The Aromatic History Of Indian Food

While the tongue can detect flavours like bitter, sour, and umami, most of the flavour that is experienced while eating is the result of aromas. Some food molecules evaporate as you chew and some of them move up the back of your throat and into your nasal cavity. The same receptors that pick up smells when you inhale through your nostrils also pick them up here. In actuality, a single set of olfactory receptors is responsible for both the perception of scent and flavour, which share many of the same molecules. 

Indian cuisine has been around for more than 5000 years. The food we eat today is a true fusion of the various cultures that have slowly but surely influenced our diet and culinary tradition through the years. Indian cuisine is unique due to its extensive use of spices and distinct scents. In actuality, the most distinctive aspect of a country with thousands of regional cuisines is the perfume of the food, which differs greatly from region to region. Aroma has a similar role to flavour in any gastronomical experience. People throughout history have understood this truth as well as the Mughals. The legendary epicureans went so far as to plant vegetables on plots that were irrigated with water that had been mixed with rose and musk in their fascination with creating scented meals. Hens were bred on breadcrumbs that had been massaged with musk and sandalwood while also being soaked in saffron, rosewater, and both. Rare flowers were raised in the royal gardens, and their scent was used to create pricey perfumes, some of which were included in the matbakh (royal kitchen). 

The royals' meals were served in dining halls that were scented with aloeswood or camphor. The scents emanating from the flatware would heighten the already euphoric feeling. The khansamas would add a delicate but complicated mix of aromatic elements to their food, ranging from basil, rose water, orange blossom water, and musk to saffron, dill, and mint. 


It is said that the Islamicate culinary traditions, particularly Turkish, Persian, and Arabic cuisine, are where the Mughals and other Muslim rulers of the subcontinent got their obsession with aromatic food. Scent is emphasised while discussing the aesthetics of cuisines in cookbooks from the area, such as Ibn Sayyar Al Waraq's Kitab al-tabikh from the 10th century and Al-Kitab Baghdadi's al-tabikh from the 13th century. The rose water, which is generally added at the end, is specifically called for in the recipes in these volumes. The Ni'matnama has a similar obsession with aromatic bliss. The Ni'matnama, a bizarre cookbook from the late 15th century, is filled with recipes perfumed with ingredients like asafoetida, musk, ambergris, aloeswood, and spikenard in addition to aromatic flowers and plants. A recipe of Kufta (meatballs) calls for musk, camphor, rose water, and white ambergris. In a different recipe, skewered meat is rubbed with a mixture of saffron, ambergris, and rosewater. And in yet another, meat is grilled in pits with walls made of fragrant flowers. 

From these explanations, it could seem that the Mughals and the Arab world were the only cultures that celebrate fragrant cuisine. However, this is not the case. Aromatics have been employed by cuisines all over the world for millennia to heighten culinary aesthetics and increase the pleasures of eating, from simple ingredients of exotic aromatic substances to complicated blends of herbs and spices. The Mughals' love of flavorful food and the nawabs' fervour for it were both shared by the people of the subcontinent. Being renowned for their sophistication and refinement, the Nawabs of Awadh would insist that their khansamas use sophisticated attar (oil-based scents created by distilling the essences of aromatic flowers, herbs, or spices) and pure aromatic extracts in the kitchen. Their food was based on rosewater, kewra, and attar, and these ingredients are still used in Lucknow cuisine today. Tarun Sibal, chef and restaurateur, was asked what he thought about the significance of flavour or scent in food and why. According to Chef Tarun Sibbal, "So it's like wondering if the tune or the lyrics are more significant. Both are combined when a new meal is being made. A flavorful food will always be aromatic. The reverse is also accurate." Spices like cardamom, mace, rose petals, fennel, and curry leaves give vegetarian foods a delicate but enduring flavour. Another flavour or aroma that can improve a dish is umami. Truffles, mushrooms, cheese, and other ingredients are essential components in this group. Citrus and earthy profiles are my favourites. I adore working with tomato skins, gooseberries, orange and lemon zest, and jaggery, he adds. In addition to the elements mentioned above. One's cooking fat medium alone will have a significant impact on the scent. Butter, sesame, olive, and ghee oils. Any food will taste distinctively better with oil or coconut oil. If you alter the fat, the meal will also vary. A jalebi cooked in ghee. And dipped into sugar syrup with a hint of saffron does the magic always. 


Edible camphor, an aromatic terpenoid obtained from the bark of the camphor tree, is frequently used in southern Indian desserts, particularly payasam. Paanagam, a jaggery-infused water with basil, camphor, and dried ginger as flavourings, is another Southern summertime favourite. Moving east, the ritualistic offering of pana to the gods on Pana Sankranti, which falls in April, is made in Odisha from a mixture of jaggery, milk, yoghurt, chhena (fresh cheese curds), coconut scrapings, bananas, and aromatics like cardamom, nutmeg, and edible camphor. Gods enjoy fragrant foods much like humans do. In accordance with Hindu custom, gods are given food prepared by humans as bhog or naivedya, some of which has been enhanced with the herbal, chilly, and spicy undertones of edible camphor. An offering of thor, a delicious pastry burnt with camphor, is offered at the Shreenathji Temple in Nathdwara, Rajasthan. Anoor Satti Aravanai, a dessert similar to kheer made of cooked rice, molten jaggery, and ghee, and flavoured with cardamom, saffron, and edible camphor, is the offering at the Srirangam Temple outside of Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu. It's said that Lord Jagannath adores perfumes. In the summer, cooked rice that has been soaked in water or lightly fermented is brought to the deity along with curds and jasmine flowers. Jasmine, mogra, frangipani, and ginger are used to flavour subas pakhala, often referred to as subasita pakhala, another form of pakhala. 

Numerous aromats are mentioned in ancient Indian writings and medical treatises. These aromats are employed in perfumery and therapeutic mixtures (such medicated oils), which have strong medicinal properties. For instance, the Charaka Samhita lists the aromatic medications Sarvagandha, which also includes white sandalwood, aloe wood, cubeb, cassia leaves, and spices like clove, cardamom, and cinnamon. 

"Flavor and scent both play an equal part," says Chef Pawan Bisht, Corporate Chef and R&D Executive for One8commune. Since our senses are what we use to consume food, the aroma greatly enhances the flavour of the dish. Rose water, truffle oil, entire spices, vanilla essence, sesame oil, and fresh herbs like thyme, basil, oregano, and hing are all appropriate additions. These are just a few of the numerous ingredients you may add to vegetarian cuisine to give them flavour. To improve the flavour and scent of my food, I frequently add fresh herbs, entire spices, and various oils (mustard, coconut, sesame). Even now, asafoetida is still a common pantry ingredient in kitchens all over the Indian subcontinent. It is frequently used in place of alliums in vegetarian cooking. Rana Safvi, author, and historian says “I use minimal masalas. I just make sure they are well roasted. The test of a well-roasted masala is the lovely aroma – Khushboo. The common garam masala, which is often associated with Indian cuisine in Western discourse, contains several of the spices grouped together under the name Sarvagandha in ancient Ayurvedic treatises. The practise of encasing food in fragrant leaves that not only serve as a vessel but also impart their flavour to the dish is still widely practised across the nation. For instance, the moode idli from Karnataka is steam-cooked with screw pine leaves. Singauri is a traditional Kumaoni sweetmeat from Uttarakhand that is made of khoya and coconut and wrapped in tender maalu leaves to give it a unique, camphor-like scent. 

Several civilizations have developed clever tricks over the years to add scent to food. The dhuni or dhungar method is one such method. It involves placing a bowl in the cooking pot with the preparation that contains a small piece of hot charcoal. Once ghee has been put on top and smoke has begun to billow out, the pot is covered to keep the smoke inside. The Dogras add hot coals to a basin of mustard oil, which is then placed into the covered pot of grilled meat. The meat acquires a characteristic smokiness as a result. The list is endless.