On a food trail


Food has a way of travelling, with conquering armies, merchants and traders or with just adventurers. However it may travel, it arrives in a new place, mingles with the local flavours and ingredients and gives rise to newer, more innovative cuisines. That has been the way of the world till now, and so will it be in the future. Akul Tripathi takes us on a food trail from the days of the caveman to today, tracing how the potato filling in our samosa is possible today because the Europeans discovered the new world!.

Have you ever lived abroad? Or, if you have grown up in one place, lived your adult life in a separate city that is geographically different? Stayed away for studies? Or even travelled for over a week to a new place? You know then the first thing that we miss, more than home even, is food. Especially mum’s home-cooked food. But that is a different story altogether.

Cuisine is often considered a part of culture and though the two are hand-in-glove, I am not sure if it is just a sub-part of culture. Cuisine is an entire category in itself. Something that complements culture just as economics and money. Whether or not there is economics, money would still be needed. Such I believe it is with cuisine.

Tracing the food culture
I am sure that even in India, before there was even the thought of something that would begin at being called culture, there was a caveman cooking his favourite pot of rabbit stew with the grass from the hills yonder for added flavour. Only that grass from that one particular patch would do. Nothing else would taste the same. His neighbours from the adjoining cave complex would rather grill the rabbit than boil it into a stew, while the forest dwellers of the neighbouring tree-houses would steam it and flavour it with fruits, flowers and that one specific root.

The British got quite a taste of this (excuse the pun and the ones to come) when they went about colonising India. As per a popular legend – one without any quotable references, just as legends should be – a famous cook named William Harold was sent to India at a time unspecified, to help the invading armies by preparing delicious meals, because as we all know, armies have always marched on their stomachs. Being exceptional at his craft, he soon landed in the employ of a high ranking British official.
The British official had recently fallen in love with a local fare called bhel puri and wanted the cook to prepare the dish for him. Good ole William went about the neighbourhood knocking on doors to get a recipe for a dish that was never written down previously. At every house, he got a different recipe. Either a new ingredient, or herb or oil were added or substituted to the potatoes and puffed rice – the only two constant, stable ingredients, it seemed.

After a long, hard day, William returned to the barracks, without any set recipe and quite probably in awe of the plethora of variations he found. Something quite unheard of from where he came. When the officer asked for the bhel in the evening, William explained he couldn’t find any fixed recipe and said, “We’ll have to stick to French fries again tonight, sir.” Some take the legend as far to include that the officer, in a fit of rage, shot William dead which led to a mutiny by the forces as William actually was a very good cook and a night long court martial had the officer sent back to England.

Such is the power of food. But before I digress again, the point here is the motley pot-pourri of recipes and ingredients that is the flavour of this country; the endless diversity that is as or more discernible in what people eat than anything else but is perhaps the most underrated. Like every other aspect of life on the subcontinent, every successive influx of people brought with it their own peculiarities, but in what is unique to this patch of land amongst all the rocks of the solar system, instead of wiping away what was and establishing a new stronghold, everybody continued to co-exist.

An American import, can one imagine our samosa without the potato?

An American import, can one imagine our samosa without the potato?

While it is difficult to ascertain things from so long ago, there are various vehement beliefs. The people of the Indus Valley civilisation are believed to have cultivated peas, sesame, dates and rice. However, one could infer that native Indian vegetables should have been brinjal, ladies finger, long beans, double beans, spinach, drumstick, banana, coconut, bitter gourd, snake gourd, bottle gourd, pumpkin, onion, garlic, ginger, turmeric, cardamom and black pepper. And then at some highly contested point in very old history came the people we now call the Aryans.

With them, they brought their food. People, as you can see, have been marching on their bellies since as far back as we know. The picture of what was eaten in India becomes clearer with the coming of the Aryans. Cows, buffaloes, horses and pigs were domesticated in addition to goats and sheep which are believed to have been domesticated earlier. This led to usage of milk and milk products on large scales. Grains like barley and wheat were added to the millets and rice that already grew in India. Possibly, pulses like lentils and chickpeas along with fenugreek, asafoetida, onions, radish, lettuce, carrots and cucumber came along with them or during the exchange with the area of the middle-east called the fertile crescent (land of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and the eastern Mediterranean coast) which was home to the Neolithic founder crops which formed the starter pack in early agriculture.

The most important contribution of ancient India to the culinary world is sugar – the English word itself is a relative of the Sanskrit sakkhar. The sugarcane grass is native to the Ganga delta. The grass is crushed and boiled to make the solid mass of jaggery which on refinement produces the white crystalline form of sugar called khand, which many linguists believe to be the origin of the English word ‘candy’. It was here at this time that sugar gradually replaced honey as a sweetening agent.
What happened undoubtedly at the same time as the Aryans settled in the subcontinent is that there were leaps in technology that encouraged and facilitated great leaps in food production. It is perhaps the first record one has of a balanced diet, that consisted of fruits, vegetables, meat, grain and dairy products. Food classification based on its temper into rajasic, tamasic and sattvic evolved during this time. This concept further developed to the deep, detailed science of Ayurveda.

Sugar, perhaps the most important contribution of ancient India to the culinary world

Sugar, perhaps the most important contribution of ancient India to the culinary world

Food came to be understood as something that has a powerful effect on the human body and mind. It came to be regarded as an important ingredient for the balance of mind, body and spirit and an integral part of the ‘cosmic cycle’. Various conquests since kept adding to the tally and variety of foods being consumed by the sub-continental inhabitants. The next major addition, in style and substance, came with the invasions of the central Asian tribes that finally led to Mughal India and the settling of the average Indian restaurant menu, the way we see it now.

A sophisticated, largely austere eating system that was oriented to the spiritual progress or the working need based requirements of the inhabitants of the subcontinent – was invaded, layered buffered and finally integrated by the nutrition rich, largely simple everyday fare of the armies (there come those belly marchers again). As the conquest spread, the more stately and elaborate dishes of the central Asian kingdoms found their way into the royal courts and influenced the habits of individual and group dining. Indian dishes were livened up with nuts and spices. Raisins found their way into the country, along with meat and grain dishes like halim – a porridge of grain and meat; sweetened drinks; elaborate rice dishes cooked with meat – the pulao, kofta and the biryani, all words of Persian origin. In came the samosa – a stuffed pastry, all manner of grilled and roasted meats – the kebabs, and sweets like kulfi and halwa. Arrived and dug into the soil like a native, the indispensable tandoor and the associated naan, kulcha and lachha parathas.

This new mishmash of tastes and textures reached heady levels of sophistication, luxury – even opulence – in the Mughal courts. Just when the palettes seemed to have experienced as much flavourful divinity the vast conjoined landmass and trade across it could achieve, it was time for the Columbian Exchange.

The Columbian Exchange
While the Mughals were giving the Gods a run for their money in painting the worlds red with both blood and revelry, the Europeans were trying hard to find things they could barter with the East that seemed to have it all, including considerable disdain for the backward, pale skinned firangs. And Lo! they ‘discovered’ the Americas.

This is when the tide started turning for the Europeans with the new world unleashing several things that the rest of the world had never seen (and substantial silver and gold). Through the Portuguese and the Spaniards mainly, the proceeds from the Americas spread across the world with a swiftness of transfer never seen before on the planet.

Staple food sources of the modern world owe their origins to the Americas. Potatoes, tomatoes, chilli pepper, cashew, peanuts, bell pepper, cocoa, guava, papaya, sweet potato, sunflower, tobacco and maize amongst numerous others spread to courts and streets of the world. The foods from the Americas were calorie rich and added to the already significant and diverse food sources of the Indian subcontinent. With food that also had a long shelf life, it is believed that the population on the subcontinent saw a steep incline as nutritious food became readily available. In fact, the global population is believed to have doubled in the two hundred years since the contact with the new world.

This, despite the fact that the contact brought to the native Americans diseases that they had no natural immunity against. Chief among them was small pox which decimated the tribal populations of the Americas by 80-95% in all cases and 100% in several. More lives were lost to this influx of disease than any war or epidemic in the history of mankind. This unequal, tragic exchange of valuable life-blocks for disease; the environmental impact of Columbus’ landing in the new world, what was termed as The Columbian Exchange from the title of a book by the same name.

Were it not for this extravagant trade-off, we would be living in a world where there would have been no tomatoes in Italy, no chocolate in Switzerland, no cigarettes in France, no cattle in Texas and no aaloo (potato) in our very own (is it now?) samosa!
Races, empires, countries and conquerors disappeared without a trace, hegemonies dissolved into oblivion – but the food they brought taught a valuable lesson. The flavours did not repel or rebel, they coalesced into a heady ensemble indistinguishable, yet distinct, that lays out like a several course meal; a history of seasonings and seasons that no book can dare deny or disprove. If only those waging wars for rubbish would look into their plates and pause before a morsel, they can find both nirvana and jannat right there in the knowledge that life as we find it, in fact life itself would not have been possible without extraordinary, selfless exchanges from peoples across the world.

It has taken millennia of dogged persistence, unmatchable genius, innovation and invention with a healthy dose of jugaad to make us the best fed generation in the history of the planet. A true history would take a couple of dozen volumes and cannot even begin in these couple of thousand words. That we today deprive instead of supply this benefit which is our shared inheritance, to others of our own species, is a disgrace we shall have to answer for to both God above and generations right here, almost right now.


Akul Tripathi

The writer is a media professional and freelance writer.