Fantastic Food Facts


Being a foodie myself, I not only eat food, but also love to talk, hear, read about & write about food. Here come some very catchy & interesting stories on Indian food….. Almonds were so expensive that they were used as currency, In annaprasana Hindu Kids used to be given meats, the horse of the aswamedha yagna used to be sacrificed & eaten, Bramhins ate meat, Hindus ate pork till few centuries back, potatoes, tomatoes & rajmah were never grown in India, these were not part of Indian cuisine, Sugar has a chinese origin……..and so on

Two unrelated stories to begin with …… Almonds (Badam) is a Central Asian / West Asian origin nut which was fairly available in India over centuries but was always expensive. In 1583, a French visitor noted that on account of its high cost & non perish-ability, in certain areas of Cooch Bihar it was used as currency!!!!

…and the second – Annaprasana is usually the first occasion in which a six month old child is given solid food. Usually it is rice in some form. In the vedic times (approx. BC 1700 to 800) some flesh was also included in this food – It was believed that the kind of meat given would influence the child’s nature e.g. Lamb meat would confer physical strength, partridge meat saintliness, fish a gentle disposition etc!!!!

We have all heard about the Ashwamedha yagya ….. The Royal horse used to be sent out to other kingdoms & there would be a huge Yagya after the horse would return unchallenged. The horse would then be sacrificed in the name of God. Rigveda (BC 1700 to 1500) describes the horse sacrifice – The horse was first to be roasted full & then the meat had to be carved according to rigid specifications. Each portion had a specific recipient. e.g. Right thigh was for the Brahmin who chanted the mantras, the tongue & two jawbones for another kind of priest, a specific part for the king etc!!!!

Yes, u read it right. The Brahmins ate meat & of all kinds in those days….including beef. The Asvalayana sutras (as late as approx BC 800) prescribe sacrifice of a cow for consumption. However, it was frequently mentioned in these texts to choose barren cows or bulls, keeping in mind the economic benefits of the cow, namely, milk and calves. In the Ramayana (approx BC 1400), there is a description of a feast given by King Dasharatha where buffalo calves were roasted on pits with ghee dripping on them. The reservations that started with milch cows slowly started spreading to all kinds of bovines over the years.

In BC 600, the two very influential religious leaders Gautam Buddha (proponent of Buddhism) & Mahavira (24th & last Tirthankara of the Jains) opposed animal sacrifice.
This was a major turning point in history of Indian food. A large section of hindus also started questioning the killing of animals for food on ethical grounds. After Emperor Ashoka (Ruled BC 260s to 230 BC) converted to Buddhism, he banned animal sacrifices. Same was done in many kingdoms in India from time to time & also in Ceylon after Ashoka’s daughter converted the Emperor of Ceylon to Buddhism. So a combination of social awareness & legislation slowed down sacrifices & hence eating of meat. Brahmins moved out first, to be followed by others. Beef was among the first to be denounced in this context. Sushrutha, the famous doctor prescribed beef as pure food as late as AD 400. However, the trend of vegetarianism that had started before was too strong to be reversed & when the Chinese traveler Xuan Xhang came to India in AD 630m, he noted that Cow & related animals were not eaten & those who ate them were thrown out of city walls!!!

Another interesting fact about meat – pork (pig meat). Mahabharata (approx BC 400) mentions King Yudhisthira fed 10000 brahmins with pork!!! In most of the later texts however pork appears as a non prescribed meat. Fa Hien (came to India in AD 399) & Xuan Xhang noted that pigs were not reared & were had only by the people down the social hierarchy. In the mid AD 1500s onwards, Pork was a favorite meat among the Rajputs.

Moving from the meaty stuff to something more common & day to day – potatoes & tomatoes & the unputdownable Punjabi Rajmah of the ‘Rajmah Chawal fame’… These are omnipresent in our dishes today…… in fact it is almost impossible to find a tomato-less Punjabi menu in a restaurant these days.

Potatoes first came into Europe from South America in AD 1500s. In 1780, Warren Hastings, the first Governor General of India, was gifted a basket of potatoes (those days baskets would be huge) by a sailor & he considered it so ‘cool’ that he invited members of his council to dine with him & share the unusual gift!!!! In late 1800s potato cultivation started on a commercial scale.

Tomatoes, once again, South American in origin, started to be cultivated in India in late 1800s. In 1880, a Britisher named Watt wrote that ‘it is cultivated only for the European population in India. Only the Bengalis & Burmans (Assamese) have started to experiment with them in their food & they principally use tomatoes to sour their curries’. Imagine life without tomatoes and sauces!!!!

The Rajmah that we buy these days is something that has been around in South America for 7000 years. It came into India in the end of 1800s & became ever so popular. The chawal (rice) that it is eaten with, has been growing in this region for almost 10 million years – needless to say, in an evolutionary stage. In those times Africa & India was one land mass called Gondwanaland.
Ok, if imagining life without tomatoes, potatoes & rajmah was difficult, how about life without onions & salt!!! Uh – huh, that was not a typo…. I mean it.

Ok, for a change, onions are not of South American origin. They originated in and around Afghanistan & its mention in found as early as BC 2800. However, neither the four Vedas nor the sixteen Upanishads mention this. It kept appearing as a ‘despised food’ in later writings & was mentioned as food of mlecchas (lowest castes) & yavanas (foreigners). Onions were believed to stimulate baser instincts & hence were specially forbidden for students, widows, those under a vow etc. The Chinese travelers Fa Hien & Xuan Xhang mentioned that no one ate onions & few who tried eating them were thrown outside the walls of the city (wow …… out of the city walls must have been a food lover’s den ). With the coming in of the Islamic rulers in late 1100s, consumption of onion seems to have picked up even among the Hindu population.

Salt has been around for around 5000 years in this part of the world. However, there are phases where salt was in question & there were people who were abstained from salt according to sutra literature!!!! Once again in the exclusion list appear the hapless students, widows and surprisingly, newly married couples (first three days after marriage)!!!! Salt was also very expensive till about AD 400 & hence the poor people most likely did not always enjoy the privilege of buying salt!!

In many parts of India, every good meal ends with a sweet. To start with, lets pick up the word Chini – It actually means Chinese origin – MADE IN CHINA . Long back, white grained sugar was imported into India from China & hence the name. Same holds good for Dal chini (cinnamon) which is essentially a bark of a tree. The ‘dal’ here means a branch of a tree & Chini is because it was imported from China.

Bengali sweets – It is common knowledge that in general bongs have a bit sweet tooth & sweet dishes are often bought than made at home. That is due to a wide variety of excellent sweets that are readily & easily available with the ubiquitous sweet vendors (Even the smallest colony in Bengal would have at least one sweet shop & a medicine shop). While Bengal always had a sweet tooth, the sweets earlier were usually made of any combination of thickened milk, jaggery, white sugar & coconut. Around mid 1600s almost 20000 Portuguese had settled in Bengal. They were skilled in the art of preparing sweet fruit preservatives & were fond of cottage cheese. The Bengali sweet makers fired their imaginations & came up with an array of innovative products based out of cottage cheese (paneer or chhena). Mid 1800s the rosogolla was invented* by Nobin Chandra Das for mass commercial production & his grandson KC das created Rasmalai fifty years later. He also launched a commercial company by the name of KC Das and Co. which is still a very famous chain of sweet shops till today.

*In Jagannath temple Puri, Odisha roshogollas were around for few more centuries.

This was just the tip of the ice berg….err foodberg. Ok, let me make a confession here…..I did not burn midnight lamp in researching these out. Mr. KT Achaya did. He was a renowned nutritionist & an authority on Indian food. He is widely read in professional culinary circles & according to a prominent food writer, ‘most people shamelessly copy from his works without acknowledging him’. This article was an attempt to do a book review in an unconventional way………… actually its not even a review….Its beyond review. It is my humble attempt to let a lot more people know about & enjoy reading this awesome book.

Ever since I read ‘Larousse Gastronomique’– considered to be a ‘Bible’ of Continental food (original 1938 version was mainly on French Cuisine), I used to wonder why we do not have such a well documented book on Indian food. I was thoroughly & pleasantly surprised to find this book. The title of the book is ‘A historical dictionary of Indian food’, published by Oxford University press. I do not remember seeing it on bookstores (I am sure it is available) – I had ordered it on Flipkart though. Enjoy reading & eating ……………… bon appetit

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4 comments

  1. An informative and enjoyable article on food. I chanced upon your website through a review and think its a good site. I am going to visit it more often. There were some surprising facts on our daily used food stuff which made the reading more interesting. Full marks to you on acknowledging the source of the information. Your reviews come across as an honest attempt and that is the best thing about them. Thanks again for sharing.

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