Indian cuisine is too great for its history to be twisted to suit the needs of today’s political debates(iStock)
Indian cuisine is too great for its history to be twisted to suit the needs of today’s political debates(iStock)

Decoding the politics of food cooked up over the years in India

Did you know the Mughals only drank Ganga jal? That the Dalai Lama eats meat? That the heroes of Hindu epics were often non-vegetarians? Food is more complex than politicians make out
By Vir Sanghvi | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON JAN 20, 2019 07:35 PM IST

As you probably know, one of the triggers for the great revolt of 1857 (or the First War of Independence or the Mutiny, depending on your perspective) was a story that spread across India. According to those who claimed to be in the know, the British army had coated cartridges with animal fat. Soldiers had to bite off the covering of the cartridges to use them. This meant that they ended up eating bits of the animal fat.

But, or so went the story, the fat came from cows and pigs. So soldiers were now required to consume beef fat and pork fat. This offended both Hindus and Muslims and led to revolts in army units.

The British said that no pig or cow fat was used and that the story was just a rumour. But when it comes to the politicisation of food, facts often count for less than perceptions. (And it is entirely possible that the Brits were lying, anyway!) Much of today’s so-called food history tends to be only about perception. Truth seems to matter less and less.

Ancient texts such as The Arthashastra contain many references to meat eating
Ancient texts such as The Arthashastra contain many references to meat eating

In fact, I am beginning to believe that, at no point since 1857, has food been as politicised as it is today. The renewed furore about beef eating is mostly political. The battle between khichri and biryani is really not about rice dishes at all. It is about so-called Hindu foods and Muslim foods. And the debate is prolonged only for political reasons.

In the popular imagination, a certain caricature of Indian food habits persists. According to this version, good Hindus were always vegetarians. Meat eating was a great sin. Beef eating was an even greater sin. Then, along came the Mughals. They promoted meat eating. They took their biryanis all over India and contaminated the pure vegetarian Indian tradition.

By prosecuting those who eat beef and by honouring vegetarianism, we are told, our country is going back to ancient Indian traditions. We are restoring this great Hindu nation to a time when gods walked the earth and peace ruled the land.

India was never a vegetarian country. The view that ancient Hindus were all vegetarians is nothing but a myth

The problem with this caricature is that almost every single fact in it is wrong.

First of all, India was never a vegetarian country. Whether you went North or South in ancient India, the kings usually ate meat. (So did the gods in our epics.) Ancient Indian rulers did not just eat meat or chicken. They ate tortoises, deer, peacocks and other birds and animals.

Khichri became popular not because of our devotion to vegetarian cuisine, but because it was cheap and easy to cook (Shutterstock)
Khichri became popular not because of our devotion to vegetarian cuisine, but because it was cheap and easy to cook (Shutterstock)

Even during the Indus Valley Civilisation, one of the world’s oldest urban civilisations dating back to 3,000 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, animals were raised and slaughtered for food. During the Vedic period, non-vegetarianism was common. Even Ayurveda, which we regard now as a purely Hindu vegetarian phenomenon, advocated remedies based on meat.  

The popularity of vegetarianism came from the Jain, rather than Hindu, tradition. Even the Buddha (who came after Mahavir and the founding of Jainism) did not insist on vegetarianism. (Indians are always shocked to discover that the Dalai Lama eats meat; he ate beef till his doctors told him to go easy on red meat.) Ancient texts such as The Arthashastra contain many references to meat eating.

Indians are often shocked to find out that the Dalai Lama eats meat (Shutterstock)
Indians are often shocked to find out that the Dalai Lama eats meat (Shutterstock)

So, the view that ancient Hindus were all vegetarians is a myth.

What about the Mughals, the subject of much demonisation these days? Well, almost everything that you will read on many popular Internet sites about the Mughals is wrong.

First of all, they did not call themselves the Mughals. That name was given to them centuries later by British historians on the grounds that Babur’s mother may have descended from Genghis Khan. Babur himself would have been horrified to have been called a Mongol or a Mughal.

Keeping in mind Hindu sensitivities about the cow, Emperor Akbar banned its slaughter
Keeping in mind Hindu sensitivities about the cow, Emperor Akbar banned its slaughter

Secondly, the Mughals did not arrive in India, defeat valiant Hindu kings and then establish a beef-eating, tyrannical dynasty. There had been Muslim rulers in India for centuries. Babur defeated the Delhi Sultanate, a Muslim kingdom and not some perfect embodiment of Ram Rajya.

Thirdly, the Mughals did not turn a peace-loving, grass-grazing, meat-abjuring populace into non-vegetarians. Not only were the Muslim kings before the arrival of the Mughals non-vegetarians, but so were many Hindus.

If anything, the Mughals were actually less keen on meat than many Hindu kings had been. Many Mughal Kings and nobles would give up meat before battles. And the Emperor Akbar developed such a distaste for meat that he became virtually vegetarian in later life. Keeping in mind medieval (but not necessarily ancient) Hindu sensitivities about the cow, he actually banned cow slaughter. He drank only Ganga jal.

Opinions vary on when the biryani was invented, but there is no doubt that it is an entirely Indian dish (iStock)
Opinions vary on when the biryani was invented, but there is no doubt that it is an entirely Indian dish (iStock)

Many of these practices were continued by his son Jahangir and his grandson Shah Jahan, both of whom were vegetarian on certain days of the week and continued to impose Akbar’s ban on cow slaughter. (They also drank Ganga jal.)

So yes, the Mughals were non-vegetarians. But then so were many Hindus. And the so-called Mughlai cuisine served in restaurants today does the Mughals a great injustice. Most of the recipes and many of the dishes have nothing to do with the Mughal court.

Which brings us to the whole khichri versus biryani debate. In today’s crude popular parlance, khichri is truly Hindu whereas biryani is some Middle-Eastern dish brought to India by the Mughals.

This is nonsense.

Khichri is Indian but it is not, and never was, purely Hindu. Indians of all religions ate it (Buddhists, Jains and even Muslims). Nor was there only one type of khichri.

In medieval India, any dish that combined grain and lentils came to be called khichri. So there were hundreds of variations.

Shah Jahan was vegetarian on some days of the week
Shah Jahan was vegetarian on some days of the week

Let’s take the example of one variation that delighted the Emperor Humayun and the Shah of Persia. One of Persia’s great claims to fame is that it says it invented an early version of the pulao and sent it around the world. It became pilaf in Turkey, paella in Spain and risotto in Italy. But even the Persians will concede that they borrowed one great rice dish from India.

When Humayun lost his throne, he spent 15 years in exile. He spent much of that period in Persia seeking the help of the Shah. During this period, his cooks taught the Shah’s local cooks how to make khichri. This variation used peas and delighted the Shah.

When Humayun reclaimed his throne, this North Indian variation of khichri became a staple of the Mughal court until Jahangir (Humayun’s grandson) found a new kind of khichri while travelling through Gujarat. This khichri was made from millets not rice and it soon became the Emperor’s favourite dish (though the court cooks used more ghee than the Gujarati original). And it was cooked in the palace kitchen nearly every day.

Mughlai dishes served today have nothing to do with the Mughal court
Mughlai dishes served today have nothing to do with the Mughal court

Why was khichri so popular all over India? Not because of our devotion to vegetarian cuisine. It was a one pot meal that used dal (one of the defining characteristics of Indian cuisine through the ages) and any local grain that was available (not just rice). People ate it mainly because it was cheap and easy to cook. During wars, when soldiers would cook their own food, there would often be hundreds of fires lit before a battle as each solider made his own khichri.

Most khichris were vegetarian because even non-vegetarian Indians found meat too expensive. (This was as true of the rest of the world, even England under say, Henry VIII, where the nobles consumed all kinds of animals while the peasantry could not afford much meat.)

Which takes us to biryani. Did it descend from the pulao? Probably, but it had to be wetter, more heavily spiced, was usually ‘assembled’ (the meat and rice were first cooked separately in most biryanis, whereas everything was cooked together in a pulao) and it was a main dish, whereas a pulao was a side dish.

Opinions vary on when it was invented (one popular version gives the credit to Akbar’s cooks; others say it was created a century before) but there is no doubt that it is an entirely Indian dish.

So don’t believe all the currently popular lies about pure vegetarians and evil beef-eating invaders. There is no all-Hindu khichri nor any invader biryani. The history of Indian food is too complex for simple stereotypes. And our cuisine is too great for its history to be twisted to suit the needs of today’s political debates.

Politicians will come and go. But India’s many wonderful cuisines will outlast them all.

From HT Brunch, January 20, 2019

Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch

Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch

SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
Close
A South African citizen in India talks about her pleasant Covid care and treatment (Shutterstock)
A South African citizen in India talks about her pleasant Covid care and treatment (Shutterstock)

A crown of care during Covid

By Archana Sinha
PUBLISHED ON MAR 06, 2021 09:46 PM IST
How a South African citizen in India to visit her parents contracted Covid and came away impressed with the love and care
Close
Hemant Oberoi and his wife Mallika at 22 and 17 (inset) and now (above), at 67 and 62, respectively
Hemant Oberoi and his wife Mallika at 22 and 17 (inset) and now (above), at 67 and 62, respectively

“When I was 22, a meal at Kailash Parbat cost 1,” says chef Hemant Oberoi

PUBLISHED ON MAR 06, 2021 09:31 PM IST
The celebrated chef reminisces about working as a sous chef of Tanjore at Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai, earning his first stipend of was 150, dating his now-wife and his favourite places to eat at then
Close
Content creators stand divided over the new rules by the ASCI indicating influencers may be required to declare paid partnerships
Content creators stand divided over the new rules by the ASCI indicating influencers may be required to declare paid partnerships

HT Brunch Sunday Debate: Restrain or welcome change?

By Riaan Jacob George, Vasudha Rai
PUBLISHED ON MAR 06, 2021 07:14 PM IST
Two digital creators argue if the proposed guidelines by the Advertising Standards Council of India to make it mandatory for digital creators to disclose “paid posts” on their social media handles, are a boon or bane
Close
Aaliyah Kashyap, 20, wrote about how negative comments on her lingerie pictures were affecting her mental health
Aaliyah Kashyap, 20, wrote about how negative comments on her lingerie pictures were affecting her mental health

HT Brunch Social Media Star of the Week: Aaliyah Kashyap

By Shruti Nair
PUBLISHED ON MAR 06, 2021 07:13 PM IST
The 20-year-old wins this week for raising her voice against sexist hate speech and hypocrisy, while talking about mental health!
Close
Arjun opines that a lot of [music] venues [in india] aren’t rooted in ideology, but in economics
Arjun opines that a lot of [music] venues [in india] aren’t rooted in ideology, but in economics

Music and musicians during the pandemic: Sound of silence

By Karishma Kuenzang
PUBLISHED ON MAR 06, 2021 07:12 PM IST
Arjun Sagar Gupta, the passionate founder of Delhi’s jazz club, and other top musicians on how creativity has survived the pandemic
Close
Harshit Misra says his mother was supportive about his music career but was also stern
Harshit Misra says his mother was supportive about his music career but was also stern

To ma, with love: Harshit Misra

By Karishma Kuenzang
UPDATED ON MAR 06, 2021 10:10 PM IST
How bassist and musician Harshit Misra’s tribute to his late mum became a dream collaboration and an awareness campaign
Close
Dino Morea clicks a selfie in bed for this HT Brunch column
Dino Morea clicks a selfie in bed for this HT Brunch column

“Never keep secrets… communicate!” says Dino Morea

By Dinesh Raheja
PUBLISHED ON MAR 06, 2021 07:11 PM IST
The actor talks about his new habit of rubbing lavender essence oil on his forehead and elbows at night to enhance sleep, being a voracious reader and describes himself as #Sexycool in an intimate chat
Close
Strong calf muscles improve ankle stability, prevent falls for the ageing population and help maintain muscle mass, says Kamal (Shutterstock)
Strong calf muscles improve ankle stability, prevent falls for the ageing population and help maintain muscle mass, says Kamal (Shutterstock)

Fit and fine by Kamal Singh CSCS: Training your calf muscles

By Kamal Singh CSCS
PUBLISHED ON MAR 06, 2021 07:10 PM IST
Want shapely lower legs but have never gotten to it? Well, here’s your chance to include it in your lockdown regime, or even start one!
Close
Upcyling has a positive environmental impact and also shows how creative thinking can be transformative
Upcyling has a positive environmental impact and also shows how creative thinking can be transformative

Fashion: Incredible adventures of upcycled trash

By Dinesh Raheja
PUBLISHED ON MAR 06, 2021 07:10 PM IST
Meet five people who see beauty in ‘rubbish’ and are transforming sarees and lives – something we could really be inspired by given the year we’ve all had
Close
Scars and marks carry beautiful stories – of recovery, struggle, stigma and strife; Location: Hilton Garden Inn, Saket, New Delhi; Art direction: Amit Malik; Styling: Tanya Aggarwal; Make-up and hair: Anuj Dogra; (From Left to Right) On Manisha: Dress, Dramebaaz by Ritika; rings, Senco Gold & Diamonds; On Mandeep: Top, Zara; jeans, Mango;heels, H&M; On Nidhi: Top and pants, Rohit Gandhi + Rahul Khanna; earrings, Senco Gold & Diamonds; On Rashi: Dress, Monika Rajeev Malik; watch, Gucci; shoes, Bata; rings, Senco Gold & Diamonds; (Below)On Devica: Top, Dramebaaz by Ritika; jeans, Zara; boots, Mango (Shivamm Paathak)
Scars and marks carry beautiful stories – of recovery, struggle, stigma and strife; Location: Hilton Garden Inn, Saket, New Delhi; Art direction: Amit Malik; Styling: Tanya Aggarwal; Make-up and hair: Anuj Dogra; (From Left to Right) On Manisha: Dress, Dramebaaz by Ritika; rings, Senco Gold & Diamonds; On Mandeep: Top, Zara; jeans, Mango;heels, H&M; On Nidhi: Top and pants, Rohit Gandhi + Rahul Khanna; earrings, Senco Gold & Diamonds; On Rashi: Dress, Monika Rajeev Malik; watch, Gucci; shoes, Bata; rings, Senco Gold & Diamonds; (Below)On Devica: Top, Dramebaaz by Ritika; jeans, Zara; boots, Mango (Shivamm Paathak)

HT Brunch Cover Story: Scars and stripes

By Lubna Salim, with inputs by Veenu Singh
PUBLISHED ON MAR 06, 2021 07:09 PM IST
Women’s Day Special: Should imperfections on our bodies make us insecure? Meet five strong women, who wear lessons of life like badges of honour
Close
For the money, Kiger is a compact SUV that looks great, has loads of space, is well-equipped and is fun to drive too
For the money, Kiger is a compact SUV that looks great, has loads of space, is well-equipped and is fun to drive too

Sunday Drive by Hormazd Sorabjee: A bit of a stretch

PUBLISHED ON MAR 06, 2021 07:09 PM IST
The Renault Kiger enters an overcrowded market with a brilliant design even as it has stuck to a conventional template
Close
Atul Kochhar has the status of being the first Indian chef to break through beyond the Indian food fraternity and be regarded as a celebrity chef
Atul Kochhar has the status of being the first Indian chef to break through beyond the Indian food fraternity and be regarded as a celebrity chef

Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Return of the native

UPDATED ON MAR 06, 2021 10:09 PM IST
Atul Kochhar is one of the world’s most respected Indian chefs but success in his homeland has eluded him. That may be about to change
Close
Hurt your wrist playing badminton? Here’s a simple solution
Hurt your wrist playing badminton? Here’s a simple solution

Sohrab Khushrushahi: Be a badminton baddie

By Sohrab Khushrushahi
UPDATED ON MAR 06, 2021 07:28 PM IST
Do you know your wrist pain could be associated to how much you use your phone? You can still play badminton with some simple rotations, though
Close
Take a brisk walk in a park to enjoy the spring flowers, then find a shady corner to settle down with a nice book (Aparna Ram)
Take a brisk walk in a park to enjoy the spring flowers, then find a shady corner to settle down with a nice book (Aparna Ram)

Spectator by Seema Goswami: Spring has sprung

By Seema Goswami
PUBLISHED ON MAR 06, 2021 07:07 PM IST
And it’s time to make the most of it, before it dissolves into summer. So, what are your plans for this last week of great weather?
Close
What to do after losing a pet and how to be there for a friend who may need you even if it may not seem so
What to do after losing a pet and how to be there for a friend who may need you even if it may not seem so

Shaheen Bhatt: On losing a pet & being there for your friend

By Shaheen Bhatt
PUBLISHED ON MAR 06, 2021 07:04 PM IST
How long do you wait after the passing of a pet to get another one? And how the best way to know what your friend is going through is by asking her/him
Close
SHARE
Story Saved
OPEN APP