How ancient India cooked

Jakhiya Aloo Photo: Centre for Science and Environment   | Photo Credit: Centre for Science and Environment

Late Yeshwant Nene, founder of the Asian Agri-History Foundation, had often rued how, despite being one of the oldest civilisations, nothing much is documented about India’s agricultural history. The Foundation was his initiative to contribute to the documentation and dissemination of the vast agricultural knowledge in the country. The same argument goes for ancient Indian food. There is little information about what civilisations of yore ate. Recipe books from Mughal times are available, as are books on Indian cuisine from the British Raj, but when it comes to food from the kingdoms of Vijayanagar, Chola dynasty or Rajputana, the information is woefully inadequate.

Many references and works are present in Sanskrit, regional languages, Persian and Urdu, but there are no recipe books as such from these times.

One of the greatest sources of information is a compilation by KT Achaya. His book Indian Food – A Historical Companion is a source of immense information. He has documented what various kingdoms ate. He writes in depth of the Manasollasa (Abhilashitartha Chintamani) written around 1130 AD by King Someshvara III of Kalyana in Central India. It has a chapter titled ‘Annabhoga’, where 20 pages are devoted to the making of a variety of dishes.

One can also find the recipe to make ‘Purana’, which might be our present-day puranpoli. There are copious references to ingredients, fruits, vegetables, cereals, milk products, meat… From ancestral legacies to touching upon the Harappan spread and the coming of Europeans, Achaya has covered a huge range: several methods of preparation, cooking styles, utensils and ingredients are given in the book.

Another book of his — A Historical Dictionary Of Indian Food — describes its intent in the preface, “several readers of my earlier book Indian Food – A Historical Companion felt there was need for a historical dictionary that would bring together, in alphabetical order, material scattered all over the earlier volume”.

How ancient India cooked

The dictionary is worth its weight in gold, as it puts almost all vocabulary used with cooking and recipes — food, ingredients, utensils with meanings and references — in one place. Try this: “adai — shallow-fried circlet of the Tamil world. The thick ground batter consists of almost equal parts of rice and as many as four pulses. It is described in Tamil Sangam literature between the 3rd and 6th centuries AD as a snack served by vendors on the seashore.” There is a long description on Bengali sweets. It is a one-stop place for the antecedents of food in India.

Two other famous cooks from our mythology are Bheema from the Mahabharata and King Nala. Nala pakam is a term which originated from Nala’s proficiency in cooking.

Pakadarpana of Nala is a book by Madhulika, edited by Jay Ram Yadav and brought out by Chaukhambha Orientalia Varanasi. It is a translation of the Pakadarpana procured from the Sarasvati Bhavan Library of Sampurnanand Sanskrit University in Varanasi. It has 24 folios. The Sanskrit shloka with its translation in English. In the chapter on ‘Payasa’ — with recipes for preparation of garlic payasa and wheat payasa, there is also a process for preparation of syrups from fruits and flowers. It is an interesting book which works as a guide to cooking, trying recipes and experimentation. One needs to decipher and read into the mind of a cook to understand how these recipes work.

INTACH’s The Soopa Shastra of Mangarasa III – Culinary Traditions of Medieval Karnataka (edited in Kannada by SN Krishna Jois), edited by NP Bhat and Nerupama Y Modwel, brings out the fineness of vegetarian cooking between the 15th and 16th centuries.

How ancient India cooked

Apart from recipes, their origins are also referenced. The recipes cover a wide spectrum, there are nectar breads using cream, curd, bread flavoured with mango juice and more. There are drinks galore and umpteen number of ways of cooking vegetables — brinjal, banana stem, flowers and jackfruit.

There are plenty of documentations of recipes and new ones which are recorded. Trying to revive forgotten foods and their recipes are the two books by Centre for Science and Environment — Down to Earth: First Food – A Taste of India’s Biodiversity and First Food – Culture of Taste. (Three of the writer’s stories find their way into the second book.) Navdanya has a wonderful book with recipes on amaranth (chaulai). It has some interesting modern take-offs like apple cake, fruit bake and more.

Akshat, an ode to different varieties of rice, has recipes. Earthbound – Navdanya’s Guide to Easy, Organic Cooking shows some fast everyday recipes. Several of these recipes use old forgotten grains in new innovative ways to suit the palette of today. It can be eaten with panache at a café!

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Printable version | Jan 10, 2021 6:35:19 PM |

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