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What exactly did they eat in ancient India?

We now have a rough idea of what the food of ancient India was NOT like.

We know that there were no potatoes. There were no tomatoes. There was no corn. And most intriguing of all, there were no chillis.


All these vegetables and staples were discovered in the Americas and brought to India by European colonists and traders. As hard as it is to think of Indian food without them, the truth is that our cuisine used none of these ingredients.


   We know also that many of what we regard as essential dishes of Indian cuisine came to us from Central Asia or the Middle East. There were no samosas in India till the Arabs got here. There were no jalebis. There was no maida. It was the Arabs who taught us how to bake. And judging by what we read in food history books, there were no pulaos. Even biryani was created in the Mughal court during the medieval era.


   So what exactly did they eat in ancient India? Was it tasty? Was it sickly because of the paucity of ingredients? Was it bland because there were no chillis? Was it very different from the food we eat now?


   Few people seem to have answers. There are a limited number of sources and many of them use names that are no longer current for vegetables and dishes. Even those researchers who try and unearth menus from that period are more historians than chefs so very little of their work gives you a sense of what the food must have actually tasted like.


   My friend Shri Bala is the exception. Her speciality is the food mentioned in the ancient Sangam Literature of South India and because she is a restaurant-quality cook she can actually recreate the dishes and give us some idea of what the food of that period must have actually tasted like.


   I last wrote about her a few months ago when I was trying to trace the origins of idli and sambhar and it was thanks to her research that I came to accept that neither is an ancient Tamil dish. The idli does not appear in early Tamil Literature and Shri Bala (like the great food historian KT Achaya) ascribes an Indonesian origin to the technique. There were trade links between South India and Indonesia and perhaps cooks on Indian ships picked up the fermentation technique from the Indonesians because there is no history of such techniques in Tamil cuisine.


   Similarly, though Shri Bala, like all proud Tamilians, scoffs at the Maratha claim that sambhar was invented in honour of King Sambhaji by cooks in the Maratha Kingdom of Thanjavur, she concedes that sambhar-like dishes in early Tamil cuisine do not use tuvar dal. So the sambhar that we know today may be a variation on an early Tamil dish but the tuvar dal came from the Marathas. (Tuvar is the predominant dal in Maharashtra and Gujarat).


   I guess Shri Bala would have to concede that the Masala Dosa is also not an ancient or even medieval South Indian dish. Potatoes were planted in South India by Europeans during the colonial period and as you can’t have a masala dosa without potatoes, the dish is of recent origin.


   While I have enjoyed my food history discussions with Shri Bala, I had never before had a chance to taste her recreations of what she thought ancient (and medieval) South India food really tasted like. Then, last week, she came to Delhi to cook at Dakshin at the Sheraton, New Delhi, the ITC hotel in Saket. Her menu took in the food of the Cholas, the Vijaynagar empire and the Kakatiyas.


   It was the food of Kings which, frankly, is rather better documented in the ancient period than the food of the masses but she did cover four South Indian states: Andhra, Telangana, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Kerala was poorly represented and she dismissed my naughty suggestion that Tamilians have a slight complex about Malayali food because it is much more complex (and better) than their’s.


   The first thing that struck me about her recreations was how teekha the food could be. I had always been slightly skeptical of the claim that ancient Indians used black pepper to infuse heat in the food and that pepper hotness could rival chilli-hotness. But that meal changed my mind. Shri Bala said she had tempered the teekhaness levels to suit a Delhi clientele (i.e. people like myself) but the food left me in no doubt that long before chillis arrived here from the New World, the people of today’s Andhra and Telangana were already making the super hot dishes that they are famous for. Never again will I doubt that pepper can add a teekhaness that rivals anything a chilli can do.


  "What this suggested to me was that while it is true that Indian food today uses many ingredients that were unavailable in that era, it is not that different from what we have always eaten."

   Another revelation was the extent to which fruit flavours dominated savoury dishes all over the South. Many of the recipes had been sourced from the Soopa Shastra, a book written by Mangarasa III during the Vijaynagar dynasty (Karnataka) in the 15th Century. This was after Islamic traditions had established themselves in the region so some of the recipes included wheat. But many of the others depended on fruit – a tradition that continues in South India to this day. There were jackfruit dumplings wrapped in paan leaves and turned into bhajiya-type things; a plantain and plantain flower curry and much more.


   Also intriguing was the presence of ingredients that North Indians are more likely to associate with East Asia than India. One drink, dating back to the time of Rajendra Chola (around 1020 AD), was an extract of what the Thais call makroot (kaffir lime) with palm jaggery. Apparently the makroot was brought to India from the Malaysian province of Kedah when the Cholas ruled it. These influences continued through to Vijaynagar from whose cuisine we ate steamed bamboo shoot cakes.


   Kootan Soru, a one-pot meal from Sangam Literature (from before Christ to around the third century AD) had sambal fried peanuts and spicy shallots in a style that is now commonly associated with Sri Lanka (where the word sambol is used to describe a chilli paste) or Malaysia (where it is called sambal) and yet tasted totally Indian.


   All of it was delicious but – and here’s the thing – even with the sambal, the bamboo shoots and the makroot, it all tasted distinctively Indian. Which is to say, none of it tasted that different from the food they eat in South India these days. Yes, there were no potatoes, (they had arbi – not my favourite vegetable), no chilli etc. but the flavours were not vastly different from today’s.


   You only realise how extraordinary this is when you compare our food to the food of other ancient civilisations. Italian food today does not have much in common with the food of the ancient Romans who flavoured everything with Garum, a stinky, strongly-flavoured condiment made from fermented fish.


   What this suggested to me was that while it is true that Indian food today uses many ingredients that were unavailable in that era, it is not that different from what we have always eaten. Like any great cuisine, we took new flavours and vegetables and incorporated them into our existing cuisine. There is a clear continuity of style over two thousand years.


   While most of the food had been prepared by close adherence to original recipes, there was a dish where Shri Bala used her imagination. The Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta visited India around 1330 and left behind a detailed, if slightly fanciful, travelogue. He wrote about a meal he had in Calicut which, he said, was contained in a large leaf. When Battuta unwrapped the leaf he found it had coconut rice on a bed of chicken curry. The accompaniment was something he called a sambuska (a Middle Eastern Samosa).


   We have no way of knowing what exactly he ate, but Shri Bala tried to recreate the dish using the small-grained rice they still use in Kerala. But she made a sort of biryani (which I guess is what Battuta actually ate) and because samosas were unknown in that region at that time, she made a bhaji (bhajya) reckoning that this was what Battuta had called a sambuska.


   It was quite delicious. But was it what he actually ate? Who knows? But his description does suggest that a) he was served in early Kerala (Mopla) biryani and b) that this was a local dish unrelated to the biryanis of North India. (In later years, the Moplas adopted the name biryani for their local meat-rice dishes).


   Would the food of ancient North India also have tasted recognisably Indian if somebody had cooked me a meal based on historical recipes? Or did it change much more dramatically over the years?


   I don’t know. But I am hoping to persuade my friend and guru, the great chef Manjit Gill, who has a collection of ancient Indian recipes to cook me an ancient North Indian meal.


   If he does agree, you will read about it here.



Posted On: 27 Apr 2019 05:22 PM
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