The British Library in London holds the only known copy of the manuscript of a late fifteenth-century text called the Nimatnama, or the Book of Delights. This remarkable work is a recipe book of sorts and the kind of historical source that is rare from so far back in time. The Nimatnama offers cooking methods for numerous foods and drinks that its patron, Sultan Ghiyas al-Din Khilji who ruled over Malwa from 1469 to 1500, enjoyed. Rich stews, roasted kebabs, spicy broths, simple greens, fragrant sherbets, and creamy desserts are all part of the Sultan’s Urdu-Persian culinary manual, which also incorporates methods for making aphrodisiacs, perfumes and cures for various ailments.

This list includes no less than eight different recipes just for making samosas. Clearly, like many of us, Sultan Ghiyas al-Din loved this fried snack. The samosa is one of those dishes, like tandoori or curry, that is so popular that it can serve as a moniker for the entirety of “Indian” cuisine. The recipes in the Nimatnama present us with a big surprise: not even one of the variants mentions potato, the quintessential ingredient we associate with samosa-fillings today.

What the Nimatnama’s samosa and other recipes include and what they do not, both tell us the same story: the Indian kitchen has been a hub of global and multicultural exchange for centuries.

The missing potatoes

The paradox that potatoes are missing should not surprise us. While potatoes had been around in the subcontinent from the 17th century, it was only over the next hundred years that a majority of Indians would have become aware of their existence. It was during the 18th century that potato-production was keenly promoted by the English East India Company’s employees as an alternative to the Indian staple, rice. Several other ‘staples’ of today’s Indian cuisine – tomatoes, chillies, cashews and groundnuts, as well as fruits like papaya, guava and chikoo – originated in the “New World” among the indigenous people of South America. The Spanish conquistadors introduced them to Europe in the 16th century. From there, these plants made their way to India via European traders and colonialists, particularly the Portuguese.

In fact, the Portuguese, who arrived on India’s western coast at the end of the 15th century, had themselves come in search of another culinary ingredient: pepper. Since medieval times, other Asian spices – ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace – were also extremely valuable in Europe. The European culinary imagination came to associate these with high levels of luxury and strong medicinal properties and were drawn to find and control the supply of these spices themselves.

An illustration from the Nimatnama of samosas being prepared. Credit: British Library

The Nimatnama may not have known the potato but it does reflect an earlier global synthesis: the coming together of ingredients from Central Asia and Persia like cumin and qeema or minced meat, and local ingredients like ginger, cardamoms and cloves, among others. In fact, the samosa itself is believed to be of Central Asian origin and made its way to India via the Silk Route. The result was that the samosas in the Sultan’s kitchen contained a variety of what seem to be uncommon fillings: dried whole-milk flavoured with spices and rose water, ground wheat cooked in ghee, deer and mountain sheep meat, as well as sweet versions filled with spiced cream and coconut.

Local flavours

The Central Asian and Persian influences on Indian food peaked with the Mughals, whose love for food has shaped the very idea of cuisine that is often associated with India. But Mughal culinary traditions, just as their rule, did not only evolve in one direction. The third Mughal emperor, Akbar (1555-1605) introduced local flavours into his kitchens and chose to be vegetarian several days a month – simple khichdi, fresh greens from the royal kitchen gardens, and local varieties of rice, are just a few examples of Akbar’s culinary preferences.

In line with the ideas of kingship in India, Akbar also considered only the water of the Ganga fit for his consumption. We learn from his chronicler and friend, Abul Fazl, that the Emperor made sure that Ganga water was always available to him at home and on his travels. But as the food historian Lizzy Collingham notes, perhaps the most well-known Mughlai composite was the biryani, where the Persian classic, the delicately flavoured pulav or pilaf, met the pungent and spicy Indian rice dishes to create a truly new dish combining a multiplicity of ingredients and cooking techniques.

It was not just in royal kitchens though that we see ingredients and techniques from around the world combined with local ones. One less-known collection of manuscript fragments from Gujarat known as Varnak Samucay, or Collection of Descriptions, provides a tantalising glimpse into how far and wide these innovations were diffused. This collection consists of a genre of old Gujarati literature known as the varnak, or simply, descriptions, the earliest folios of which date from around the same time as the Nimatnama.

An illustration from Nimatnama of betel being chewed. Credit: British Library

The Gujarati kitchen

Of the 11 sections on a wide range of topics in this Varnak Samucay, four are solely dedicated to food. Unlike the Nimatnama, these are not pages of recipes. Instead, they are dizzyingly long lists of items that were cooked and the order in which they were served. It is impossible for a modern reader to not see in this the ubiquitous Gujarati thali taking shape far back in time. Here is a sample of the suggested courses: fresh fruits, dry fruits, and nuts are followed by different kinds of laddus and jalebis, and fried lentil snacks like dahi vada.

These are followed by laapsi, a liquid dessert made from wheat, and a bunch of what appear to be rice dishes, dals, and cow and buffalo ghees; thereafter come numerous vegetables and greens, more fried snacks, and flat breads. The meal ends with the serving of fragrant waters of different kinds, and betel leaves filled with betelnut, saffron, and spices like cloves and mace. And all of this food, it seems, was served on large platters accompanied by vaatkis or small bowls.

Moreover, the Varnak Samucay’s long inventory points in the direction of trans-local and global connections: Malabari pepper, gud, or jaggery, and coconuts; jaggery from Malwa, Agra, and Nandurbar; Horomuzi or Iranian pomegranates; a range of nuts like almonds, pistachio, and charoli (chironji); dry fruits, including numerous types of dry and fresh dates and raisins, all of which speak of Central and West Asian links.

The Nimatnama and the Varnak Samucay both show the sophistication of techniques and an adoption of global ingredients that made up an astonishingly diverse medieval Indian cuisine. While a definitive account of the “history and evolution of Indian food” is perhaps impossible to write, probing available fragments like these tell us what a rich source food-history is for understanding India’s past. Delving deeper into what arrived in our kitchens and recipes that were concocted would be as telling of the subcontinent’s history as the analyses of power struggles and conquests.

Over millennia, trade and travel along the Indian Ocean and on land over the mountains washed up new ingredients, techniques, and cooks on to our shores. They came in such numbers and so often that we almost forget the degree to which they transformed what we eat. As nativist ideas make a comeback and the obsession with purity is on the rise, it is culinary delights that could perhaps change our minds in favour of hybridity. For in India, nowhere do the benefits of openness lie as clearly in plain sight as in the food we cook and eat every day.

Aparna Kapadia teaches history at Williams College, Massachusetts. She is the author of In Praise of Kings of Kings: Rajputs, Sultans and Poets in Fifteenth-Century Gujarat.