History in a Bowl of Paneer Makhani: The world in an Indian dish

What we think is so typically Indian contains ingredients that have come to India from so many different countries, at various points in our history, through trade and invasions. A break-up of the ingredients of what we consider a classic Indian dish, paneer makhani, demonstrates how the current Indian culture is composed of so many influences.

Native to India:

Cardamom (elaichi): A native Indian spice, it grew wild in Kerala.

Ginger (adrak): This is native to India.

Black pepper (kali mirch): A native Indian spice, black pepper was exported so long ago that it has been found stuffed up the nostrils of the mummy of Ramses II in Egypt, who died in 1213 BCE!

Bay leaf (tejpatta): A native Indian spice, it was exported from India as malabathrum since olden times.

Garlic (lehsun): This strongly flavoured condiment is native to India and the Mediterranean region. It was actually forbidden in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

Butter: Butter and ghee were the major fats used by the Aryans. The Harappan civilization also had cattle.

From the Mediterranean, with traders and Greek invaders:

Coriander (dhania): The oldest seeds have been found in Israel dating 7000 BCE. Coriander was used by ancient Egyptians and Greeks, and is mentioned in Panini’s Sanskrit grammar from the fourth century BCE.

Cumin (zeera): This spice is supposed to have originated in Egypt, and spread to the Mediterranean and India. Seeds have been found in Syria, dated 2000 BCE.

Fenugreek (methi): This plant is native to the Middle East, and has, in fact, been found in Tutankhamen’s tomb!

From Asia since antiquity:

Cinnamon (dalchini): Dalchini (Cassia) originally came from China (dal – stem, Chini – Chinese!). Another variety is grown only in Sri Lanka.

Cloves (laung): This fragrant spice came from Indonesia.

Nutmeg and mace (jaiphal and javitri): Both spices came to India from Indonesia.

With the Portuguese from the Americas in the 16th century:

Green and red chillies (hari + lal mirch): Chillies came from Mexico.

Tomato: Tomatoes came from Mexico too.

Cashew nuts (kaju): These nuts came from Brazil.

Peanut Oil: Peanuts came from the Americas.

With the British

Cream: Cream is something we learnt from the British (different from the Indian malai!).


Paneer: Panir is the Iranian word for cheese, and it was not part of mainstream Indian cuisine until after Partition, when it was popularized by the Punjabi refugees. It was of course used for sweets in Bengal before that – they probably learnt chhena or chhana (cheese) making from the Portuguese.

(Excerpted with permission of Hachette India from The History of India for Children (two-volumes) by Archana Garodia Gupta and Shruti Garodia; Rs. 399 each)

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