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Sneaking In With the Moghuls

April 07, 1999|CHARLES PERRY

If you look at an Indian restaurant menu, you'll probably see a lot of Persian words. That's because restaurants mostly serve fancy food, the dishes of the rich and famous. In north India, that meant the cooking of the royal courts. And in recent centuries, most north Indian states had Muslim rulers with roots in Persian-influenced Central Asia.

Since there was a pan-Islamic cuisine in the Middle Ages, you'll also see Arabic and even Turkish words in the mix. It's easy to recognize kebab as an Arabic word (the seekh in "seekh kebab" is the Arabic word for skewer), but a little surprising that masala (a spice mix) comes from Arabic (it's masa^lih, meaning matters or materials). Other Arabic dishes include kalia (qaliyya: a fried dish) and halwa (any of various kinds of sweet).

The Turkish dishes are still harder to recognize, unless you happen to have noticed kima (kiyma: fried minced meat) as a word the Turks spread as far west as Greece. But they include achar, the name for those sharp, spicy Indian pickles. In Turkish, achar means that which whets the appetite.

Then there's korma, probably the most famous Moghul dish. The name comes from the Turkish qavurma, which means fried. It's not clear exactly how it developed from simple fried meat into a lush curry flavored with yogurt or cream, but the general picture is the same as with the other Middle Eastern and Central Asian dishes. At the hands of Indian court cooks, they all became richer, spicier and more elaborate.

And then there's tandoor, which is both Arabic and Turkish, in a manner of speaking. It's the Central Asian pronunciation of the Arabic word name for the clay oven, tannu^r. Go figure.

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