Thursday, November 29, 2007

Vickraanth C Reddy's Delicacies

Changes in the Indian menu over the ages

IT WAS two years ago that we lost the eminent food scientist Dr. K.T. Achaya. His books — Indian Food, A Historical Companion, The Food Industries of British India, and A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food (all published by Oxford University Press, India) — are a scholarly fund of the history and development of India cuisine.

Occasional shock

They educate as they enlighten and entertain, and occasionally shock us. For example, he points out authoritatively that while Dosai and Vadai have a hoary two-thousand-year history in Tamil country, Idli is a foreign import. The earliest reference to something of a precursor to Idli occurs in the Kannada writing of Sivakotyacharya in 920 AD, and in the subsequent Sanskrit Manasollasa (1130 AD). But the three elements of modern Idli making are missing in these references: use of rice grits along with urad dal, the long fermentation of the mix, and steaming the batter to fluffiness.

Indeed, the Chinese chronicler Xuang Zang (7th century AD) categorically stated that there were no steaming vessels in India. Achaya writes that the cooks who accompanied the Hindu Kings of Indonesia between 800-1200 AD, brought fermentation and steaming methods and their dish Kedli to South India (Thirai Kadal Odiyum Tinpandam Thedu!)

Happily enough, ancient Indian literature left a lot of information on extant vegetables, pulses, meat, spices, fruits, cooking methods, and even an occasional recipe or two. The history of Indian cuisine can be divided into several stages or periods. The earliest period is before 1500 BC or the Vedic period.

The Harappan civilization was known to have rice, barley, wheat, oat, amaranths, jowar, sesame, mustard, chickpeas, masoor, mung and horsegram (kulti, ulavulu), dates, pomegranates, and perhaps bananas. Bones of numerous animals attest to meat (and fish) eating. The large granaries of Mohenjodaro, Harappa and Lothal attest to a sophisticated, aerated, rodent-free storage practice. But, as of date, no recipe has been discovered so that we do not know what a typical Indus valley supper menu contained.

Vedic period

We are more fortunate when we turn to the Vedic period (approximately 1700 BC). The Rig Veda mentions rice, cereals and pulses (masha (urad), mudga (moong) and masura (masoor)) green leafy vegetables (spinach), melons, pumpkins and gourds and in particular lotus stem, cucumber, bottle-gourd, water chestnut, bitter gourd (karavella), radish, brinjal, some aquatic plants (avaka, andika), and fruits such as mangoes, oranges and grapes. Spices such as coriander, turmeric, pepper, cumin, asafoetida, cloves, sesame and mustard were well known, and at least the first four ones are thought to be Indian in origin. Meat eating was prevalent. Pigs, boar, deer, bovines and peacocks were eaten, though chicken (which, though originated in India) was not that desirable. They seem to have been forbidden or discouraged from eating eggs of any kind and in any manner.

As we move further down to the period of the Ramayana and Mahabharata (probably around 1400 BC, though Valmiki and Vyasa are regarded to have written them around 400 BC), we find a far richer fare. Lords Rama, Lakshmana and Devi Sita ate a vast menu that contained fruits, leafy vegetables, rice and meat. Achaya quotes a book stating that Rama and Lakshmana, while in exile at Dandakaranya, hunted animals for the pot, and that a favourite of Sita was rice cooked with venison, vegetables and spices (the dish called Mamsabhutadana). Of course, Lord Rama enjoyed eating the fruit ber (zizyphus) that Sabari tasted and gave him.

Turning to Mahabharata, a graphic description of cooking at a picnic has been provided on roasting large pieces of meat on spits, cooked with tamarind, pomegranates and spices with ghee and fragrant leaves. King Yudishtira is said to have fed 10,000 scholars with pork and venison, besides preparation of rice and milk in ghee and honey with fruits and roots (Payasam).

It was after this time that a change in our food habits occurred. The Dharma Sutras, Manusmriti and related texts of 500-300 BC began forbidding and proscribing food items based on their `temper' (sattvik — peaceful and ascetic, rajasik medium, energetic that can be either positive or negative, and tamasic or coarse, rough and not all that nice), and prohibiting as many as 54 items (in particular a variety of animals) from the `proper' kitchen.

The teachings of Buddhism and Jainism against meat eating had taken hold by this time, and a turn towards preferential vegetarianism began to be expressed in Hindu texts as well.

These, plus the diktats on satvik, rajasic, and tamasic practices changed the face of Indian gastronomy already around 300 BC.

Ancient Tamil food

The earliest Tamil writings are traced to about 300 BC, but references to edibles and food habits abound in literature between 100 BC and 300 AD (Idaicchangam). Dosai and Vadai, as said above, were popular. Tamils ate meals of all kinds, as well as fish.

Condiments, spices, vegetables and pulses mentioned here are the same as those in contemporary `northern' literature. The three great Tamil fruits were of course, mango, jackfruit and bananas. Tamarind rice figures extensively, as also a drink made with tamarind and nellikai (gooseberry).

Leafy greens (keerai), gourds, drumsticks and the three pulses were widely used. So were rice and curd, and vadai soaked in curds — no wonder we are still known as Thayirvadais. It was only when immigrants entered Tamil country (ca. 700 AD) that vegetarianism seems to have taken hold here.

Not mostly vegetarian

Contrary to popular belief, India is not a predominantly vegetarian country. But a quarter of the population is reckoned, based on census data, to be vegetarian. 69 per cent of Gujarat is vegetarian, 60 per cent of Rajasthan, 54 per cent of Punjab-Haryana, 50 per cent of Uttar Pradesh, 45 per cent of Madhya Pradesh, 34 per cent of Karnataka, 30 per cent of Maharashtra, 21per cent of Tamil Nadu, 16 per cent of Andhra Pradesh, 15 per cent of Assam, while but 6 per cent in Kerala, Orissa and West Bengal are veggies. While part of this vegetarianism is economic, a more compelling force is ethical and even religious. Jains avoid meat totally while many Buddhists in India are vegetarians.

Brahmins, Saivite non-Brahmins of South India and several Vaishnavite sects across the country avoid meat. Interestingly though Brahmins of East India, Kashmir and the Saraswats of the Southwest are allowed fish and some meat.

Even among meat-eaters, beef was and is taboo. This practice seems to be at least 2000 years old (Achaya quotes DD Kosambi, who quotes the Vedic sage Yagnavalkya as preferring it. Vasishta, Gautama, Apasthamba and Baudhayana, in their Sutras (ca. 300 BC) prohibit killing cows and oxen and eating beef. It had become prevalent by 1100 AD across India, since Al-Biruni wrote that while beef eating was prevalent earlier, it was not allowed later.

He gives economic, ethical and respect for its use as reasons. Emperor Humayun (16th century) is quoted as saying "beef is not a food fit for the devout" and avoided it. Akbar too was similarly respectful. And while Tamils of the Sangam period relished beef (Perumpanooru describes it), it became taboo or discouraged after the advent of people from elsewhere. As a result, much of India and certainly many Hindu communities avoid beef eating.

Debate meaningless

To my mind, debate about this issue today is meaningless and only inflammatory. We respect people and adore gods not for what they eat but what they stand for and teach us. To think and act otherwise is immature and infantile.

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