HYDERABAD (RAHNUMA) – If I were to give you a penny for every bite of food that has a cross-border influence, you would have enough money to open a high-end restaurant, let’s say in Jubilee Hills? The cuisine of a country is a reflection of its history, tradition, it’s people, and more over, the influences brought from across the border through cultural exchange. From the Hipster Sushi shops in Delhi, to the breathtaking Bar Palladio in Jaipur — such culinary transnational influences can now be slurped up at fine restaurants all across India.
Did you know the famous mouthwatering Shawarma sandwich — yes, the same sandwich that gave us “the Shawarma Selfie” — is one of the most popular street foods in the world? And where do you think the Shawarma came to us from? We can thank our Arab friends for this delicious dish, so deeply loved by contemporary Indians that India Today called it one of “7 street foods from around the world that you shouldn’t miss”. In fact, some Arabic countries of the Middle East have such a unflinching rapport with India, that our friendship is savored by people on both sides, quite literally. Case in point: the strong culinary ties between India and Saudi Arabia, a memoir of our shared past, sweet present and prospectively salivating future.
Our bread and butter story
It all began with trade. For centuries, Arabs have traded with India and exchanged with us culinary influences. Our relationship with these Arab traders and their culinary artists even predates the arrival of Islam to India in the 7th century CE, during the very lifetime of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. According to Arab historians, the Holy Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is documented as having an Indian king, Cherman Perumal Maharajah Rama Varma Kulasgekhara as one of his recognized Companions.
Narrated Abu Saeed Khudri: “A king from India presented the Holy Prophet with a bottle of pickled ginger. The Holy Prophet shared it among his Companions. I also received a piece to taste.” (Bukhari)
According to Professor Sayyid Jahangir from the Department of Arab Studies – School of Arab and Asian Studies at Osmania University, “(academics) now have reason to believe the Pandavas, or the five acknowledged sons of Pandu, by his two wives Kunti and Madri, who was the princess of Madra, from the Mahabharata, an Indian epic text, adopted Old Arabic as a cryptic for military communication”.
Legends aside, inscriptions found in Mesopotamian indicate that Indian traders from the Indus Valley—carrying copper, hardwoods, ivory, pearls, carnelian, and gold—were active in Mesopotamia, that is, modern day Iraq, during the reign of Sargon of Akkad as far back as 2300 BCE. Furthermore, archaeological research at sites in Bahrain, and Oman has led to the recovery of artifacts traceable to the Indus Valley civilization, confirming trade between us and our Arab friends for over 4000 years!
Our ancient culinary exchanges with Arabians run both ways. While Indian spices made their way to Middle Eastern countries for thousands of years, the food menu of northern districts of Kerala is reminiscent of the historical ties between India and Arabia.
For example, did you know the earliest substantiated evidence of either coffee drinking or knowledge of the coffee tree is from the early 15th century, in the Sufi monasteries of Yemen in Southern Arabia, spreading soon to the Holy City of Mecca, Saudi Arabia?
Coffee, a word borrowed from the Arabic qahwah, had reached the rest of the Middle East, South India, Persia, Turkey, the Horn of Africa, and Northern Africa predominantly through traders who visited Mecca, Saudi Arabia by the 16th century. Coffee then spread from the Middle East to the Balkans, Italy, and to the rest of Europe, as well as Southeast Asia, and then to America later that century.
“But India is predominantly a country of tea drinkers!” Yes, and it will surprise many of us to learn, the Sulaimani tea popular throughout India, and particularly in Malabar, a sweet black tea with lemon, credits it’s Indian connection to the Sulaimani Bohra’s (Sulaimanis), a Musta’li Ismaili Fatimid community from Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Furthermore, the famous Mapilla cuisine in the region also has borrowed flavors from the traditional food of Arabic traders who visited India nearly a thousand years ago.
It’s a date!
Every year during the holy month of Ramadan, millions of Indian Muslims consume dates to break their fast, and dates are a traditional component of our Iftar meals. Saudi Arabia is one of the largest producers of dates globally, and India imports a large part of it dates from the Middle Eastern country.
According to Dr. Mohsin Wali, former physician to three Indian Presidents, “the protein in dates contains 23 types of amino acids, some of which are not present in the most popular fruits such as oranges, apples and bananas. Dates also contain at least six vitamins including a small amount of vitamin C, and vitamins B1 thiamine, B2 riboflavin, nicotinic acid (niacin) and vitamin A”.
Dates imported from Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East are also included as an important layer of India-Saudi culinary puddings, enjoyed in indigenous recipes such as Dates Halwa and Kheer on the Indian side of the table.
Savor the serendipity
Guess who is serving us twinning goals this weekend? The great Indian Samosa and the Saudi Sambusak, a super popular dish in Saudi Arabia. And, the resemblance between the Saudi Kefta and the Indian Kofta is beyond coincidence (sure the Saudi version is less extreme in explosive spiciness, because that’s a trophy we Indians are not giving away anytime soon).
Overall, our shared religious and lifestyle practices have also further contributed to the shaping of this friendly serendipity that we both deeply devour.
Home sick? Let’s get take out
From eateries serving the North Indian Naan, to the authentic South Indian foods of Kerala, Indian eateries in Saudi Arabia offer just the comfort food one needs on a ‘let’s get take out’ kind of night.
The Middle Eastern countries house millions of Indians, close to 3 million in Saudi Arabia alone! Indians in Saudi Arabia are the largest expatriate community with an annual capital remittance to India from Saudi Arabia of over $10.2 billion USD as of 2016.
The similarity in food habits between us and our Saudi friends is thus no coincidence, and our Indian readers in Saudi Arabia tell us they often find the comforts of spicy home food on the streets of Jeddah and Riyadh, whenever they feel home sick.
Somewhere between the complexities of diplomacy and the bustle of trade, lies the simplest glue of friendship between our two countries, a scrumptious one indeed!
Ahmed Khan is the Editor-In-Chief & Publisher of The Rahnuma Daily (theRahnuma.com), the online English daily edition of The Rahnuma-E-Deccan Daily (ReDD), India’s oldest Urdu daily print newspaper. Established in 1921, ReDD is ranked by the INA (Indian Newspaper Association) as among the top five most widely circulated Urdu newspapers in India. Ahmed resides in Hyderabad at his maternal ancestral home with his uncle H.E. Mr. Syed Vicaruddin, Editor-In-Chief, Publisher, The Rahnuma-E-Deccan Daily. He can be contacted at, @editor_therahnuma, editor