Tracing India’s Food Journey – From the Vedas
What do the earliest Indian texts tell us about what people ate? Culinary historian Colleen Taylor Sen takes us back in time, in the last of our 3 part series on food in ancient India.
While some people dispute that there was ever a wave of migration of Indo-Aryans, the second millennium BCE did see the appearance of a new people, who introduced new flavors into the cuisine. Theirs was a semi-nomadic society consisting of small kinship groups who raised cattle and sheep and practiced some settled agriculture and cereal cultivation. Obtaining and raising cows was the Indo-Aryans’ main occupation.
Much of our knowledge of their food habits and lifestyles can be gleaned from an extensive body of texts, the earliest being the Rig Veda, likely composed between 1700 and 1500 BCE. Grains, mainly barley, and lentils were dietary staples – there are no references to wheat or to rice in the Rig Veda. Barley was ground in mortars and pestles or between two stones, sifted to make flour, and kneaded into a dough. Several texts mention apupa, a kind of cake made of barley or sweetened with honey and sauteed in ghee over a slow fire. Perhaps it is a precursor of the modern appam and the Bengali malpoa, a fried pancake soaked in sugar syrup. Barley seeds were also pulverized into a powder called saktu, the forerunner of sattu or chhattu, a dish today eaten in eastern India.
Milk from cows and buffalos and its products played an important role in the Vedic Indians’ diet and the Indian diet from this time forward. Milk, raw or boiled, was drunk as a beverage, or cooked with parched barley meal to make a porridge called odana. Milk was also transformed into yogurt since milk left out in a hot climate quickly ferments and coagulates. The process can be speeded up by heating the milk and adding a starter. Yogurt was eaten by itself, flavored with honey, mixed with barley to make a dish called karambha in the Rig Veda. Interestingly the word is still used in Gujarat.
Yogurt was also folded into fresh milk. Yogurt was and is churned to make butter (unlike in Europe, where butter is made from cream) and the leftover liquid becomes buttermilk – a favorite drink in rural India, sometimes flavored with cumin or pepper. If butter is boiled to evaporate the water, the milk solids fall to the bottom and the melted butter becomes translucent ghee (clarified butter), the most valued Indian cooking medium. From ancient times to the present, ghee has also been used in Hindu rituals (see the poem). When the impurities are filtered out, ghee can be stored six months or longer – an important attribute in a hot climate.
Flavorings in the Vedic period included mustard seed, turmeric, long pepper, bitter orange, and sesame seeds. Sesame is mentioned in many texts, both as a food and a ritual. As a regular dietary item, sesame seeds were boiled with rice and milk to make a porridge, cooked with vegetables, or roasted and pounded to make a crispy bread. The seeds were crushed in an animal-powered device to produce an oil that remains a common cooking medium in southern and western India.
Fruits and vegetables mentioned in the Rig Veda include three varieties of jujube, bael, dates, Indian gooseberry, mango, cucumber, lotus stalks and roots, bottle gourd, bitter gourd, water chestnut, and other aquatic plants. The meat was roasted on spits, perhaps over charcoal or in an oven – a very early version of kebabs.
In India, food traditions go back thousands of years. What is interesting is how many of these have not just continued, but thrived! Here is an ode to Ghee or clarified butter from the Rig Veda… a good way to end this ode to Indian food.
These nourishing liquids flow together like streams, being purified within by heart and mind
These waves of ghee rush, like wild beasts retreating from a javelin.
. . .
They float, like lovely young women to marriage assemblies, smiling, to Agni
The streams of ghee approach the kindling sticks. (Agni) delights, taking pleasure in them.
I keep gazing upon them, who are like maidens smearing on unguent to go their wedding
Where the soma is pressed, where the sacrifice is performed, toward that do the streams of ghee go purifying themselves
Read Part 1 of the Tracing India’s Food Journey series here
Read Part 2 of the Tracing India’s Food Journey series here
Born in Toronto, Canada, Dr Colleen Taylor Sen is a Chicago-based author and culinary historian focusing on the food of the Indian Subcontinent. She is the author of many articles and author/editor or co-editor of seven books including Food Culture in India; Curry: A Global History; Turmeric: The Wonder Spice; A Guide to Indian Restaurant Menus; Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India (named one of the best food books of the year by Vogue and The Smithsonian Magazine)