Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Archaeology of Food: An Ancient Indian Meal

- By Aishwarya Pramod

Recently I attended a very interesting workshop on food in ancient India, hosted by Rushina Munshaw Ghildayal (culinary expert) and Dr. Kurush Dalal (Asst. professor of Archaeology, MU). The combination of food and history was fun. I learnt about India's food heritage, met many like-minded people, and got a delicious meal in the end.

The workshop began with a talk by Dr. Kurush Dalal.
Dr. Kurush Dalal
Grave from Mehrgarh. The bumps
around her legs are the remains of
five goats buried with her.
He spoke of the changing relationship between human society and food, from the Stone Age to the industrial age. He told us about the fascinating tools and techniques archaeologists use to find out what long-dead people ate.

For example in Mehrgarh (an Indus Valley site), ancient people are buried alongside goats - so we know they were probably shepherds consuming milk and milk products. Lots of traces of barley (and some wheat) show that they had domesticated these grains and were farming them.
Both the Harappans and Vedic tribes ate cereals, pulses, fruits, vegetables and meat. Spices like coriander, turmeric, pepper and cumin were used. Sounds like our modern Indian food? Not so fast :)

Ancient Indians did NOT have access to so many things: no cabbage, cauliflower, potato, tomato, chillies, groundnuts, corn, rajma, cashew, chikoo. No tobacco, tea or coffee. Today we can hardly cook without tomatoes or chillies, and we certainly can't give up tea and coffee.

The predominant grains we eat today are also different. For example, lots of barley and amaranth were eaten in ancient times, unlike today. Millets (which were a major staple as recently as 50 years ago) are losing ground to to wheat and rice. Plus, hybrid and uniform crop-types are taking the place of localized, diverse varieties of each grain.

Lastly, oil, salt, sugar and spices are widely available in modern times but were rare commodities for our ancestors. This made a huge difference to their cooking methods and recpies. I also learned that in ancient India, a spice called long pepper was widely used - now we mostly use chillies and black pepper.
Long pepper has a stronger, earthier taste than black
 pepper. Rushina used roasted, powdered long pepper (top).
The talk was followed by a cooking demonstration and buffet, by Rushina Ghildayal. Rushina conceptualized and cooked the whole meal, using only those ingredients and methods that were available to ancient Indians.
Rushina stir-frying ambadi (gongura/roselle) and later on,
 chaulai (moth/amaranth greens)
Some close-ups of the food:
Panchamrit (with grape juice - hence the colour).
 It had lime, fruit juice, honey, water and rock salt - yum.
A sharp, refreshing drumstick broth with garlic,
ginger and curry leaf
Snacks: dried and fried karela (bittergourd),
gawar (guar bean) and makhna (foxnut)
A slow cooked jowar and bajra porridge
 with lamb, fish curry, and rice (unpolished)
Brinjal stuffed with minced lamb
Here's the full thaali (photo credit to Rushina's APB Cook Studio)
All in all, I came away very enlightened and very full!

APB Cook Studio does lots of food events (and cooking classes) throughout the year. Rushina celebrates regional cuisines, revives almost-forgotten recipes, and also teaches cooking.

If you want to know more about ancient Indian food, here are some links/books:

  • Indian Food: A Historical Companion. by K. T. Achaya
  • The Food Industries of British India. by K. T. Achaya
  • If you can't get the books, Achaya's work is summarized here and here
  • The Eternal Food: Gastronomic Ideas and Experiences of Hindus and Buddhists. by R. S. Khare
  • Food From the Mouth of Krishna: Feasts and Festivities in a North Indian Pilgrimage Centre


Haddock said...

That must have been really interesting, especially the history of cooking.
Interesting to know how things evolved with the availability of commodities.
Must attend one of these sessions.

GMoney said...

just made a mess of lamb curry last night from scratch. it is very tasty.

NJ said...

Dear Janaki, thank you for this blog, it was very interesting. Do you have any contact details for Ms. Ghildayal, or any news of an upcoming event? Thank you!