History Of Food In India: Even With It’s Lapses, Taylor Sen’s Book Is A Formidable Achievement

Madhulika Dash

Dec 11, 2016, 06:39 PM | Updated 06:39 PM IST

Indian food
Indian food
  • Taylor Sen’s book does pack quite a punch even for things one deems to know well, and is full of anecdotes that make even a simple lassi sound like the best elixir of the world.
  • It does reiterate the fact that many food writers are now accepting that Indian cuisine as the nerve centre of the culinary innovation.
  • Colleen Taylor Sen. Feasts and Fasts: A history of food in India. Reaktion books. 2015.

    Colleen Taylor Sen’s Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food In India is perhaps the best compilation of the Indian culinary legacy – in spite of the little assumptions and generalisations that may not go down well with a few.

    It’s been called an apt contender to K T Achaya’s Indian Food: A Historical Companion. I would refrain from making such a comparison, purely because of the two had their individual exposures, understandings, approaches and sensibilities. While Achaya had the home turf advantage by virtue of his birth; Colleen Taylor Sen on the other hand comes with the benefit of an outsider’s (read: fresh) perspective. An aspect that brings the book to the level of those written by the likes of David Burton, Lizzy Cunningham and Francis Zimmermann: authors even writers like us love to follow for their zeal to incorporate every little fact, irrespective of its significance.

    Where Feasts and Fasts: A History Of Food In India succeeds is in bringing together all that is on the Indian cuisine, religion and culture till date (widely approved and appreciated that is) and then weaving it into a tapestry that appears to be more plausible than myths or folktales. The credit for this clearly goes to Sen, who has not only painstakingly worked on discovering a great number of sources available on the subject including the Puranas, Vedas, epic like Manasamangal and Ksemakutuhalam, but gone through the arduous task of translation, which is daunting to say the least.
    What is also interesting to see is that each chapter—while having the mandatory source index that spells out the basis of a certain assumption or inference made—is accompanied with a general history of that time. So you get a complete picture of how the society would have been, the thinking process and of course the way food was. In fact, in her quest to present the whole picture, Sen has unearthed some of the recipes of the time and presented it in a modern context like the old modaka, kapuranalika, kasara, which is the grandfather of barfi, and later on the kashk and shulla from Ain-e-Akbari. This lends an interesting flavour to some of the earlier chapters. Take the example of the segment called ‘Food and Indian Doctors’. Equally divided into Ayurveda, Unani, Siddha and others, it explains not only how each stream worked but also has a major part of it dedicated to revealing how the different dietary principles originated. Like the rise of kashayam in form of sura, asava and sidhu that were concoctions that helped heal infection and nurture the ill to health; and the description of food habits as per region and work culture. In fact, the chapter borrows heavily from Ayurveda and Carak Samhita (Charak Samhita) to explain the dietary habits, remedies, cures and most importantly, the science behind the thali.

    The different sources used to explain the dietary changes in society eventually explain why beef was always kept out of the culinary allowances in the earlier society and is so till date, albeit it was never an enforced rule back then, but an understanding. This also explained why later on kings could have an array of wild meat, including deer, wild boar, and others but not cow. Or why Brahmins could also consume meat as per the occasion except the source of panchagavya, which was the cow.

    The book through its careful construction of era also deals with another topic of volatile discussion: Indians’ love for meat. In the book, Sen goes on to elucidate how meat consumption in the earlier society was minimalistic (mostly for guests) and more in keeping with the ecology and the dietary needs of the men and women. Killing animals for the sake of it was banned, except for the butcher who would have a farm especially for this purpose. Domesticated animals were not culled for food or otherwise, which explains why chicken, even though was among the first wild birds to be domesticated, appeared on the table as food only around the tenth century. In fact Buddhism, which most widely is seen as a vegetarian culture, allowed meat only when the weather called for it (hence Dalai Lama has meat) as an alm to be accepted and when the animal wasn’t slaughtered for the said purpose. Of course, later killing happened as a pastime in the form of shikar, but this too was done without destroying the balance. This discussion eventually goes on to break another myth: that of the rich royal food.

    The book also deals with a lesser spoken tradition of alcoholic beverage and fermentation. Contrary to what people believe, India did have its own beverages industry – and a reputed one at that. In the Mauryan empire, they were called the Sunheri. While the book doesn’t speak much of this community that vanished in later years, it does detail the fascinating cocktails of the time including the asava made of wood apple; arista that was a heady mix of herbs and long pepper; maitreya, which was the first wine under the Soma category. It is said that the wine was so potent that often it came under the ban list of drinks, especially for the woman. Of course the ban was worthless as making fermented drinks was an art many households in India excelled in.

    Aside the eating habits taken from the accounts of Megasthenes , Arian, Pliny Chanakya, Ibn Batuta, Abul Fazal and others, which talk about the food eaten by the upper strata of the society, Sen also talks about the culture of growing food and its wastage. In fact, there is a segment dedicated that talks about the earlier variety of basmati rice called the mahgasali, which when aged for more than two years became fit for the king. There is also a segment dedicated on India’s concept about raw, cooked and stale food and the techniques. In fact, these are the chapters that in piece meal debunk the general belief that paneer was a Persian gift to India or pit cooking (known as putapaka back then) was introduced by the Chengis Khan, and the gosht halwa was an Mughal innovation, which clearly was present as ksiramrtam (as per the accounts of Ksemasarma) in the court of Ujjain.

    As one moves from BCE to AD, the book takes on an assertive tone, possibly because it is an era that has been widely documented and closer to us in terms of physical presence and language, which also makes it an era easier to write on, and make accurate assumptions since most of the food culture (albeit fast disappearing) is still to be found, like the earlier restaurant culture, the dabba system, the bakeries, the rise of gymkhanas and club and the new age cuisine like that of the Anglo Indian and the Parsees. In fact, one of my personal favourite is called Food in Indian Diaspora, which talks about India’s influences on its colonial cousin (and master) and its resultant dishes like the Bunny Chow (once called Bania Chow), khau Suey; Burmese Mohinga among others. Though written as a brief preview, it does reiterate the fact that many food writers are now accepting: Indian cuisine as the nerve centre of the culinary innovation.

    If Sen had set out to elucidate the different nuances of Indian cuisine, she has done it quite brilliantly – and as far as her resources have allowed her to, which is mammoth. She has tried to cover maximum states, maximum era and maximum of the thoughts and principles that are considered the fountain heads of our food culture are incorporated in the book.

    But as it happens with such projects of enormity, the book also doesn’t venture into quite a few unknown territories that have been an important part of our current existence. No it isn’t just the states, where Odisha has been called the poorest state, and there is a crust-like explanation of the North East food culture including Ahom king’s pride Assam, which gets mention because of the tea and the presence of khar (alkaline) in its food. Even while talking about temples, religion and food, there has been little attempt to explain how these religious centers influenced the way we view food. In fact, given that much of the connect to the old Chola, Chera kings and their culture are through the temples, a preview like treatment does keep on nagging on you, after all Tamil Land, which by Silk Route accounts, was the reason for India becoming the golden bird, and this included the food. Of course one gets the reason of coffee arriving here and tea, but there is more to the region of the country that not only gave birth to some amazing culinary branches (Mappila, Iyer, Kondava among others) but also the economics of sea trade. In fact, southern Indian cuisine is said to be the oldest cuisine in India – and we aren’t taking steaming vessels, idli and dosa only.

    This may possibly be the reason why in the book, Sen says that Brahmins didn’t have mushroom because it grew in dirty ground. Incidentally, any forager would say that is not the case. Of all the edible variety in east India, a major share of it grows on moisten paddy husks and relatively cleaner areas. The reason why mushroom was a later entry into the food in many cultures was that a lot of the wildly grown mushroom was poisonous, and also it tasted like meat, which wasn’t a preferred food item given the abundance of grains, fruits and green leafy vegetable – and real meat.

    Another issue with the book is its tendency to put most of the tribes into the Scheduled Tribe category. This has ensured that the interesting food culture of Dalits, Bhils (they bought in the kadaknath, which is a rage today), Mundas and Bentho are completely ignored.

    What is also interesting to note is the little explanation on Rampur. The khichri made of reshaping almonds to look as rice kernels and pistachios as dal, which is attributed to the house of Nizam, according to some khansamas scions, was a dish developed at Rampur and presented in one of the chef competitions. For a book that brings forth the mention of vesavara and trikatu, said to be first spice mix approved by Ayurveda and used by all the hakims and vaidyas while designing the day-to-day menu for the king, with a later addition of gold and silver and other berries, this touch-and-go approach disappoints. The assumption that India was a largely vegetarian country, in spite of the fact that the practice of cooking vegetable and meat together was prevalent since ancient times, is yet another area where a lot is unexplored.

    Having said that, there is no denying that Taylor’s book does pack quite a punch even for things one deems to know well, and is full of anecdotes that make even a simple lassi sound like the best elixir of the world. Yes, it is text heavy and cannot be fast read as each chapter has links that makes you go back and forth. Yes, it doesn’t cover India in its entirety and has remained in the region where much has been written before. And yes, the certain omission and skim approach may not go down well with a lot of people looking for the “truth out there”, but as a book, it holds your attention and makes you rethink how much of India do you really know.

    And that is the single reason that Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India will be regarded as one of the best culinary works of our current time.

    Madhulika Dash is a writer with over 13 years of experience writing features from tech to cars to health. She is also a seasoned food appreciator who writes on Indian restaurants and cuisines across different platforms. She has also been on the food panel of MasterChef India Season 4.

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