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Indian Food Ethos- Indian Food: A historical companion

Aryan Food Beliefs

The idea of food was not just a bodily substance to be eaten but was a part of a cosmic moral cycle.

“From all food do all creatures come to being” -Bhagvad Gita

The Aryan cosmic cycle, the food that is eaten and the universe must all be in harmony. Foods being eaten gave three products:

  1. Faeces which gets excreted

  2. Product of intermediate density is transmuted into flesh

  3. Manas: thought or mind

Prasad, is the purest rasa that leaves no residue in a mans spirituality. Food was classified into: Cereals, Pulses, Vegetables, Fruit, Spices, Milk, Animal meat, Alchohol.

Ritual food included rice, wheat, barley and lentils where made with the help of a plough and were called Anna. Food materials that grew without cultivation, wild grains, vegetables, fruit were all called Phala. Phala was meant for people who had taken sannyas and were auspicious, this is why we eat food like Singhada (water chestnut)- during fasts because they qualify under Phala. Some lentils like masur, are Anna and not channa which is phala. Milk and ghee are pure and therefore are flexible. Frying in Ghee is more auspicious than frying in oil and this causes two types of cooked foods, kaccha and pucca.

Sects in UP, called Kanyakubjas and Kaunnauj in UP have studies this carefully. Kaccha means imperfectly cooked and Pucca means the opposite. Although both are cooked fully in the modern sense.

Kaccha foods are water, rice, khichdi and daal. The items are pure. Boiling with water tends to take away Anna and when this is done within the cooking area and a ritual cooking pot. Once the cooking of the kaccha food starts, the cook is not allowed to leave the area till the food is complete, served and eaten. If he leaves, he will have to take another bath and fresh clothes.  Marriage food is kaccha food is for marriage food, like chana dal, pulo and dahi vada. Roti and Chapati was not popular in the Vedic period, it is not kaccha since it does not involve boiling.  Kacha food has to be cooked everyday and stale food, and jutha food became polluted.

Pucca foods were cooked with ghee. They had to be touched with ghee first, for preparing halwa one had to affect ghee first to the pan before Anna and phala. To make Kheer, the rice had to be in contact with ghee before milk, heat and sugar. There had to be a sequence, however Pucca food has less restrictions and less population because it was also meant for people outside of the family to people of lower or higher levels of ‘purity’.

Cooking and pollution in eating practices were very common. KT states that it was unthinkable for a wife to cook food and taste it during preparation, this is a tradition I see in my household even today. Even when you since your mouth, the water must be cast out and never swallowed. Water was purification, this included sprinkling water on leaves before eating, over a corpse, and baths should be taken with flowing water and never in a tub. Brahmins could give food to the lower caste but no the other way around.Food vessels used by carpenters, blacksmiths were used by others after cleaning, one could not clean the food vessels of low castes like Chandalas and Miritapas. These communities were supposed to live outside of the village in fear they did not pollute others.

The cooking area was considered an area of high purity and it was set opposite the worship room. The objective of cooking was not just about eating but to add cultural properties of food with those of the eater. Food had six tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, pungent, and astringent. Texture had to be of five times, chewed, non chewed, licked, sucked and drunk. Food was not supposed to be a eaten while standing, lying or moving or from the lap. One was supposed to sit alone facing the east on the ground in silence and eat. Portion of food was left for Brahmins, serpents, dogs, insects and cows who were believed to be messengers to the world of the spirits. One had to feed guests, such as pregnant women, children and aged people before they could sit down themselves to eat.

Buddhist Food Beliefs:

Monks were advised to eat solid food only between sunrise and noon. Any food should be accepted without craving. The desire not to distress the giver of food led Buddha to turn down suggestions that meat and fish were prohibited for Buddhists. However, you could only eat flesh in three ways, the killing should not have been either seen or heard  or suspected by the monk.

Jain Food Beliefs:

Buddhism and Jainism found its followers through their practice of deeds and rituals. A jain monk had to sweep the ground on which he sleeps and moved to. No one could eat after dark, around the year or at last in the four rainy months when insects were abundant. One cannot eat pickles which are more than three days old. Pulses which divide themselves into two (chickpea). carrots, brink’s, ginger are not allowed before they form a seed. Honey was banned because it meant the death of bees. All water as to be boiled and re-boiled every six hours for drinking after straining it.

Sikh Food Beliefs:

When a child is born the guru administers a few drop os water and sugar on its lips, which 16 conditions which are abstinence from tobacco and intoxicants.

Jewish food laws:

Four types of jew groups made it to India. The Bene- Israel who came to India following persecution by the Greek Antiochus Epiphanes. The arrived here after a shipwreck and only seven couples lived, they adapted to local customs and are still present in Bombay.

Cochin Jews arrived in Kerala in the 1st century after the second temple of Palestine was destroyed by the Romans. (I have notes written on this here.) They prospered for 10 centuries till the arrival of muslims and Portuguese. They later fled to Cochin.

Baghdad Jews, came much lated and do business in Bombay, Pune and Calcutta.

European Jews who arrived after the Nazi persecution.

Their few food consists of laws set out by the Old Testament, therefore no pork and halal meat. Fish without scales are no permitted.

Christian Food:

Christianity first came into India through Kerala first through Apostle St. Thomas a few years after the death of Jesus. He met his death in Madras after 16 years living in India after being stabbed in the back. Their scriptures are in Syriac and are therefore called the Syrian Christians of India.They had their own trade and even their own king called Velyarvattam. The second wave Christianity came though the Portuguese colonialism in Kerala than in Goa. Fish was only for Fridays and the ritual of wine and bread was norm in church. In Pondicherry, after the four century French influence they made three types of bread, crisp pain sec, stick like baguette, soft, crescent shaped crossing. Pate was made with steaming spiced paste of pork liver, jambon was pork cooked in beer and then smoked.

Parsi Food:

Islam was established in Iran after the fall of Sassanian Empire, the Zoroastrian sacred fire temples were destroyed and religious persecution drove its people to different places such as the island of Diu then Gujrat. The kingdom of Jadi Rana, welcomed them and built the first fire temple. persecution from the invader Sulta Mahmud Bagda once again drove the Parsis away they however became a mercantile community with strong religious and social ethic. After living in India they adopted not eating beef. Their cuisine is a blend of Iranian ancestry and Gujrathi cuisine.

Food and Islam:

The arab impact started with trade even before the coming of islam. About AD 1292, Father Menteillius said that there were 12,000 Muslims in Calicut alone who are for the greater part natives of this country. Swine flesh was prohibited and seafood was allowed. Except for fish, every animal had to be slaughtered by cutting the jugular view, or by piercing the hollow of the throat using a sharp knife while uttering Allah. Alcohol was not allowed and is refereed to as Khamar (which means to cover up) as it clouds the brain. No food should be wasted and it is important to share food. Some regional influences have affected the food. There is no meat when someone dies instead bread is accompanied to the grave.

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