History of Tzatziki


Tzatziki, a humble dish prepared with yogurt and cucumber, has a rich and diverse history that spans the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and India.  In fact, tzatziki is perhaps the most Ottoman of all the dishes we prepared.  It demonstrates the scope and importance of Ottoman trade routes, especially in fostering cultural, and in our case culinary, exchange.  To make a long story very short, this quintessentially Greek appetizer and dip traveled from India through the Middle East before it made its way into Greek cookbooks. 
I am sure you are wondering when and where India enters tzatziki’s history.  The simple answer is that tzatziki is a Greek interpretation of Indian raita.  Tracing the culinary and cultural exchanges that occurred over time allowing for raita to be transformed into tzatziki is what makes this story interesting.
Believe it or not, the major dish linking raita to tzatziki is biryani, a Persian rice dish that was introduced to India while it was under Mughal control.  The Mughal Empire, which was mostly led by the Persian Muslim elite, controlled the Indian subcontinent from 1526 to 1827.
As is traditional in most hierarchical societies and empires, the ruling elite relied on locals for day-to-day tasks.  This meant that Indians cooked and prepared meals for the Persian Muslim ruling elite.  Biryani, which was often prepared for the Mughal court combined the familiar with the unknown: it combined the markings of a Persian pilaf but was cooked like many of the spicy rice dishes of Hindustan. It would appear however, that the Persian elite, unaccustomed to Indian spices, found these dishes to be too spicy.  The Indian solution to the issue of too much heat was raita: this yogurt and cucumber sauce helped tame Biryani’s spiciness.    
            Raita travelled back to the Middle East via the Persian Mughal Empire and was eventually introduced to the Ottoman world via common trade routes and exchange points.  For whatever reason, the Greeks, more than any other Ottoman nationality, appear to have appropriated and integrated this yogurt and cucumber dish into their culinary repertoire that its Indian roots are practically invisible. 

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