Muslim restaurant, Fatehpur Sikri (786, on the wall, is a somewhat controversial mystical number in Islam)
How distinct are the Muslim and Hindu cultures of the Indian subcontinent? As we know, Indian Muslims eventually felt that their culture was different enough to warrant an entirely separate nation state, that of Pakistan, but of course Muslim and Hindu Indians have lived together for centuries and are indistinguishable in many respects. Some Muslim Indians/Pakistanis may think of themselves as ethnically distinct, tracing their family’s origins to Iran, Central Asia or even Arabia, but a quick facial read suggests that most Muslim Indians are of the same genetic stock as their Hindu bretheren. The languages of Urdu and Hindi have sadly diverted since Partition, but they are still mutually comprehensible enough that India and Pakistan constitute one market for Bollywood films.
But one argument in favor of distinctness of identity is cuisine. Most Indian foods are consumed by Hindus and Muslims alike, but there are clearly certain dishes that are more frequently served and eaten by Muslims or have definite ties to other parts of the Muslim world. (Dietary rules–such as Hindu vegetarianism–may have contributed to the development of such distinct foods.)
Restaurant just outside the Friday Mosque in Agra
The single defining characteristic of Muslim food in India (and, to an extent, Muslim food all over the world), is meat. It might have to do with the fact that many Muslim societies were pastoralists, but meat is much consumed in the Muslim world, often in the most basic grilled form–kebab. (Note, however, that while beef is consumed by Muslims outside the subcontinent, it is almost never eaten in India, even by Muslims, perhaps following the advice of Babur, see post of 2009.02.16.)
Muslim butcher in Crawford Market, Bombay
Meat on the grill, Old Delhi
Meat on the grill, Uzbekistan
One of the most famous categories of Indian food is Mughlai cuisine, which is served at some of the top restaurants in the country. Said to be the food of the Mughal court, Mughlai food is not dissimilar from the Punjabi fare that most people are most familiar with, but particularly rich and meaty.
Khyber, Bombay, one of our favorite restaurants in the world
Seekh kebab at Karim’s in Old Delhi, one of the most famous Mughlai restaurants in India. The founding family of Karim’s is said to have worked in the kitchens of the Mughal court, and some of the dishes bear the names of Mughal emperors. (Read this hilarious post on Karim’s on a great expat Delhi blog, Our Delhi Struggle.)
In addition to rich Mughlai cuisine, there are certain dishes that are especially associated with Muslims in India. Foremost among these, and perhaps one of my favorite dishes anywhere in the world, is biryani. It is said that the Nizams of Hyderabad had a biryani recipe for every day of the year, and had different dinner outfits to go with the various recipes. To this day, Hyderabad is the capital of biryani, and no biryani we have had anywhere else (and trust me, I order it often) comes anywhere close to the texture and fragrance of Hyderabadi biryani (and this, despite our not having been to the most famous of Hyderabadi biryani shops, Paradise). Muslim Indian Biryani has also become one of the most common foods in the Gulf, due to the large number of restaurants run by workers from the Subcontinent (and perhaps in some cases because the local cuisine isn’t very good!).
Biryani, served in a Muslim restaurant in Cochin, Kerala
Other dishes are even more closely tied to the religion. Haleem, a paste-like dish of slow-cooked meat with wheat, is a food that is commonly eaten for iftar (the breaking of the fast) during Ramadan, and can be found in Muslim areas in the Subcontinent.
Finally, sweets. Sweets can carry a great deal of cultural meaning and identity–desserts are often some of the most elaborate dishes of a cuisine and are tied to festivities and ritual. Traveling throughout Muslim India, one frequently encounters sweets that have connections to other parts of the Muslim world, sometimes making one scratch one’s head wondering in which direction the recipes traveled.
Rice pudding, in the form of kheer, is of course a very common Indian dish, prepared mostly for festivities but also featuring heavily in overseas Indian buffet menus, but baked rice pudding, called firni, is found particularly in Muslim restaurants. Here, a very standard form, in nice clay pots, sold in a Muslim neighborhood of Calcutta. (Similar clay pot firni is available at Karim’s in Delhi.)
Firni sutlac served in Turkey. Both in India and Turkey, one of my favorite desserts.
The first time we saw faluda, in Iran, we were somewhat puzzled at this odd, noodle-y dessert. We found faluda in both Delhi and Bombay, in somewhat different forms.
Faluda, at an Old Delhi restaurant
Faluda, at famous Badshah Cold Drink House near Crawford Market in Bombay. The red flavor, with rose water, was called the Shirazi.
Faluda, from a shop in Esfahan, Iran
Can a fruit have a religion? I hesitate to call the pomegranate a Muslim fruit, but it is definitely seen more frequently in Muslim countries. Pomegranate juice was a delightful streetside treat in the Levant. The Quran does say that the fruit is a gift from God!
Pomegranates, sold in Hyderabad
Pomegranate seeds adorn Turkish ashure, or Noah’s pudding
The Ghantewala Halwai on Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk is said to have served the Mughal court. (To be honest, not all that tasty.)