Sunday, November 15, 2009

The story of our food

I've always wondered what Indian cuisine was like before the 16th century. A slew of now indispensable grains, nuts, vegetables, fruits, intoxicants -- corn, groundnuts, cashews, guavas, cheekus (sapotas), papaya, pineapple, potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco -- from Mexico, Central and South America reached the Indian subcontinent via the Europeans in the late 1500s, but these delights had been missing until then. And in the list above, I've deliberately not mentioned that one ingredient absolutely essential to many Indian dishes now. Instead, let me quote KT Acharya, author of the short but informative book, The Story of Our Food:
We had a glimpse in the last chapter that chillis are not really Indian. These wonderful materials were brought to India from Mexico, perhaps in the late 16th century. They took a little while to catch on, but in about a hundred years, the use of chillis spread to every part of India. Before that it was [black] pepper that as used to give the pungency that is so characteristic of Indian food. In one of the sections of Ain-i-Akbari, written in 1590, there is a list of 50 dishes cooked in Akbar's court: all of them use only [black] pepper to impart spiciness. In most Indian languages, the name for chilli is simply a variation of the earlier name for [black] pepper in the same language. For example, in Hindi we say kalimirch for black pepper and harimirch for chili. In Tamil, the word for pepper is milagu and that for chili is milagai (=milagu-kai (pepper+fruit)). In Kannada, the words are karimenasu and menasinkayi. Try this exercise in your own language.

It is not difficult to understand why the chilli quickly replaced black pepper in our cooking. While the black pepper vine grows almost only in Kerala, chillis can be grown in almost every backyard, or cultivated in the fields, all over the country. Thus, they were easily available everywhere at a low price. All the many varieties that we know come to us from Mexico and none of them was developed afterwards in India. These include the green chili, red chili, long red chilli, very small and very hot green bird chilli, and the large mild capsicum. To make chilli-powder, the long bright-red variety with think skins can be dried in the sun, and ground either with its seeds to give more pungency, or without it to give a milder chilli-powder. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say the humble chilli from Mexico really revolutionized the food of India.
Indeed, we are thankful to Mexico for that. The story of food reveals a complex history of interconnections; it is really a history of globalization -- a globalization much older than the modern, accelerated version that is much talked about. What seems native now was once foreign. Think of it: Italian food before the 16th century was without tomatoes! No one in Africa, Europe, and Asia had tasted potatoes -- a staple now, worldwide-- before the Spanish conquest connected us with the Andes where it was originally cultivated, thousands of years ago, by the Indians there.

To, finish, here's another excerpt from the same book -- hat tip, Nitin Pai. All parts in italics are Acharya's quotes from original sources.

Many animal foods are described with great relish in the early Tamil literature.

Even Brahmins did not lack relish for the meat and toddy served to them at feasts held by the chieftains and princes of the land.

The meat dishes cooked with (black) pepper were called kari in Tamil, a word now used in English as curry. Fried spiced meat was called tallita-kari, fried meat was pori-kari, and meat with a source sauce made of tamarind was termed pulingari

Beef was freely eaten: there are four names for this meat in the early Tamil language, showing that it was a common and well-liked food. In the north, as we have seen, the domestic fowl was not eaten, but there was no such taboo in the south. Other delicacies were the cooked aral fish served piping hot, and the meat of the tortoise, rabbit and hare. Wild boar was hunted using nets; it was then kept in a pit and fattened by feeding it with rice flour to yield pork of exceptional taste.

Here is a description from the Tamil literature of a feast given about 150 AD by a Chola ruler:

Goblets of gold with intoxicating liquor, soft-boiled legs of sheep fed on sweet grass, and hot meat, in large chops, cooked on the points of spits … fine cooked rice which, erect like fingers and with unbroken edges, resemble the buds of the mullai (jasmine) flower, together with curries sweetened with milk.

It is interesting to note the reference to wine and to roast kababs, and the beautiful comparison of shining white rice grains to jasmine buds. Tamil literature also describes the brisk trade with both the east and the west from the ports of south India; one commodity brought in was Italian wine for use by the royalty.


Krishnan said...

Relished the piece Hari. Tamil cuisine has indeed come a long way what with pizzas and pav bhajis trying to compete with idlis and vadas.

Hari said...

True, Krishnan. In fact, one can become an anthropologist of sorts in the attempt to identify what came from where. I've read that the inspiration or idea for idlis came from Indonesia. If that's true, will the pizza of today lead to an enduring Tamil dish in a few hundred years?

Anonymous said...

I am an Indonesian. Idlis might have come from Indonesia. The technique of fermentation came to Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries thanks to Chinese traders who introduced tofu (fermented soy batter), ketchup (originally fermented fish sauce), and fermented soy cake 2000 years ago. Interestingly in case of soy bean fermentation, Javanese people in Indonesia developed their own leavening agent, the Rhizopus mold, to suit with the tropical climate which later functions as the basis of making tempeh, Indonesian soy cake. The word ketchup is from Malay word kecap (same pronunciation) borrowed when the British occupied Malaysia in the 17th century and the change of ingredient into tomato followed later in the modern USA. The idea that modern idli is based on Indonesian recipe makes sense. Although in Indonesia we have lost kedli, something we don’t even know its existence, Indonesians do have a traditional fermented rice cake called kue mangkok (bowl cake). It is named so because it is steamed actually in various shapes of small cups, not bowls, involves rice batter, fermentation, and steaming. So, Indonesian cuisine has been familiar with fermentation for centuries in food such as tofu, kecap, tempeh, and kue mangkok. What do you think?