History of Indian Food

We are Vaishnavite by tradition and so our food is non onion non garlic vegetarian food. My mother used to prepare food in the kitchen where we kids were not allowed to enter before we took bath.The food prepared would be offered to God ( a few photos and statutes of Maa Durga, Satyanarayan, Shiv ji, Ram, shaligram and others constitute of what we call deity)in the puja room and then we were served that food.In Vaishnavism God is revered in human form.There are temples where Deity is treated like a child or a human being and is taken care of as if Deity is human. As our God would take only satvik ( pure vegetarian non garlic non onion food) and not rajsik or tamsik food we were also told not to touch such food.But I had friends who used to eat all kinds of food including meat and eggs.

Why people eat different types of food and from where ingredients from food came. I used to wonder from where different types of foods emerged and became part of our daily lunch or dinner.What our forefathers used to cook and eat.Historically when did new cuisines enter our kitchen? How food habits developed in different communities and regions?These are some of the questions that haunted me for long.Fortunately I came across an excellent book which quenched my queries about evolution of food in India.The book “Feasts and Fasts :A History of Food in India” (2015) is written by Colleen Taylor Sen.She is a well known food historian who has written extensively on food including her famous “Curry:A Global History”.

Before reading this book I had no idea that Delhi Sultanate (1206-1526) introduced pulao,biryani,kebabs,samosas and halwa(my favourite)in India.When Portuguese came to India in sixteenth century and established themselves in Goa,they introduced tomatoes, potatoes, chillies, peanuts, pineapples, cashews and other things.Then what are the indigenous items of food.She informed us,”Plants indigenous to India include lentils (such as urad, mung and masur dal), millet, aubergines, many tubers, pumpkins, melons and gourds, mangoes, jackfruit, citrus fruit, ginger, turmeric, tamarind, and black and long pepper. India is also the home of domesticated chickens.” She further clarified that “Spices indigenous to India are ginger, turmeric, tamarind, black (also called round) pepper (Piper nigrum), curry leaves (Murraya koenigii), pippali or long pepper (P. longum), green and black cardamom (which grew wild in the Western Ghats, sometimes called the Cardamom Hills) and holy basil or tulsi (Ocimum sanctum), although the last is not used as an ingredient, perhaps because it is sacred to the deity Vishnu and worshipped by many Hindus. Sesame seed (Sesame indicum), one of the oldest oilseed crops, was domesticated very early.”

Many spices which we use today are not of Indian origin.She said,”Other spices arrived from Western Asia very early on, including cumin, fenugreek, mustard seed, saffron and coriander. Asafoetida (hing), the dried gum from an underground rhizome (widely used by orthodox Hindus and Jains as a substitute for garlic), originated in Afghanistan, which is still a major producer. Cinnamon from Sri Lanka, cassia from South China, and cloves and nutmeg from Indonesia reached India from the third century CE onwards. Cloves were not grown in India until about 1800”. Even paan arrived from South east Asia and soon became part of Indian culinary and social life.Chillies were brought from the New World in the sixteenth century and quickly became assimilated into the cuisine as a replacement for long pepper. In Indian languages, the word is an extension of the word for pepper; for example, in Hindi, kali or hari mirch, meaning black or green pepper.

Food in Indian scripture has a special place.It is regarded as essential for creation and sustenance for life.In Taitiriya Upanishad praise for food is evident.

Ode to Food

From food, verily creatures are produced Whatsoever creatures dwell on the earth.

Moreover, by food, in truth, they live Moreover, into it also they finally pass For truly, food is the chief of beings;

Therefore, it is called a panacea Verily,

they obtain all food Who worship Brahma as food From food created things are born.

By food, when born, do they grow up. It is both eaten and eats things Because of that it is called food

India also enriched other cultures in food while interacting with them.With the coming of Alexander rice reached Greece where like spices it was initially valued as a medicine.The chicken, first domesticated in India, reached Greece by the early sixth century BCE via the Persian Empire. Interestingly wine is also of foreign origin.Wine made from grapes came to Persia from Greece at about the same time, and from there went to Afghanistan and eastern India.While searching for writing on food in ancient India we find that not much is a available. Arjun Appadurai,(an Indian American Anthropologist) explains,”while gastronomic issues play a critical role in Hindu texts, culinary issues do not. That is, while there is an immense amount written about eating and feeding, precious little is said about cooking in Hindu legal medical or philosophical texts . . . Food is principally either a moral or medical matter in traditional Hindu thought.” Tobacco was also introduced by the Portuguese in the Deccan. A courtier brought tobacco to Akbar’s court, together with a jeweled hookah. (The hookah may have been invented at Akbar’s court by a Persian physician, Abu’l-Fath Gilani, who perhaps got the idea from a primitive version using a coconut shell as the base that had been used to smoke opium and hashish.Coffee had reached India by the early seventeenth century, since it is mentioned by Edward Terry in 1617.Tomatoes were also of Spanish origin and came to Indian in early sixteenth century via Philippines, China and Japan.Potatoes were a replacement for indigenous tubers, Marathis still use the Portuguese word batata for potatoes. Britishers introduced tea drinking for anglicised elites.It became a mass consumption item only in 1950s when Indian Tea Board launched an advertising campaign to popularize tea.In the last two three years small towns and cities along with metro cities have witnessed a boom of sophisticated tea shops along with coffee shops,where in young people spend their time in a cosy atmosphere gossiping.Another British contribution to India was beer. A popular beverage among the English in India from the early seventeenth century. In 1830 the first brewery was set up in the Solon District of Himachal Pradesh (it is still in operation). By 1882 there were twelve breweries in India.

Interestingly Mahatma Gandhi’s Recommended Daily Diet was also mentioned in the book.That comprises of :

800 ml (2 lb/ 1 ½ pints) cow’s milk

175 g (6 OZ) cereal

75 g (3 OZ) leafy green vegetables

150 g (5 OZ) other vegetables

3 tbsp ghee 2 tbsp sugar Fruit according to taste and budget

2 litres (5 lb/ ½ gall.) water or other liquid

The book is an interesting reading and those who have interest in knowing about food habits of our ancestors also should read this.

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