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How Alexander’s invasion led to a deep culinary exchange between India and Greece

Minion fresco shows Greek saffron goddess. Saffron has served a culinary bridge between Indian and Greek civilizations

As India and Greece renew their civilisational ties with renewed purpose just now, it is apt to look at how ancient Indian food and ingredients influenced ancient Greek culinary traditions and vice versa.

Alexander’s invasion of India in 327 BC was a pivotal moment in world history, not just politically but culturally. India and its riches had been known in the ancient world before that but as the Macedonian general set sight on the fabled land of gold, east of the Indus (a name given by the Greeks to the land that lay beyond the mighty river, from which the word “Hindu”, as dwellers of the land, arises), what opened was a long land route connecting the West with the East.

India’s spices, valued as highly as gold, would make their way to the Greek empire and later to the ancient Roman world. But in return, India too got its share of new ingredients and cooking methods, as the army marched east, conquering Egypt, Syria and Persia. Not only did Alexander enlist soldiers from these conquered people but these soldiers brought with them their cultures and culinary cultures – not just a knowledge of various ingredients and herbs but some of these physically too. The Indo-Greeks were to establish their empire in north west India, their influence would be felt in art and architecture and cultural practices for a few centuries more. But what has perhaps been forgotten is how important and permanent was the culinary exchange that happened in that time.

One of the most valuable spices to reach India via Alexander’s army was saffron. Greek saffron that came from Kozani in northern Greece was ostensibly used by Alexander himself for the shine in his golden locks of hair! The precursor to domesticated saffron crocus flowers was likely the crocus cartwrightianus that originated in Greece, Crete or Central Asia. A saffron harvest festival was celebrated in Minoan Crete as can be seen from some frescos dating back anywhere between 3000-1100 BC.

Saffron then was well known as a beauty aid, and as a plant dye, if not in food. Once Alexander and his army headed east, they brought the flowers to Persia and to India, where, today, Kashmiri saffron is amongst the most prized in the world.

Saffron is also one of the main ingredients used to colour grains of rice in the Indian biryani, and its predecessor, the pulao, that came to India from Central Asia. It is interesting to note, that saffron is also an all important ingredient in the Greek Pilaf which bears close similarity to the subcontinental and central Asian pilaf.

In fact, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Central Asia and north western India – all the lands through which the ancient army marched—are connected by many common foods which may have originated through subsequent periods, in one land or the other but have dispersed all through the belt, which was opened up by the ancient army but that remained in use till early modern times as the spice route.

In fact, while the Greek pilaf is a popular dish there, rice itself went from India to Greece (as also to Iran and other parts of central Asia). Today, it is common to think that northern India is the wheat belt while rice dominates southern Indian foods. But in Mauryan times, rice that grew wild in the eastern part of the Gangetic belt (and most likely originated in what is now Bengal and Burma) was a staple of northern India with many different varieties grown according to different seasons and prized.

Hing, on the other hand, as also coriander, both important in the Indian spice box reached the Subcontinent from Central Asia in the wake of Alexander’s invasion. Both were thought to be “smelly” and it was only when they encountered Indian cooking with its deep knowledge of spicing that they were incorporated into different foods to give deep flavours. Even today, while the west may use these infrequently – to mask smells of meat, in beer (as also gin, where coriander is a botanical) or in a sauce like Worcestershire (in which hing is used) made with fermented fish to mask smells of fermentation, it is in Indian gastronomy that these spices are used widely to deepen flavours.

Pepper and cinnamon, on the other hand, went from India to the west once the land route was opened, as did sugar, about which I had written in an earlier column.

The halva, a generic word for any sweet in Turkish cuisine, and which finds a mention in 10th century Arabic cookbooks, is also a category present all through the lands bracketed by Greece and India. The Greek halva made with semolina is in fact exactly the same as the popular Indian sooji halwa, except that the Greek halva is made with olive oil (instead of ghee in India).

The similarities between Indian and Greek cuisines hardly end here. Tzaziki made with curd is akin to the yogurt raita, in fact the use of curd in Greek food and fresh cheese like feta is fairly similar to how Indians use yogurt (made with fermentation) and paneer. But there seems to be another very ancient thread too.

The art of grilling meats on skewers is ancient in Greece, and souvlaki trays, horizontal contraptions with dents to hold the skewers, put on a bed of charcoal, have been excavated from ancient sites. This sort of grilling obviously impacted all of Central Asia, where the kebabs are grilled exactly like that. Ironically, souvlaki itself became popular as a fast food around World War 1 in Greece. But that doesn’t mean that the ancient technique had not spread east before that via traders and armies. In India, a comparable contraption is the sigri—a horizontal grill, unlike the vertical tandoor. It was an invention of the later Mughal period, and the Turkish/Persian influence is all too apparent, connecting even the simple grills to more ancient ties.

When you travel to Greece like I did one year meeting local friends in Kalamata and seeing the site of the first ancient games at Olympia, what you also realise is how similar Greeks and many Indians are. Ancient ties and gene pools make for shared stories.

Also Read: Indian cuisine’s Ayurvedic roots and other interesting facts

(Anoothi Vishal is the author of Mrs LC’s Table. She is also a columnist and food writer, specialising in cuisine history, culinary links between communities and regions. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)