How Refugees Made Foreign Foods Indian
Image Credit: Md Atif Alam Photography/facebook

Food and culture from distant lands have always contributed to the Indian culinary experience. From a plate of steaming hot momos on a rainy day to succulent kebabs with tandoori rotis for a Sunday brunch, Indians have long relished food from foreign lands. These cuisines have existed in the country for centuries, and the scope only broadens with the constant influx of migrant populations.

Let's start with the earliest known migrant population in the country. Seventh century India saw a large diaspora of Persians who fled their homeland to escape religious persecution. These settlers were labeled Parsi, i.e., those from Persian province of Fars. The community continues to thrive in India today as a minority primarily based in Mumbai and parts of Gujarat. The Parsi ‘dish’ that is most well-known across the country is perhaps the bun maska. Mumbaikars, however, have relished Parsi cuisine’s staples in the homes of their Parsi friends or in one of the many cafes run by the community. Parsi cuisine has grown in popularity thanks to restaurant chains like SodaBottleOpenerWala, which has outlets all over the country. One would do well to head down to their neighborhood Parsi cafe, and check out the various bawa staples on offer, from chicken farcha (battered fried chicken), to the ever popular berry pulao (one pot chicken rice dish), and get a few pints of beer to wash it all down, a long standing Parsi tradition.

It would be incomplete to discuss the foreign influences in Indian food habits without mentioning Tibet. You'd be hard pressed to not find a serving of momos in an Indian city today, be it in the frozen food aisle of a supermarket or street food joints that are frequented by people from all walks of life. India is home to a sizeable Tibetan population. Many Tibetans came over to India in 1959, following the Tibetan Uprising and the escape of the Dalai Lama from invading Chinese authorities. Tibetan migrants were quick to adapt their culinary habits to feature Indian produce, starting with the momo, given how easy it was to replicate. The traditional filling of yak meat and cheese was replaced with meat that was easier to procure - chicken, mutton, and pork. As the cuisine began to gain traction, vendors began offering vegetarian fillings to cater to Indian patrons. Today, momos are sold by people from all walks of life and are catching up with regular Indian chaat as the fast food of choice. 

Tibetan restaurants across the country offer a rich representation of the community's cuisine. Customers can expect to dine on staple fare such as Thukpa (a noodle soup prepared with rice noodles and pork), Shapta (stir-fried meat), Shabaley (fried patties stuffed with chopped vegetables and meat, similar in appearance to Jamaican style patties) that will make it to your list of favorite foods. 

A more recent instance of migrants being assimilated into wider Indian culture can be observed in Kerala. Most Indians know very little about Yemeni cuisine, given that the land’s fare on domestic shores is predominantly limited to just one item, the mandi. The dish was first concocted on Indian shores by Pulliserry Muhammadali, a native of Malappuram in Kerala. Muhammadali learned the recipe from his former colleague, a Yemeni chef, from his time in Saudi Arabia. The dish, traditionally called Mandi, is prepared in a similar fashion to its Awadhi cousin, the biryani, using a technique similar to dum. The ‘dum’ used for the mandi is placed in a hole (kuzhi) dug in the ground, which led to the local populace calling the dish ‘kuzhimandi’. The dish doesn't use a lot of oil when compared to similar preparations like the biryani and features a spice mix with ingredients flown in from Yemen. Muhammadali is also credited with helping plan the kitchen layouts of over 150 restaurants that serve the dish in the state. Many of these outlets try their best to stand out from the competition, with the most successful going so far as to fly in Yemeni chefs to oversee preparations. These restaurants have since seen a number of other Yemeni, and Yemeni-inspired, dishes on the menu like flatbreads and meat-based fusion dishes that were adapted to the patron’s tastes.

Afghan cuisine has long been prevalent in the Indian subcontinent due to the  influence of rulers from earlier centuries as well as the present-day Afghan refugee population. From juicy koftas and kebabs to dainty phirnis, the Afghani contribution to Indian cuisine is immeasurable. Delhi’s ‘Little Afghanistan’ in the area of Lajpat Nagar towards the southern side the city and contains around a dozen shops helmed by Afghan refugees. Vendors here sell various Afghan kebabs and flatbreads along with unique offerings such as ‘Mantu (beef dumplings served in a yogurt based sauce), and Qubuli (a chickpea pulao). The community echoes the likeness of several others on this list, adding to India's diversity through food and adapting that to local ingredients yet never straying from their heritage.