Indian civilisation can be traced back to thousands of years, and many influences and peoples have entered it over the years, modifying and enriching the cuisine.
Ayurveda’s principles have long influenced the choice taste and texture of our food.
Recent days have seen a revival of Indian so called “super foods”, many of which trace their origins to the ancient period.
Indian cuisine is vast and variegated, complex and fascinating as the subcontinent itself. To the uninitiated, there is Indian food. For Indians themselves, the region, state or city they belong to means a different taste, texture and approach to food. If there is any common marker of food in the subcontinent, it has to be the use of an enormous variety of spices and the complex processes the ingredients go through to achieve the finished product.
Indian civilisation can be traced back to thousands of years, and many influences and peoples have entered it over the years, modifying and enriching the cuisine. Food plants have travelled to India across continents and oceans. Greeks, Chinese, Arabs, Europeans; all have made some contribution to Indian cuisine. Some of the utensils used for cooking such as the frying pan and tandoori ovens, kadhais etc., go back thousands of years. The ethos of food preparation and the attention to cleanliness and purity is again something that has come down through the ages.
Indian cuisine has six basic tastes: sweet, salt, bitter, sour, astringent and pungent. The preparations are a mix and match of ingredients with these different flavors. Interestingly, at a broad level, western European cuisine harmonises flavors while Indian cuisine creates a unity of opposites. The flavors “rub against each other” in different ways and create “unique, negative food pairings.” It is also worth remembering that, of the total unique ingredients observed across the world, almost 200 are used in Indian cuisine. The variety is, therefore, staggering and the palate to play with has a number of colours.
In this brief history, we will go back only about eight to ten thousand years and confine ourselves to a consideration of food for the period before the advent of Islam or the Europeans. We will see how the ingredients, methods of preparation, utensils and the basic philosophy of food have an astonishing continuity from the past to the present. Even after numerous admixtures from across land and sea, the underlying continuities are more than discernible.
For the earliest periods when hunting and gathering were the only means of subsistence, remains of stone implements and animal bones offer pointers on the slaughtering and consumption of animals. Later, after the Neolithic revolution, remains of agricultural implements and ancient crop fields— of actual food consumed— of cooking and eating utensils are all very significant. These are supplemented by cave paintings, literary evidence and linguistic evidence of names of food products borrowed from one language and evolving into another.
So what stories does this evidence tell us?
Early humans lived off hunting animals and gathering or foraging from the forests. Cave paintings from Bhimbetka, for instance, show men and women hunting and the animals they hunted including deer, bison, gaur, tiger, rhinoceros and even the giraffe and ostrich which are no longer found in India. There are pictures of women gathering fruits with long baskets on their backs or of women kneading dough.
With the entry of agriculture and rudimentary animal husbandry, there is more physical evidence. Cereals like barley and wheat begin to be found as well as fruits such as ber and dates. There are signs of the domestication of sheep, goat and buffalo. Then came larger settlements with much animal food, oats, more varieties of wheat and wine grapes. Perhaps the onager— an early form of the horse— or the horse itself was domesticated too.
Moving on to the Indus-Saraswati civilisation, starting from around 10,000 years BP, the staple diet was still wheat and barley. Some species of millets have been found at Surkotada— ragi, sorghum and amaranth grains have also been found at other sites. Pulses such as peas, channa, masur, mung and kulthi have been found before 1500 BCE. These people also knew of oilseeds such as sesame, rai and linseed. Judging from a piece of jewelry and a bowl shaped like a coconut found it appears that the coconut may also have been known. Fruits such as dates, melon , lemon, pomegranate and banana have left some traces.
Meat was consumed in abundance— land , sea and river animals. An interesting fact is that the Indian jungle fowl, which the Harappans knew of, is the progenitor of all domestic poultry in the world.
Agriculture was known to these cities and settlements. Clay models of ploughs have been found. Remains of perhaps the earliest ploughed field in the world have been found at Kalibangan, around the turn of the third millennium BCE. Widely spaced north-south furrows were found with closer spaced east-west furrows at right angles to them. Even today, channa dal is grown on wide furrows in Rajasthan so as not to cast shadows on the shorter mustard plants at right angles to them— a remarkable continuity of agricultural practice.
Water was provided through flood irrigation and supplemented by seasonal rains. Remains of clay pots, assumed to be fixed on water wheels, have been found of the type known in the Vedic period as ashmanchakras or arraghatas.
There were elaborate granaries and arrangements for the transport and storage of food grains and evidence of this has been found across the cities of this civilisation.
Moving on to what may be called the post Harappan phase, merging into the Vedic and the Mahajanapada phase of the past, what were the changes in the diet?
Agriculture became the mainstay and source of the dietary staples. Ploughed, irrigated and even fertilised fields provided much of the food. Barley, rice and wheat remained the basic food grains. The seminal and most important trio of masha (urad), masoor and and mudga (mung) became more significant than ever.
Supplementary foods such as vegetables and food crops, pepper, grapes and sugarcane were raised on village outskirts and banks of rivers.
It would be instructive to consider a few of the most important foods that are still eaten and see how they began.
Earliest forms of barley are found in the Middle East. In the Indian subcontinent, it has been found more than 8000 years BP in Mehrgarh and later in Kalibangan, Mohenjodaro, Chhanudaro etc. From the Rigveda down to 500 BCE, barley was the main staple grain found in Sanskrit literature— the life giving “yava”. That position was lost as time went by.
Wheat has a similar story. Originating in the Middle East, it has been found first in Mehrgarh and then in many other towns on the banks of the Sindhu and the Saraswati. On an examination of the varieties found in India, in the early 20th century, four varieties were found to have persisted for 3,500 years— again a remarkable continuity.
Oryza Sativa or Asiatic Rice is native to the Indian subcontinent and has flowed out from here with the movement of people. From the Munda word “jom” which means “to eat”, it is thought to have become “chom-la” and then “chaval”, the Hindi word for rice. As for physical evidences of rice cultivation, terraced fields perfect for rice cultivation have been found in Kashmir dating to as long ago as 10,000 BCE. The earliest finds are from northern and north-western India and evidence suggests a later arrival into the south of India. From the Sanskrit word for rice, “varisi”, comes the Tamil word “arise” which travelled to Europe and became rice.
Ragi and jowar are known to have originated in Africa. Ragi has been found in the Deccan in about 1800 BCE and jowar in Rajasthan around the same time. Of the aforementioned masha, mudga and masur— which recur in Sanskrit literature— the first two are indigenous to India. Masur is one of the oldest of cultivated grains and may have originated in Turkey or Iran.
The ubiquity of some of these grains gave rise to certain other uses also. For instance, rati or gunja seeds are the basis of the system of weights in the Harappan civilisation, both the binary series and the decimal series.
This same gunja seed is the starting point of the famous series of weights set down in the Arthashastra centuries later. The masha bean, apart from being used as the name of the most prevalent coin during the Mauryan period, was also used for this weight series.
In this series, for all goods except precious metals and stones, the basic weight as per the Arthashastra was a dharana which was 320 gunja seeds or 640 masha beans or 14,080 white mustard seeds.
Measures of length were also based on natural objects like grains. The Manusmriti uses the yava or barley corn as the basic unit of length— eight yavas are one angula, 24 angulas are one hasta, four hastas are one danda, 1000 dandas are one krosha and four kroshas are one yojana or 5.2 km in the metric system.
Of the spices, turmeric is native to India. Ginger is native to south-east Asia but wild forms have grown very early in India, too. Garlic and onion are native to what is now Afghanistan but are not mentioned in Vedic literature till the second century BCE where they are forbidden to those seeking an austere life.
What were the ways of preparing and eating food?
The Harappans definitely ground their grain. Remains of many large-scale pounding platforms, probably used by the state, as well as domestic grinding stones have been found. Mud plastered ovens with a side opening resembling present-day tandoors have been found as well as mud chulhas. Remains of metal and clay plates resembling tavas point to preparation of baked chapatis. Clay vessels for boiling barley and rice have also been found. Frying pans, serving dishes (with a fitted cover, too), cups, dippers, ladles of shell and knives of chert have also been found.
The tandoors may well have roasted the domesticated fowl. Remains from Farmana have recently been analysed to show that cooking was done with the use of ginger garlic and turmeric; “proto-curry” as it is called.
In the Vedic period, barley was the major grain eaten. It was fried and consumed as cakes, called “apupa”, dipped in ghee and honey. The modern eastern pua and malpua are direct descendants of apupa. It was also boiled or parched and powdered and then mixed with water, ghee, milk or curds to give “karambha”.
Rice was cooked with water, the dish called “odana” or “bhataka” which was bath or the modern bhath of the east. “Kshira” was rice cooked with milk. A forerunner of khichdi existed as a mixture of rice and dal. Boiled rice was eaten with many accompaniments like curds, ghee, mung, beans or meat preparations. “Chipita” was flattened rice, the modern chivda.
The dish “kulmasha”, masha with gud and oil, resembles the ghugri of today. Thin and thick barley gruels were popular. Masha, mung, masur and channa were eaten as a soup ( the vedic “sups” or “yusa” from where the word soup originates).
The “vataka”, forerunner of the modern vada, was made of soaked, coarsely ground and fermented dal shaped and fried. Dals were also made into “purpatas” or papads.
A word must be said about milk and milk products. Cattle were an integral part of life and culture. The milk of the cow was most important though the milk of the buffalo and goat also find mention. Milk was consumed fresh from the udder or boiled, mixed with soma juice or as cream. Milk was curdled with starters or various green materials and eaten with rice , barley or soma juice.
There were many ways of consuming curds. After churning and dilution, when it carried butter globules, it was called “parasadjya”. Two forms of “dadhanwat” may be what we call paneer and ripened cheese today. “Ghrta” or ghee was a commodity of enormous prestige made by melting down and desiccating butter. It was used for frying, mixing with soma juice and dipping as relish. “Shikharini”, an old form of the shrikhand, was prepared by mixing strained curds, sugar and spices. The popularity of curds can be judged from the fact that there were even professional curd sellers at “maithikas” or curd-shops during the Mauryan period.
The palao or pulao is ascribed to Arabic origins yet rice and meat dishes have a hoary ancestry in Sanskrit literature. References are found as long ago as the Valmiki Ramayan. The word itself is found in the Yagyavalkya Smriti as “pallaomevach” and in early Tamil literature of the third century CE too.
The kabab, too, could perhaps be traced to the tradition of roasting meats described in the epics.
Fruits and vegetables have been known in this landmass for a very long time but during the Vedic period, they really came into their own.
The date, bel and ber are the earliest fruits. The mango is indigenous to India and the first mention comes probably in the Rigveda as “saha” for the “sahakara” or mango; it is definitely there in the Shatpatha Brahmana, dated about 1000 BCE. The “amlaka” or amla is mentioned in the Jaiminiya Upanishad of the same time. Fig, jamun, coconut, banana, jackfruit, palm, tendu, grapes, phalsa, karaunda and ingudi are all mentioned in the Vedic corpus, the Ramayana and, later, the Buddhist corpus.
Vegetables first mentioned in the Rig Veda are the lotus stem and the cucumber (urvaruka) and then the lotus root, bottle gourd and the singhada and many flavoring materials such as methi, mahua flowers, and maduga (the southern marugu). Yams, spinach and leafy vegetables are mentioned in Buddhist and Jain literature. Kautilya has a list of vegetables as does Panini. The Valmiki Ramyan is a veritable treasure trove of the fruits and vegetables found at the time. The ingudi is a prominent fruit, used by Lord Ram for the pind daan of his father when he receives the news of his death while in exile.
Frying was done using both ghrta and other vegetable oils such as sesame oil and mustard oil. In fact, the oil of the sesame or til, known as “tail” then, became the generic name for all vegetable oils. It may be noted that both Sushruta and Charaka, the vaidyas of yore, cautioned against daily and excessive consumption of fried foods.
In the early Vedic period, salt was a rarity but later it was obtained from natural sources such as rocks, rivers, seas, lakes etc. It was a state monopoly under the Mauryans with a special Superintendent for Salt. It would have been very expensive for the consumers; six taxes had to be paid on it. The famous Khewra Salt mines, in the north- west, are said to have been discovered when one of Alexander’s horses was found licking a rock which turned out to be a lump of rock salt. It was a prolific and significant salt mine for centuries.
Early spices and condiments include mustard, sour citrus, turmeric (haridra or today’s haldi) and long pepper apart from black pepper, hing, ginger, cumin, cloves, myrobalan and vinegar. The Epic period has mentions of coriander, cardamom, cinnamon, spikenard, nutmeg and aloes.
As far as sweet foods are concerned, honey was the earliest sweetener and, later, sugarcane and its extracts were used. “Sharkara” or shakkar is an original Indian product made from sugarcane and there were many kinds of products and sweets made by mixing this with other things like til, wheat , rice or barley flour. “Mandaka” or mande was like the Maharashtrian puran poli. “Gulalalavaniya” was a tiny puffed up puri eaten both sweet and salted, the modern gol papadi perhaps? “Hayapunna” is the modern ghevara. Of course, rice cooked in milk and sugar, “payasa” or kheer has never lost its popularity.
What was the philosophy of food, the theory and practice?
The Upanishads say that man consists of the essence of food, from food all creatures are produced and by food they grow. Apart from nutrition, of seminal importance are the spiritual qualities of food and its connection with the higher purpose of living.
Connected to this is the concept of hospitality and the merit of sharing food.
Many ancient practices are only now being understood for their nutritional and health value. Parching and puffing of grains breaks down carbohydrates and proteins and makes grains easily digestible. Another early Indian concept of sprouting increases the vitamin content of the grains and breaks down iron to make it easily available to the body. Pickling conserves vitamins for use when fresh food is not available. Another good practice is the use of plenty of green and leafy vegetables for meals, and consumption of fruits. The blending of different types of proteins by mixing cereals and dals together leads to a higher quality of total proteins from both sources, more than if they are taken separately. Khichdi, dosa, idli, dhokla and khaman are examples of such foods.
Food was not merely for eating but had medicinal value and the giants of medicine, Sushruta and Charaka , writing 2,700 years BP, set down the principles and practice of Ayurveda which brings the well-being of body, mind and spirit in harmony. Diet is said to be the most important way of achieving this harmony. Charaka says that without a proper diet, medicines are of no use.
Ayurveda’s principles have long influenced the choice taste and texture of our food. A balanced dietary regimen should include all six major tastes, namely sweet, sour, salty, astringent, pungent and bitter. Traditional meals for weddings, for instance, still follow this injunction.
Recent days have seen a revival of Indian so called “super foods”, many of which trace their origins to the ancient period.
In conclusion, here is some food for thought: the Arthashastra describes a balanced meal for a man as follows— 500 gms of rice, 125 gms of dal, 56 gms of oil and five gms of salt. This is the same as the essentials in the recommended balanced diet that the Indian Council for Medical Research laid down in 1987. Ancient food wisdom for today!
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