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The Influence of Alexander the Great on Indian and World Cuisine

Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great’s influence stretched all the way to India, as evidenced in the culinary arts all over the world today. “Alexander and Porus,” by Charles Le Brun. Credit: Public Domain

The evolution of customs, flavors and rituals linking food to the sacred and divine had an enormous upheaval during and after the conquests of Alexander the Great.

By Giorgio Pintzas Monzani

In this third article in this series we continue to retrace the march and the journey that brought about the foundations of a new common cultural identity and, indeed, the birth of new flavors and gastronomic influences to the world.

The stage which concludes our journey probably contains the most revolutionary — and at the same time mysterious — part of that historical period: the union between Greeks and people of the Indian subcontinent.

A fusion that led to the birth of a new empire, which today is very little known but that gave birth to revolutionary religions, thoughts and art forms: the Indo-Greek Empire.

Alexander the Great, by now styled as the King of the Kings of Persia, had reached the fundamental goal of his journey, the total conquest of the Achaemenid Empire. Nevertheless, the desire to reach the most remote point of the then-known world was what gave rise to the Macedonian king’s Indian campaign, in 326 BC.

Alexander’s Army became that of a world, not just a Greek, empire

This expedition had the extraordinary characteristic of being no longer formed of military forces that were exclusively Greek, but mostly Asian: in fact, in addition to officers and commanders, the rest of the army was composed of the armies of the conquered kingdoms — clear evidence of the fact that it was no longer a Greek empire in the world, but a world empire.

The military expedition itself lasted for a short time compared to the rest of his campaign, since it ended in 325 BC with the mutiny of Alexander’s army and the approved request of his generals to go back, given the fatigue and the many years spent in war and marching, amounting to almost 11.

The fusion between Greek and Indian culture was born thanks to Alexander the Great’s desire to push the boundaries of the known world.

But it is thanks to his diadochi — his generals and other associates, that the Indo-Greek empire took shape and continuity in the centuries to come, writing a page of history as incredible as it is little known.

As always, we will focus on culinary and cultural influences, related to the way of living and interpreting the art of conviviality.

The two worlds over the past centuries had already had contacts and exchanges, especially in the scientific and doctrinal field, such as the possible meeting between Buddha and Pythagoras, who brought to the West the belief of metempsychosis.

Spices, rice, eggplant dishes enrich world cuisine

Notwithstanding the previous encounters, the two kingdoms at the opposite ends of the world were definitively united thanks to Alexander, bringing revolutions in the culinary and culinary field of which we still have the fruits, well rooted in the Mediterranean — and subsequently the global — diet.

Which ingredients and preparations are the result of this cultural union?

Contrary to what is believed, it was the Greek Army that imported saffron, the king of spices, to the West. Today it represents one of the basic spices of Indian and south-Asian cooking; it is also used liberally in Western culinary tradition as well.

The reason why an army marching for years would take the trouble to carry such a precious commodity is because it was one of the main exchange goods among the Macedonian ranks.

Moreover, Alexander himself carefully kept stocks of saffron — but not for culinary use, rather for cosmetic use: in fact, the young Macedonian king used the pistils of the flower Crocus sativus as a conditioner and as a care for his hair, characterized by its strikingly golden color and a splendid tone.

With the consolidation of the Indo-Greek kingdom, saffron radically entered into the Indian culinary culture, so much so to represent even today a product of the national cultivation (India is the fourth largest producer in the world).

One of the most refined types of saffron in the world is the one cultivated in the Kashmir region, characterized by a dark color and a delicate aroma.

Regarding spices, the conquest of Indian territories and the Indo-Greek kingdom opened a commercial route which, for centuries to come, produced a succession of very important intercultural exchanges: the spice route.

The Roman empire, which followed Alexander’s centuries later, made the Spice Road one of the most important commercial routes of history, bringing the culture of the use of spices even into lands never touched by Alexander: territories known today as the countries of Spain, France, Germany and England.

As for recipes and preparations which are witness to the influence of this cultural fusion on the tables of the countries involved, and in the neighboring nations, we have a lot to talk about.

A characteristic specialty of the countries of the Indian subcontinent is the so-called Bharta, a dish made of roasted eggplant pulp, enriched with garlic, spices and aromatic herbs.
Any similarity?

One of the most famous mezedes in Greece is melitzanosalata; in Middle Eastern cooking the same dish is called baba ghanoush; in Romania and Hungary it is called salata de vinete and in France it is called caviar d’aubergine.

All variations of the same dish, enriched by regional ingredients such as spices, herbs and aromatic compounds. The birth of this recipe has its starting point right in the period of the birth of Indo-Greek empire, as a witness of the arrival of Alexander’s army, loaded with newly conquered cultures, together with Indian knowledge in enriching dishes.

 Tzatziki first created in the East

This episode in history led to the birth of one of the most ancient recipes in many cultures.

Resuming our historical-culinary discourse about tzatziki, treated in the previous article, we have another proof of influence of this in traditional Indian cooking. In fact, the preparation known as Raitas, characteristic of Indian and Bengali cuisines, has the same recipe of tzatziki: that is a white sauce with garlic and aromatic herbs.

The only difference is that in the Greek recipe, the base of the dish is made of yogurt, whereas in the Indian world the use of curd prevails; this is the product extracted by adding rennet or acid ingredients in milk, instead of fermentation, thanks to lactobacilli as in the case of yogurt.

Even in the field of baking we have similarities between Alexander’s empire cultures. The most important example is naan bread, an Indian recipe which indicates a thin bread with a round shape.

In Greece it is known as pita, and it is a characteristic of every single one of the countries touched by Alexander the Great.

The main difference between Greek or Turkish pita and naan bread is the enrichment of the basic product: in Indian and Punjabi cooking, yogurt and ghee (clarified butter) are added to the dough.

Rice brought to West thanks to Alexander the Great’s expeditions

Rice, the ingredient at the base of most of the world’s cuisines, traveled to the west thanks to Alexander’s expeditions — mainly because the famine in the Macedonian ranks during the wars in Bactria pushed him to adopt rice and its local recipes as the main source of sustenance.

Rice, thanks to more ancient commercial exchanges, was already present in the western and Mediterranean regions in the form of powder — but strangely, only as a beauty product and as a cure against dysentery and intoxications.

According to many, its use in western cuisine was delayed until the early Middle Ages. However, just two centuries after the birth of the Indo-Greek kingdom, Aristophanes of Alexandria describes rice rolls as an accompaniment to royal feasts and banquets in one of his poems.

Speaking of a region that is still a hub of spiritual cultures today, the Greek world absorbed many ideals and practices from the peoples of the Indian subcontinent.

Some sources say that after the death of Alexander and the development of connections between the conquered territories, Greece became the importer of Buddhism to the rest of the world and especially to the West.

I believe that the practices of meditation and yoga entered the daily life of the Greeks and all other regions under the control of the diadochi.

The reverse journey was made by religious art, since the first representations of Buddha in statue were born precisely from the Greek practice of personification of the deities.

Alexander’s campaigns created a revolution in world culture

How do spiritual and religious disciplines connect with the gastronomic culture we analyze?
After Alexander’s conquests we have the consolidation of a thought and alimentary regime that today more than ever is part of the daily life of many people: vegetarianism.

Before the young Macedonian king, vegetarian culture was born thanks to the union of the thoughts of two extraordinary people: Pythagoras and Buddha.

According to Pythagoras, a vegetarian diet was the best way to eat, avoiding to introduce in one’s body the scoriae coming from other living beings. According to Buddha instead, abstaining from eating meat or fish was derived from the doctrine of rebirth — that is, reincarnation.

The meeting between the two ideas created a revolution for the followers of both characters. The students of Pythagoras introduced a more spiritual doctrine in their vegetarian beliefs, whereas Buddha was able to consolidate his own vision of nutrition thanks to the scientific foundations provided by the thought of Pythagoras.

The vegetarian doctrine, therefore, was born before the historical period we are analyzing, but it is thanks to Alexander’s expansionism that it was consolidated all over the known world and enriched with recipes based on fruits and vegetables coming from different climates, territories and cultures.

The encounter between world cultures which were initially distant explains perfectly how Alexander’s journey was a revolution.

At the end of our journey, we can only reflect on how deeply rooted in us is the aspiration to knowledge and study of the unknown.

Nowadays, many of the values of the Macedonian campaign have been lost, leaving less and less room for the cultural enrichment of ourselves. We spoke about cooking — surely a topic for many people secondary to history — but it is enough to think about how much the act of eating and sharing has always been rooted in us, to discover that such daily gestures are what make life worth living.

Giorgio Pintzas Monzani is a Greek-Italian chef, writer and consultant who lives in Milan. His Instagram page can be found here.

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