing goods, foodstuffs, and spices, and many Gulf merchants used to travel there.” Indian spices are widely used in Gulf countries due to the impact of the ancient traders who traveled from India carrying the spices through the Gulf States on their way to the Mediterranean. Without the incorporation of Indian spices into Gulf Arab foods, many of the Gulf Arab recipes would arguably be less satisfying. The most common spices used in cooking that have been exchanged over the centuries between the two cultures are turmeric, cumin, cardamom, saffron, coriander, ginger, curry, garam masala, cinnamon, star anise, and chili.
Take for example kabsa, a dish that consists of rice and chicken and originates from Saudi Arabia. Kabsa is a rudimentary Indian biryani. Muttabaq, a popular Saudi snack, has vast similarities to Indian stuffed paratha, and khobz org from Kuwait is almost identical to pakora from India. Author of Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India, Colleen Taylor Sen, reminisces on her time in Yemen, “The Yemeni dish zurbian is like an Indian biryani. This may be because it was once a British protectorate and there was a lot of going back and forth with the subcontinent.” Rice is a staple that is often the main course in both the Gulf Arab and Indian regions. “In addition to rice as the main ingredient, Gulf Arabs also have a gravy that is very similar to dahl, we call it marag,” says Jaffar.
The Arab monopolization of the spice trade routes also introduced Arab delicacies to India. Haleem, an Indian dish made with broken wheat, ground meat, ghee, lentils, and cooked to a porridge-like texture is similar in consistency and ingredients to Harees, a dish commonly served during Ramadan. Sen notes, “Some Indian dishes including samosa (samboosa) and jalebi (zalabiya) are of Middle Eastern origin.” This mutually beneficial collaboration was interjected with the growth of European colonialism. Today, Indian restaurants are a flourishing business in the Gulf Arab region. From small street-side eateries catering to local Arabs as well as the large immigrant population from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, to fine dining restaurants, the Gulf offers a range of Indian delicacies. Pant exclaims, “The presence of a large Indian diaspora has facilitated the exchange of palate pleasures in modern times. UAE and Qatar are the most favored destinations for Indian migrants — skilled workers and professionals. The confluence continues to contribute to the evolution of contemporary Indian cuisine.” On the other hand, many Indian cities serve dishes from the Gulf Arab repertoire due to the number of Indians who have worked in the Gulf and return home and popularize Arab dishes.
Not only are ingredients similar in both regions, but the two share a commonality in the way they eat certain dishes. “The manner in which a platter is shared, and food eaten with hands is also common to Gulf Arabs and Indians,” says Pant. In the Arab world and in India, eating rice with your hands is a norm. Using hands to eat, instead of utensils, has deep roots in history and is often still practiced in traditional settings and to keep in touch with the culture. There are strict codes of etiquette when Gulf Arabs use their hands to eat from a communal dish. Once an individual takes rice from a dish, that is their area of the platter to eat. A thin line of rice divides their eating area and they do not take food from another area. In addition, they eat only with their right hand scooping up modest amounts of food at a time. The emphasis is on eating slowly, enjoying the food and the conversation. In India, it is a mark of respect when dining in someone’s home to physically touch the food. Proper etiquette in India is to only use the tips of the fingers to pick up the foods as the fingertips hold certain energies. Though differing in the customary way to eat with hands, both cultures believe that eating sans utensils has several health benefits such as improving digestion and preventing diabetes. Different languages, different climates, different cultures, yet Gulf Arab and Indian cuisine have a deep-rooted history of intertwining the best from both cultures to create something true to them.
Originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia
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