It is our food that connects us to our past. Our edible histories that are so rich and diverse.
Would you like to go back in time and watch Shivaji fight Aurangzeb’s army? Would you like to visit the court of Emperor Akbar at the height of his power? Would you like to watch when St Thomas set foot in Kerala?
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Books, movies do take us back in time. We hold on to history, the dates, the wars, the mergers, the land and its people in the past. But more importantly, it is our food that connects us to our past. Our edible histories that are so rich and diverse.
Food in the Vedic Age
These histories include meals that gave our ancestors the sustenance to thrive battles, floods and famines. If we go further back in time, when India was being formed, the first millennium BCE (before common era) the Vedic Indians began to move into a region called the Doab ‘the two waters’, between Ganga and Yamuna or even when we look at the early cradle of civilisation 3000-1500BCE when the Indus valley civilisation existed, what were the dietary staples back then?
In Colleen Taylor Sen’s ‘Feasts and Fasts: A history of Food in India’, she talks about how the fertility of the land, the existence of barley, wheat, rice the crops from the northwest helped build the new community.
Bread from wheat or barley was the staple of the Indus Valley diet. Then came the Indo-Aryan period, where the Vedas were memorised and passed on to new generations. The oldest, the Rig Veda that contains 1,028 poems has an ode to ghee! It was said to be the preferred food of the Agni, the fire god.
The rituals honoring the god Indra included using a hallucinatory substance called soma (probably cannabis). But the item that was most used and revered was milk, and of course, consumed as we do till date as buttermilk or curd.
The Problem of Plenty
Paneer, however, according to Sen, arrived much later. Back to present day, our phone searches mostly read ‘eating healthy’, ‘foods to help relieve stress’, ‘the perfect keto diet’, a list that seems to stem from the problem of plenty.
Dieticians are sought after, to help chart out and modify eating patterns. The kale leaves, the goji berries and kiwi fruits which are not native seem to be an intrinsic part of the diet.
But if we were to follow the footsteps of our ancestors, they lived pretty healthy lives, fought battles and had better immunity eating local produce. Like the til ladoos, a nutritious snack using only jaggery and roasted sesame seeds, Indian gooseberries, lotus stalks, bael, dates that were used in the Indo-Aryan period. They kept it local. It kept them strong.
The Mughal Era
The Mughal dynasty and its successors also changed the culinary of northern India, as their conquests spread across North India. In Feasts and Fasts.., Sen lists how Ain-i-Akbari (a chronicle of Akbar’s court written by his minister Abu’ I-Fazl ibn Mubarak Allami) mentions the recipes cooked in the emperor’s kitchen.
The sufiyana or the vegetarian dishes included rice, lentils cooked with ghee, ginger, cumin seeds and asafoetida. The second category was meat it included qima pulao (made with rice and ground meat), Haleem -- a porridge of meat and cracked wheat, turnips, carrots, spinach and fennel leaves -- and another category of yakhni (dishes cooked with meat stock), stuffed meat dishes, dopiaza dishes (cooked with onions), dampukht (cooked with aromatic spices using pots with sealed lids) were regular fare during this period.
Wheat bread was used widely and the spices used included dried ginger, turmeric, aniseed, nigella, fennel and mustard seeds. Chillies were yet to make an appearance in the Indian subcontinent, till the Portuguese set foot.
Eating your way through history is a delectable idea. You could have an ideal meal with dishes from North to South of India, across several time periods. You could sample vegetarian and non-vegetarian fares, from simple rural food like Maharashtrian zunka bhakar, a thick bread made of millet flour served with a thick porridge of onions spices and chickpea flour, to the Parsi dhansak that combines meat with lentil. The Portuguese possession that was the tiny affluent state of Goa, that gave the country chillies, cashews and feni.
Food Down South
The rich diversity of Madhya Pradesh that was ruled by Mauryans, Mughals and Marathas. The lip-smacking bounty of the southern states – Tamil Nadu’s sambar, avial or kootu, the rasam and milakai podi to the Chettinad cuisine of wealthy merchant community with its aromatic sour kozhambhu or curries with meat or fish versions.
Karnataka which came into being in 1956, is famous for bisi bele bhat a mixture of rice, lentils, vegetables and spices, along with the sweet meat, Mysore pak and the famous Mangalorean fish preparations and Coorgi pork dishes.
Kerala’s history is also a sumptuous meal in itself from the Moplah cuisine (from the descendants of Arab traders who settled in the state), where biryani and erachi pathiri (spiced meat stuffed in pastry) are symbolic of the Arabic influence.
Syrian Christians of Kerala who traced their origins to St Thomas, the Roman Catholics have a distinct meat-heavy cuisine that includes pork, beef and duck.
In Andhra Pradesh, the gongura leaf is an essential ingredient along with tamarind and red chillies. Sen’s book says Andhra cuisine is reputed to be the hottest in India, because according to a legend, there was once a severe famine in the area and all that grew were red chillies, which then became the staple of the local diet. The hottest chilli is called koraivikaram, which means ‘flaming stick’ in Telugu. The Nizams of the state also gave us the famous Hyderabadi biryani and Nihari (meat stew that is cooked overnight).
The Northeastern Cusine
The states of Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and their use of mustard oil, the fish recipes, the British influence, especially in Kolkata, all the northeastern states and their rich bounty, all make for immersive palatable histories, like Assam which was named after Ahom, an ethnic Tai people who migrated from southwest China, in the 13th century and ruled the region till 1826.
The northeastern states have a plethora of ethnic and tribal groups that flavor the region’s cuisine. This includes a wealth of fermented products made from soybeans, bamboo shoots, yam, mustard leaves and fish.
A proper history lesson, would not be complete without a hat tip to food. There is no easier and immersive way to learn about our past. We need to imitate what our ancestors did right. No foreign diet can help our Indian bodies, like recipes that using our local vegetables, meat and spices have proven to be most beneficial in a country as appetisingly varied as ours.
Sharon Fernandes is a journalist based in Delhi.
First Published: IST