• sanskritibist

Foods of the Gods: Indian Food- A historical companion

The title of this chapter reminded me of the paper: A report on the present state of health of the gods and goddesses in South Asia- by Ashish Nandy. I thought it was funny because of the correlation and how history has an impact on food now in terms of our gods and goddess and almost of how similar it was even back then. Anyway.

After the Harappans the next civilisation that followed were the Aryans, apparently the Aryans had travelled possibly as far as from Ireland because of climate change (Eire is a cognate form of Arya). Their entry was from Allahabad. Three groups came, the aryans, dhaityas and then the Dravidians and the merger of these groups determined the Hindu and Vedic culture. Vedic culture was different from Harrapans. They were an urban civilisation where as the Vedic period was agricultural, philosophical. Most of the information gathered is form the rig-veda and well documented books unlike its predecessor.

Vedic Agriculture: 

The Aryans set the agricultural practices that are still prevalent in India. Two oxens are used to plough the farm and castrated bulls are used with their ears marked indicating ownership. Though in the 800 BCE iron ploughs were used they were never popular in India because we used wooden ploughs made of Khadira wood that suited our soil. It actually later become a ritual significance, when Mahindra son of Ashoka made his first Buddhist Monastery in Sri Lanka he outlined the plot with a golden plough.

Water was raised directly from rivers or by irrigating them into man-made channels across the field. Buffalo bones were used to scare away birds like parrots and cow dung was used as a fertiliser. Use of ashes of cow dung, sesame seed, honey and ghee was used to ward of pests. Rice was raised in the rainy season and harvested in winter, daals, beans and peas were harvested in spring, hemp, wheat were sown in winter and repeated in the summer. Banks of rivers which were beaten by foam were considered good for growing pumpkin and gourds, and lands that were flooded were good for grapes, sugarcane and long pepper. Fruits were ripened on the tree or artificially: by burying them in the sad or by using the heat of a fire of dung cakes or mixing them with ripe fruit. Spices that were cultivated were numeric, methi, ginger and garlic which pepper, cardamom came form south India and hing came from Afghanistan.

Cereals and Pulses:

Barley was the major grain eaten by the Aryans. Dishes were made from it that were similar to malpua and was called apupa. Rice came later but dominated the Aryan food system was cooked with water, milk or sesame seed and milk.

Boiled rice was eaten with dahi, ghee, sesame seeds, mung, uraad or meat. Lajah, parched rice was a pure form of rice that brides threw into the fire and was also a regular food item soaked in milk or mild with some seasoning. Chipita (flat rice, chivda) was prepared by moistening the rice and then beating the grains. A dish of a lot of cereals cooked together was called chitranna.

Wheat arrived much later after the rigveda (1700-1500 BC). The word for wheat was the same as godhuma as it is in Persian and was food for the outcasts (perhaps the vanquished harappans who used to eat a lot of wheat).

From the Yahurveda(1500BC- 800 BC), urad, mung, masoor are evident. Rice becomes more popular and there are sweetened dishes that are also made. New pulses like mattar, peas, arhar, channa, Kabuli channa (state to have come from Alexandria) are also prevalent. Pulses are eat as soups (supa), vadas and papas. After 350 BC, rajma also appears. ( ❤ )

Milk Products: 

Milk was usually cow, but buffalo and goat was also used. The cow was already considered to be a blessing. It is referred in the Rigveda 700 times. Curds (dadhi, now dahi) was eaten with rice, barley or soma juice. Curds folded into rest milk consisted a popular drink called Amishka. Curd after dilution and turning was prasadjya. Paneer and ripened cheese was also prevalent. Ghee was called ghrta and was used for frying and mixing with soma juice. In 800 BC, payasa, shrikhand, buttermilk (dish called saga) were made. Brahmins were forbidden milk of sheep, mare, ass, camel, deer and women.

Fruits and Vegetables: 

In 1000 BC, and as mentioned in the rigveda: Dates, mango, alma, lotus stem, cucumber, lotus roots, bottle gourd, singhda, bitter gourd, ashvabala (type of methi), maragu, jaamoon, Indian fig were all found. Radish and ginger were eaten after a heavy meal. Onions, garlic and leeks were avoided. Uncooked vegetables are called Shaka were cooked to give bhaji. New fruits in the 400BC were: coconut, banana, jackfruit, palm grapes, karaunda, yams, spinach were found.

Oilseeds and Oils:

From the Atharveda (1500-800BCE) onwards, sesame seed oil is called thaila which has become the generic word for all vegetable oils. Sesame seed is one of the nine sacred grains (navadhyanya). Mustard seeds was used to ward of evil spirits during illness. Their first use as an oil is seen in Sutra literature after 800 BCE. Frying is seen in rigveda as frying apupa with ghee. The aryans only used ghee for frying. Animal fats that were used were fish, pig, alligator, bear and ass.

Salt, Spices and condiments:

In the early Vedic time, salt as a rarity and it is not even mentioned in the Rigveda. In the sutras, it is used in food and is not allowed for students, widows and newly-married couples for the first the three days. Salt was obtained from rivers, lakes, seas, swans and mines. It was also expensive. The earliest spices were mustard, sour citrus, turmeric and long pepper and later hing and pepper. However, this spices are so less which is probably because the Aryans looked down on spices. It is very much later that during the Buddhist era which ginger, cumin. gloves and vinegar is being used. Even in the Manusrmiti, there are mentions of coriander, cardamoms, cinnamon, nutmeg and aloes. Vinegar was made with sugar cane, jaggery, honey jackfruit and jamoon. Fruits like mango, alma and cucumber were preserved in vinegar. During Rama’s time pork was cooked in fruit juices.

Sweeter Foods:

Hones was the earliest form of sweet and is mentioned in the Rigveda, and is believed that the honey from smaller bees was better than the bigger bees and it was also forbidden to students and women. During the Buddhist Period, jittery and sugar take over as sweetening agents. Lots of sweets were made then including morendaka (made from khoa) and were shaped like the eggs of a peacock, ghevra, payasam.


This is by far the most mysterious drink. Nobody really knows what it was but it has been mentioned in the Rigveda constantly. It was called Hoama in Iran and soma in india and was offered to gods. Someone who had this was exhilarated beyond his natural powers and was so powerful that it could heal all diseases.

  1. Scarostemma Acidium: a leafless shrub called somalata

  2. Asclepias acid: American milkweed which contains poisonous glucoside a leaf juice used against worms and bleeding

  3. Ephedra: carrying an adrenalin-like alkaloid which are employed for allergic conditions.

  4. Cannabis

  5.  Agaric Mushrooms: off a red colour and white spots which has hallucinogenic effects described as the one in vedas.

Water and other beverages:

Potable water was drawn form rivers, wells, springs and rain and filtered. Jains boiled water every few hours and strained it through a cloth before drinking. Lotues were put in water tanks to purify the water.

Juices were also popular: banana, mango, coconut, jamoon, grapes were mixed with honey.

#FoodStudies #IndianFood #ktachaya

0 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Notes/opinions/learnings from: Catching Fire: How cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham. (Part 5/5) Finally got to end of this book-  by far one of the most informed I’ve felt about my craft and I