K.T Achaya’s food history

Akbar’s meals began with curd and rice

August 18, 2018 05:17 pm | Updated June 22, 2019 01:45 pm IST

A friend came home the other day and gave me a gift that I shall treasure for two good reasons. One, the book came from the library of our much loved Uncle H.Y. Mohan Ram. And two, it is a book that I had been meaning to buy, but never did. The book, Indian Food: A Historical Companion, is by K.T. Achaya, who is for most of us the last word in food history.

I’ve been poring over the book, and enjoying every page. I keep going back to the bits that thrill me — delightful passages about where tomatoes, chillies and potatoes came from or how utensils took shape. And every time I read the chapter on the Mughals and their food, I have to eat a biscuit or two to subdue the sudden hunger pangs.

But before I tell you more, let me recall Uncle Mohan. He was a botanist, linguist, singer, great raconteur, and a wonderful human. He is up there somewhere, recounting a risqué joke, no doubt. And his daughter has thoughtfully given me this book from his collection (along with one on old people and bawdy humour!).

Here are some passages from a chapter titled ‘Muslim Bonus’. “To the somewhat austere Hindu dining ambience the Muslims bought a refined and courtly etiquette of both group and individual dining, and of sharing food in fellowship,” Achaya writes. Food became enriched with nuts, raisins, spices and ghee. Meat and rice dishes came up, as did dressed meat such as kababs, stuffed items such as samosa, and desserts like halwa and stewed fruits.

Babar, Achaya points out, lived for only four and a half years after coming to India. “He lamented that this country had ‘no grapes, musk-melons or first-rate fruits, no ice or cold water, no bread or cooked food in the bazaars’.” But he liked the chironjee, which he describes in Baburnama as “a thing between the almond and the walnut, not bad” and enjoyed “Hindustan fishes” for he found them “savoury and they have no odour or tiresomeness.”

Achaya, who did remarkable research for the book, as the thick indices tell us, writes about how the emperors fasted for long periods. Humayun gave up eating meat for some months when he began his campaign to recover his throne. He also believed that beef was not “fit for the devout”.

Fast and feast

Akbar started his meals with curd and rice, we are told. He abstained from meat on Fridays and then Sundays. Then he added the first day of every solar month to the non-meat days, and then the whole of March. Finally, he also abstained during his birth month, November.

Jehangir enjoyed meat and was especially fond of game like the mountain goat. But he also believed in abstention. Aurangzeb did not touch animal flesh and, according to some accounts, ate only water and millet bread.

The section on a feast that Muhammad- Bin-Tughlaq gave a foreign visitor had me attacking the biscuit tin with vigour. It included roast meat cut into huge pieces (one whole sheep yielded 4-6 pieces), cakes of bread soaked in ghee containing almonds, honey and sesame oil and on which was placed a sweet cake called khishti (prepared with flour, sugar and ghee), pastries stuffed with minced meat, rice with roast fowl.

The book tells me about different times, but it also reminds me of the great men who lived in our midst. After reading every chapter, I doff my cap to Achaya — and to Uncle Mohan Ram.

The writer likes reading and writing about food as much as he does cooking and eating it. Well, almost.

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