Changes in the Indian menu over the ages

THE FOOD that we Indians have been eating has been, over the millennia, steadily evolving both in variety and taste. Fortunately for us, these have been identified from relics and fossils, and also described in the written lore over the years.

As discussed in the last article two weeks ago, the late Dr. K. T. Achaya has analysed these in a scholarly and entertaining way in his books Indian Food: A Historical Companion and A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food. He traces how our food habits and preferences have changed in stages over the last 4000 years, from the Indus Valley days through the Vedic times and after the influence of Buddhist and Jain thought, and their impact on the Dharma Sutras and Arthasastra of around 300 BC.

By the time we reach the Middle Ages (1000-1200 AD), we find several texts and commentaries across the country that talk about culinary habits of local people and their kings. A meal was now expected to have six components of quality and taste.

These are madhura (sweet), amla (sour), lavana (salty), kata (pungent), tikta (bitter) and kasaya (astringent), as prescribed earlier on by Sushruta (around 600 AD). The Bhavissayattakaha (of AD 1000) describes the royal meal of King Shrenika thus. First were served fruits that could be chewed (grape, pomegranate, ber), then fruits to be sucked (sugarcane, oranges, mangoes).

Food that could be licked came next and in the fourth course came solid sweet items such as sevaka, modaka and phenaka. Rice followed next and the sixth was of broths. Curd preparation made the seventh course and the eighth ended with thickened milk flavoured with saffron. Items such as parpata (papad) and vataka (vadam) were common.

The extant vegetables ranged pretty much as before — cucumber, brinjal, snake gourd and other gourds, yams, French beans and cluster beans, leafy greens, onions and garlic, coconut, cowpea, sweet potato (?) and such. It was with the entry of the Portuguese that a floodgate of new vegetables entered the Indian land and kitchens.

They brought potato, tomato, tapioca, groundnuts, corn, papaya, pineapple, guava, avocado, rajma (kidney bean), cashew, sapota (chiku), and of course capsicum and chilli in all its forms (and I felt bad hearing about idli importation!). Perhaps the cauliflower and cabbage came from Europe or Latin America too, but certainly a particular form of cottage cheese did come from the Portuguese. It was this that became the chhana of Bengal and Orissa — the base for many Bengali sweets (Sandesh in its modern form, and of course inventions called Rasogolla, Khirmohan, Mouchak, Pantua, Sitabhog, Chhena Puda, and so forth).

The Portuguese word for grain, grao, was taken up to describe Indian pulses as Bengal gram, horse gram and other grams. While the Arabs and Central Asians brought bajra, jowar, lobia and forms of bread (roti) into India, the Portuguese enriched Indian food through their diverse introductions. When we eat Aloo-poori, we partake of the richness of the produce of people from West Asia and Latin America!

The next major influence on Indian cuisine came with the Mughals, starting with Babar who came in 1526 to stay but four years here. While he remained aloof to the Indian supper-tables, his son Humayun took to them easier and also introduced a few new items to it. It is with Akbar, and through the book Ain-i-Akbari, that we know of many new dishes, ovens and recipes that came into India through the Mughal court. Dishes like khichri, palak-sag, biryani, pilaf, haleem, harisa, qutab (samosa), yakhni, kabab, do-pyaza, dumpukht, naan, tandoori, chapati (phulka) and khushka.

The delicious cold kulfi was made at court by freezing a mixture of khoa, pista nuts and zafran essence in a metal cone after sealing the open top with dough. (The only modification today is to use aluminium or plastic cones with their own caps). Jahangir, unlike his father, enjoyed meat, but will be remembered for popularizing falooda (a jelly made from boiled wheat strainings mixed with fruit juices and cream).

With the Mughal introduction of the varieties of bread, meat dishes (particularly of fowl) and the ovens to make them, and their methods to make ice locally, the cuisine of much of North India transformed forever.

The Chinese had their influence too, though not to the extent of the Portuguese and the Moghuls. Mulberry, blackberry and the litchi fruit came to us through them. Of Chinese origin are also the sweet cherry and the peach. China also developed the leafy variety of Brassica juncea (rai), which we in India use as a vegetable. Camphor is a Chinese import and introduction (it is even today called chinakarpura).

The soybean was imported from China into India in 1908 for cultivation, though it caught on widely only after the U.S. variety was introduced in 1970s. And the most precious introduction of China to India (and to the world at large) is of course their cha or teh, namely tea. Just imagine what we do first thing in the morning — we pay obeisance to the Arabs with a cup of coffee (they brought it to us in the 1600s) or to the Chinese with our steaming cuppa.

Compared to this cornucopia, the British brought us little in terms of food. Fish and chips or Yorkshire pudding pale in comparison to what we got from the Arabs, Portuguese and Moghuls, but the British did sensitise us to at least one fruit, namely the apple. Local varieties of apple are recorded to have occured in Kashmir (called amri, tarehli and maharaji), and Dalhara in 1100 AD talked about a "ber as big as a fist and very sweet, grown in North Kashmir", which is likely an apple. But it was the colourful Britisher Frederick "Pahari" Wilson who established a flourishing apple farm in Garhwal, where they grow red and juicy Wilson apples to this day.

In these days of American imports into India such as Pizza, Burgers, French fries and colas, it is well to remember the best import we have had from these, namely apples and express our gratitude to the American Mr. Stokes.

He settled in Kotgarh near Simla in the 1920s and started apple orchards there, and helped in the proper grading, packing and marketing of the fruit.

The two varieties he introduced, called `Delicious', have now become the major Indian apple varieties, making the Himachal apple growers happy and more prosperous than before. He married a local girl and settled down.

His descendants Smt. Vidya Stokes (politician) and Dr. Vijay Stokes (scientist) are well known. Though Australian apples are increasingly found in the Indian market, it is still the Delicious that rules the roost. Next time you bite into an Indian apple, you are celebrating Indo-American amity!

One wonders, going as far back as the scriptures, what Lord Rama ate. Perhaps it is easier to tell what Lord Rama did not eat.

No potato, no tomato, no cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, corn, tapioca, rajma, nor of course chillies in any form! But then, I could be wrong since the sarva vyapi or the omnipresent might very well have partaken of all these whenever He was in Europe and the Americas.


D. Balasubramanian