KOLKATA, India--What would a war lord, like Barbur, do for the taste of melon?
Apparently, the 16th century central Asian prince, Zahir Al-din Muhammad, or Barbur, known for stacking his enemies’ skulls in towers, would do a lot. He was a complicated man, as Mark Hay's article, The Conqueror Who Longed for Melons, reveals. He was pious yet threw massive parties fueled by wine. He wrote about Sufi philosophy, penned poetry and did that skull stacking thing. But, what intrigues me most is the just-ripe taste of melon and other foods from home were a life goal for a man mostly occupied by war.
You have to think about his family for a minute to see what a yen for melon might lead to. Descended from both Timur and Genghis Khan, Barbur used military brilliance to conquer northern India and establish the Moghul dynasty that lasted for over 300 years. I imagine someone of his day thinking, if the man wants melons, get him some melons.
He wasted no time in importing them. Grapes, melons, nuts and dried fruits prepared in rich cream-based dishes, the hallmark of Mughlai cuisine that many have sampled in U.S. and U.K. restaurants, were a priority. So, he created a comfort food supply chain. Barbur's need for the seeds and fruits and tasty tidbits from home, plus the well-funded Mughal kitchens of his descendants, paved the way for a revolution in cuisine still discernible on dinner plates today. India is a nation of many distinctive cuisines, a fact largely ignored by most everyone outside of India. But what the world does understand of Indian food has been, to a great extent, Barbur’s choice.
Globalization, what again?
From Barbur’s time, and actually for centuries before (but that’s for another post), ingredients, dishes and cooking techniques moved in a whorl of land and sea routes around India from Afghanistan, Persia, Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa, China, Southeast Asia, and the Indonesian archipelago. Think of it as an earlier wave of globalization with its epicenter in Asia. What’s fascinating is what each cuisine brought into India, either by trade or by conqueror, never hid what had come before.
The layers are there in plain sight on the plate, in aroma, taste and texture. Even tonight I spied jaggery (unrefined palm sugar) likely brought in to India circa 8000 BCE (yes, 8000 BCE) from New Guinea, tinting and flavoring my Bengali dessert. Barbur’s contribution? The Central Asian saffron in my rice, the luscious pomegranate winking through the glass fruit bowl on my table.
Many of you know I am in India as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar this year researching my next book, Green Chili & Other Impostors. I’ll be diving more deeply into the world’s food frenzy, the one we’re all part of, and always have been from the looks of history. What do you see in your kitchen today that comes from afar? (I'm thinking that tomato sauce, circa 1492 from South America via Europe is looking a bit suspicious, my U.S. friends.) What exotic ingredients made themselves right at home on your plate, hiding in plain sight? Can’t wait to hear your thoughts.