A bite of India’s culinary history

A new book about Indian food history offers surprising new information about what we ate in ancient times. Vir Sanghvi brings us a sampler of what it contains.

brunch Updated: Mar 12, 2016 20:38 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
Vir Sanghvi,Feasts and Fasts,Tandoor
The book Feasts and Fasts busts the myth about vegetarianism being a part of ancient Indian tradition. (photo for representation)(Shutterstock)

Ravi Singh of Speaking Tiger, a new publishing house, sent me a proof copy of Feasts and Fasts, a book on the history of Indian food authored by Colleen Taylor Sen. Speaking Tiger will publish the book in May in India. But it is already out in the UK, where it was published late last year.

It is a fascinating book because it overturns many of the layperson’s most commonly held beliefs about Indian food and indeed, Indian history. Here are some of the things I found most fascinating about our culinary and gastronomic heritage.

We are brought up these days to regard abstention from alcohol and vegetarianism as being at the core of Hindu belief. Prohibition, meatless weeks, etc are all justified on the grounds of Indian tradition. When a certain section of conservative Hindus want to diss other Hindus, they refer to their meat-eating ways and their fondness for alcohol.

In fact, ancient Hindu texts are full of references to alcohol. And in what is hailed these days as the Golden Age of Hinduism (the centuries when the Vedas and our great epics were written), our heroes delighted in consuming the flesh of animals.

Most of us are familiar with the term Soma, which we generally take to be an ancient drink. In fact, says Taylor Sen, Soma refers to both a hallucinatory (possibly) and intoxicating (certainly) substance and the plant it came from. Nobody is sure quite what the Soma plant was. Candidates include a hallucinogenic mushroom, cannabis (the source of bhang) and a shrub called somalata.

Whatever the origin, the Soma plant seems to have been treated to produce a strong liquor, which was often diluted with milk. Its effects sound a lot like those of today’s alcoholic drinks, not to mention recreational drugs.

Taylor Sen quotes verses from the Vedas: “One of my wings is in the sky; I have nailed the other below. I am huge, huge! Flying to the cloud. Have I not drunk Soma?”

Or “We have drunk the Soma. We have become immortal. We have gone to the light. We have found the gods!”

This does make it sound as though it imparted a high of some kind. And yet the Rig Veda contains hundreds of references to Soma, including a whole chapter of 114 hymns dedicated to the glory of Soma. In fact, there are more references to Soma in the Rig Veda than there are to the holy cow.

Later historical texts also abound with references to wine. Chandragupta Maurya, for instance, served grape wine at his banquets. In the Mauryan empire (rather like today’s Bihar!) the production and sale of alcohol was a state monopoly under a superintendent of liquor. There was a lively pub scene (unlike today’s Bihar). Every village had at least one tavern that sold liquor and served it to customers on the premises. Some taverns even allowed customers to stay the night. This was all completely legitimate and official. Chanakya’s Arthashastra even lists five kinds of alcohol with their ingredients.

Vegetarianism in the sense that we know it these days was almost unknown to the Hindus who wrote the texts we venerate today.

We know, for instance, that the Vedic Aryans believed in sacrificing animals: goats, sheep, oxen, horses, birds, etc (it has now become controversial to say that cows were sacrificed, so let’s leave that aside). After the sacrifices, the meat of the animals was eaten.

There is no suggestion that the heroes of the Ramayan and the Mahabharat were vegetarian and there are many references to meat – such as the antelopes Lakshman killed and which were later cooked and eaten.

So when did vegetarianism become such a big deal?

The general view is that this only came about after the popularisation of the ancient religion of Jainism by Mahavir. Buddhism was founded around roughly the same time but it was ambivalent about vegetarianism. (It still is. The Dalai Lama eats meat – leading that famous vegetarian Paul McCartney to write him a letter complaining about his dietary practices.)

And when I say that our forefathers were non-vegetarian, I mean an extreme form of meat-eating that many modern-day Hindus would be uncomfortable with.

The Manasolassa, a second-century text, lists foods commonly eaten in that era: blood sausage, goat’s head, grilled stomach membrane and barbecued rat. A dish called panchvarni was made by simmering pieces of intestine with spices. (They also loved intestine kababs.) Goat brain was cooked with fermented rice. The stomach membrane was folded into layers, cut into pieces and fried in oil!

So no, vegetarianism is certainly not an integral part of the ancient Indian tradition.

Somehow, a perception has grown that all the great meat dishes of India only came about because of Muslim rulers. Among Pakistanis, for instance, there is a tendency to believe that Persia and Turkey contributed so substantially to our cuisine that all we did was add a few spices to West Asian dishes.

It is certainly true that many of the popular dishes that we regard as entirely Indian came to us from Muslim traders and armies. The samosa and the jalebi are two obvious examples, as is the original pulao.

But other claims are controversial. What about kababs? What about tandoori cooking?

While the tandoor , an intrinsic part of north Indian cooking, supposedly came to India from Afghanistan or Turkey, Tandoori chicken is inherently Indian. (Shutterstock)

Taylor Sen offers interesting facts about these controversies. First of all, she says, the food of the Middle East (and of Europe, even) in the Medieval era was heavily spiced so the notion that Turks and Persians came to India and were startled by our spices may be fanciful. Arab traders had been buying spices from Kerala for centuries, so the Muslim visitors would probably have been used to our spices anyway. (Remember there were no chillies in those days. We got them much after America was discovered. It was all pepper and spice.)

Secondly, the notion that Hindus learned to make kababs from Arabs is just plain wrong. Texts dating back to 500 years before the birth of Christ have references to meat being cut into pieces and cooked on a skewer. Perhaps our spicing and marinades were different from those popular in the Middle East. But the idea of a barbecued kabab is entirely Indian.

The second, more hotly debated dispute is over tandoori cooking. I don’t think that there is much doubt that the cooking of meat in the tandoor is a 20th century phenomenon and was invented in the subcontinent. Nobody makes anything like tandoori chicken in the Middle East. In fact, even in present-day India, few great Muslim chefs will bother with a chicken tikka. Their kababs are either made on the tawa or on skewers over an open fire.

The dispute really is over the use of the tandoor to make bread. The standard view is that a version of the tandoor came to India from Afghanistan or Turkey. It is strengthened by the fact that Hindu cooking had no maida or baking tradition. We tended to use whole-wheat flour and were never keen on baking. (To this day, many bakeries in India are run by Muslims.)

Taylor Sen suggests that the Indus Valley people, like the Mesopotamians, made their bread from flour (not maida) and used a little beer or fermented soup to make it rise. This bread was stuck to the bottom of a clay oven called a tinuru, which is similar to the modern tandoor. (Shutterstock)

A contrary view is that the tandoor is, in fact, Indian and even pre-Hindu. It has long been reported that tandoors have been found at Indus Valley sites.

Taylor Sen puts this in perspective. All too often, we think of India as having been isolated from the world till, first, the Muslim rulers got here and then the European colonists. In fact, India was always well-connected with both Europe and the Middle East. Many so-called foreign arrivals/invasions overlapped. (For instance, when Emperor Akbar took over, the Portuguese already had well-established settlements in Western India.)

The Indus Valley Civilisation was not isolated either. We know that Indian traders sailed to Mesopotamia (roughly, modern Iraq), and the Arabian peninsula. There was overland trade with Central Asia. Indus Valley seals have been found in Oman and Iraq.

It is not unreasonable to imagine that there was also some exchange of food customs between India and the rest of the world. (This has little religious significance: it happened centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ or the Prophet Mohammed and the Indus Valley was probably a pre-Hindu civilisation).

Taylor Sen suggests that the Indus Valley people, like the Mesopotamians, made their bread from flour (not maida) and used a little beer or fermented soup to make it rise. This bread was stuck to the bottom of a clay oven called a tinuru, which is similar to the modern tandoor.

If she is right, then one of the great culinary disputes of Indian history may just have been settled.

Tandoori cooking is neither Hindu nor Muslim. It is older than either religion.

There is much more in the book, but the best bits are the sections on ancient India. The medieval portion is interesting as is the colonial section but there is already lots of published material on those periods.

I found the chapter on early Hindus and what they ate the most fascinating. At a time when we are obsessed with our past, let’s at least get the facts right!

From HT Brunch, March 13, 2016

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First Published: Mar 12, 2016 20:28 IST