Historically, travellers and merchants spurred a greater production and availability of resources. The routes they chose for trading impacted the social, political and culinary histories of their reign, and of the regions in which they traded. Take the example of the chilli: To think of it not as our own but as something that was imported only a little over 450 years ago is both shocking and humbling.

But the truth remains that even an ingredient that is so widely assumed to be Indian only made an appearance in Indian kitchens around 1542 in the Malabar region, thanks to foreign travellers or traders. Although the chilli per se is an ancient crop, with accounts of it dating as far back as 7500 BC in South America (which predates the Indus Valley civilisation), it was only thousands of years later that it made it to India. But more on this historical spice later.

Understanding the role of merchants was important for me to determine how the Indian pantry gained access to foreign ingredients. Perhaps what miso, gochujang and truffle oil are for us now is what cinnamon, rose and pineapple were for Indians back then.

Popular history has us believe that it was the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, who, on his visit to India around AD 1498, opened the gates of Indo-European trade and travel; but this is far from the truth. Accounts of foreigners visiting the Indian subcontinent go as far back as the fifth and sixth centuries BC. When visiting Europeans went back home after years of weary travel, they spoke of India as nothing less than an enchanted land, full of secrets, spices, colours (and, of course) elephants. This attracted more men from Europe to visit the subcontinent.

One of the foremost European travellers was Eudoxus, who came to India from Cyzicus (an ancient city in Turkey) in 118 BC via a coastal route of around 5,000 miles. Others followed suit. Scylax, a sea captain and Greek explorer, set off from Caryanda, an ancient city in Anatolia, Greece, reaching the shores of the Indus and sailing down the river to India, on the decree of the Achaemenid emperor Darius I (he himself had come all the way to the subcontinent before the Exodus). Historian Hecataeus from Miletus (another ancient Greek city), visited India around 500 bc, and so did a physician named Ctesias.

Taking the early accounts of several Greek travellers, a writer called Herodotus compiled them in a book named, not too innovatively, as The Histories. The book, written on rustic papyrus scrolls, is of about 700 pages, and had a lot to say about India.

Herodotus was probably one of the first Western observers to do a systematic analysis of the subcontinent, and while today very little is available of his descriptions, we know that he wrote about India as a land of raw fish and meat eaters (How very Kyoto, no?). He also pointed out that there were others practising vegetarianism and that millets existed way before wheat and rice did.

II.100: They refuse to put any live animal to death, they sow no corn, and have no dwelling-houses. Vegetables are their only food. There is a plant which grows wild in their country, bearing seed, about the size of millet-seed, in a calyx: their wont is to gather this seed and having boiled it, calyx and all, to use it for food ...

The Greeks had learnt to harness the seasonal winds of the Indian Ocean and sail across the Arabian Sea directly from Bab el Mandeb, a strait located between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula and Djibouti in Africa, leading towards the Indian subcontinent.

The Europeans had always been fascinated with the food ingredients from this distant land. In Questions of Milinda (Milinda-Pañha), a Buddhist text from the late second century BC, a dialogue between the Buddhist sage Nāgasena and an Indo-Greek king Milinda brings us to an interesting recipe.

The king asks the sage about a sauce made of curd, cumin, ginger and pepper. This is perhaps one of the earliest iterations of the great Indian kadhi.

While we are on the subject of Greek travellers and invaders, we must refer to the one who centuries later opened the floodgates for Indo-European interaction – Alexander, the king of Macedon in northern Greece. His kingdom was at that time one of the largest in the world, stretching from Greece to north-western India.

As his troops travelled further towards the east from their land, they feared leaving their homeland and culture too far behind. And so, they began setting up colonies and cities in strategic places along the way. These cities were spots from where the armies gathered their supplies and availed amenities while he continued to conquer lands. What started off as centres for the Greek to preserve their own culture and ensure they weren’t entirely cut off from the West turned out to be important points from where world culture began to be shared and borrowed.

Alexander’s invasion of India in 326 BC was one of the first real trysts between Indians and Greeks. His army invaded India by crossing the Indus river and moving towards Taxila, a buzzing point of trade on the subcontinent, where the Indian king Porus, who ruled the kingdom between the Jhelum and Chenab rivers, met them in battle.

This was the first time the Greeks had fought against elephants, an animal they had never seen before. While Porus’s army lost the battle, Alexander still let him continue to rule under his suzerainty, a policy he followed in several other territories that he conquered between Greece and India.

During this period, and after Alexander’s death, several Hellenistic colonies, like Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Syria and Seleucia in Baghdad, cropped up. These then became channels for trade, art, culture and cuisine to move from one part of the world to another, and allowed for the Greeks and Easterners to adapt to or learn each others’ customs, rituals and ways of life. Alexander not only opened up the West to the East, and vice versa, but he also started what can be called an early wave of immigration. To my dismay, however, the gyro still didn’t make it to India.

To understand what Indian food was like back when early European invasions began on the subcontinent, the observations made by Alexander’s comrades come in handy. One such comrade was Aristobulus of Kassandra, a friend of Alexander’s father King Philip, who accompanied him on his wars. He observed that the region (the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East) was a land of banana trees, jackfruit and asafoetida, and that the people here ate too much rice. He talks of “a strange plant that stands in water, abundant cakes of sesame and honey”.

Nearchus, one of Alexander’s officers, talks about a tree generating honey without the use of bees (sugarcane) on the banks of the Hydaspes (the Roman name for the Jhelum) and of the land having abundant medicinal plants. Similarly, Greek writer Onesicritus speaks of nard, a Himalayan plant.

One of the most charming visions of the Indian markets of the time is given by Periplus, a Greek coastal guide from the same period. He describes the area around Madurai as a thriving marketplace that sold Mediterranean merchandise and Indian products alike. It made me picture bazaars brimming with Greek pearls and Indian pepper next to each other.

This does not mean that a bunch of travellers went from one place to another. But, during this time, a large number of Westerners left behind their imprint in the form of their culture, language, food habits, social rituals and even their gene pool, as they migrated over the years. It was perhaps the first time in history that this process was taking place at such a rapid pace and wide scale on the Indian subcontinent.

Over the next centuries, it became common for traders and travellers from Europe to reach as far as India, Arabia and Africa using these routes. They especially came in search of novelty goods, travelling mostly in caravans, and preferred to deal with light luxury items as opposed to bulky products that would be difficult to carry back. In this way started the trading of silk, spices, ivory, gems and exotic animals – items that would fetch high value back home in Europe. Thus were born the Silk and Spice Routes, paths that connected the East to the West via the sea and over land.

Understanding these spice routes especially puts the evolution of flavours into perspective. And not just in terms of Indian cuisine but also with respect to global tastes, and how they evolved and adapted as more and more ingredients began to seep into the markets in India and everywhere else. It was this transfer of grains and food ingredients that allowed the populations – and their cuisines – to flourish in Europe and Asia.

It is the deft use of spices that distinguishes Indian cuisine from most Western cuisines. A spice is typically a sweet-smelling aromatic part of a plant. And just as they are the first ingredients to go into the kadai in the making of most Indian preparations, in terms of trade too, spices were the first among food products to stir up global networks and economies, and trigger the meshing of cultures and cuisines.

Whose Samosa is it Anyway?

Excerpted with permission from Whose Samosa is it Anyway? The Story of Where ‘Indian’ Food Really Came From, Sonal Ved, Penguin Viking.