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Ancestral Legacies: Indian Food- A historical companion

I realise I’ve been reading a lot of research papers and history based books on food that I keep forgetting things as I go along. Not that I have a good memory in the first place. So I thought, I’d use this blog to write down notes on my re-reading of this fantastic book- that is an essential to all food history lovers by KT Achaya.

Chapter 1, Ancestral legacies starts with KT going on a very basic overview of how Earth began its formation with Pangea and its fragmentation. The becoming of man as a hunter and gatherer and the development of agriculture after 10,000 BCE. Sites that have been discovered rich in tools of the early man from half a million ago are barely seen in India, except for the state of Gujarat, which is probably because it used to be a land bridge with Africa since the sea levels back then were low. In the Middle Stone Age, 50,000 years ago tools that were used by the early man-kind were oval shaped stones that acted like knives, axes and spears. All these sharp tools found in India connote that the diet was mostly meat. Then came the microliths, which were sharp stone flakes found mostly in the western coastal area of India- these were important because they could be attached to wooden handles and therefore yield vegetables. The origin of fire is still unknown, though the pecking caves in China suggest that 500,000 years ago fire was used for roasting and cooking directly on top of the flame. Around 5000 BCE, neolithic tools started to emerge- from hunting and gather it shifted to nomadic settled life. Stones like, Dolertite, basalt, sandstone, etc were used. Many fish-hooks were also found in this time, fish came later to man-kind since it involved more use of technology.

In India, the first paintings that were found in the palaeolithic era were in the caves at Bhimbetka in MP. By the neolithic age at around 3000 BCE, figueres of deers, fish, bison, peacock, tiger, gaur, rhinoceros, giraffes and ostrich were found. Ostroriches no longer exist in India but they have found eggs that date back to 40,000 years, and were therefore very common and probably eaten. But around 3000 BCE, during the metal age, hunting became rare. The drawings now showed men riding horses, carts with oxen and cows, dogs etc.

Language originated around 25,00 years ago. This primeval language is called nostratic which means our in latin. As the group moves outward, languages called Indo-European came to be spoken in the Middle East and the Caspian Sea which gave rise to Sanskrit in 1500 BCE and to Greek 100 years later. Language is important in terms of food as it gives clues to food movement and adoptions. There are three types of languages that were found in India:

  1. Sanskrit

  2. Tamil

  3. A group of languages spoken by Mundas, mostly in Bihar, Orissa, West Bengal etc.

However, a lot of words in Sanskrit can be traced to Munda inheritance. Jom is to eat, and is thought to gave arised from chom-la and therefore chawal (rice). Coconut, Narikela in Sanskrit seems to have originated from south-east Asia. Madhu is honey in Tamil and later turned to sweetness in Sanskrit, Puli for the tamarind in Sanskrit later turned to sourness in Tamil. Arabic and Persian have words like pulao,pilav, yet Sanskrit and Tamil have been calling it pulao long before the muslims got here. Sanskrit also absorbed foods from Chinese origin giving them the prefix chini. Peach was chinani and lettuce became chinisalit. Sometimes like places in Bengal, the prefix was meant for things that were from foreign origin. Camphor is therefore is chinakarpura, vermillion chinapista and groundnut, chinibadam. The word chini is also used for white sugar. The commodity may have been imported from china but the Chinese emperor had to learn it in AD 627 by processing the sugarcane which had been growing in India long before.

Indian words in foreign tongues were also fairly common. The greek word for orzya (rice) can be traced back to the Tamil word arisi (which stems back to the Sanskrit). In English words like Paper, sugar, camphor, mango and orange all originate from Sanskrit. There were prepared foods that were also adopted by English such as curry (Kari-tamil), chutney, kedgeree (adaption of khichri), hopper (from appam) and the soup mulligatawny (which literally paper water in Tamil). Drinks like toddy and punch (meaning five in Hindi) were also adapted. South India shares 300 words that are common with Africa perhaps because of commercial trade between the two areas.

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