Treasures From the Past

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Peppertrail was interviewed about Treasures from the Past
by Vilasi Venkatachalam of internet radio show
Secret Cuisines and Sacred Rituals

Treasures from the Past, the latest addition to the Peppertrail family, explores India's culinary history though articles, stories and recipes. This is a venue for me to pay homage to the ancient culinary traditions of India.

All of the recipes in my book Grains, Greens, and Grated Coconuts and most of the recipes in Along the Peppertrail are strictly vegetarian while this new section features ancient recipes for both vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. Unlike recipes from the other two segments, none of them are tested, either because of the unavailability of certain ingredients where I now live or as they are meat based.

While growing up in a south Indian orthodox Hindu household I knew only one kind of food - simple south Indian vegetarian fare. K. T. Achaya's magnum opus, Indian Food: A Historical Companion, which I read as I was working on my book, was an eye opener for me. I came to realize how much meat based preparations were a part of our ancient cuisine. Ever since I published my book I have spent many hours researching about the history and evolution of our cuisine.

For centuries culinary traditions, cooking techniques and recipes were handed down, in most part orally, from one generation to the next. These recipes for everyday dishes, festive fares, and their royal embellishments were primarily region as well as family specific. Feasting was considered a sign of social harmony, and fasting, the mark of reverence to Gods. Food is believed to strengthen the relationship of humans with God as well as among humans themselves and food related taboos differentiating the sacred from the disrespectful are taken very seriously, even today.

The cuisines of ancient India, like the cuisines of ancient Europe, China, and the Middle East, were also deeply rooted in ethical and medical principles. Ancient Indian society was a literate and text-oriented civilization and their Hindu religious works in Sanskrit contain enormous amount of information about offering, eating, feeding, and health benefits of food. These works include the Vedas, and related Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanishads which span a millennium from around 1700 BC; Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata both from around 400 BC with accretions up to 400 AD; and the manual of behavior, Manu Smrithi, from around 200 BC. Medical treatises Charaka Samhita and Kashyapa Samhita, both from 400 BC and Astangahridaya Samhita from the mid seventh century discuss the medicinal effects of food. The Sangam age is widely regarded as the golden age of Dravidian culture in south India. Heroic poetry of this time, collectively known as Sangam literature, written in archaic Tamil is still the major source of information about life in south India. Buddhist Sutras and Jain scriptures also contain explicit rules on what foods should be consumed and what should be avoided.

These ancient texts mentioned ingredients used for foods prepared for ritual observances but information on measurement or methods of preparation were fragmentary. This changed by the tenth century AD as encyclopedic works in Sanskrit and local languages began to include culinary science - Supasatra - as a separate topic. Food and nutrition and its relation to health of the people was a subject of grave importance of the royalty. Often the authors of these works were kings and their court poets. By the sixteenth and seventeenth century there were several culinary manuscripts both in Sanskrit as well as regional languages. These works also discussed various aspects of food from a perspective of Indian herbal medicine Ayurveda. Another major feature of these works was they compiled a lot of information from earlier works.

For many centuries trade routes passed through India or touched its sea coast. They, together with waves of foreign invasions and the rise of new religions, both indigenous and foreign, highly influenced the cuisines of India. By the middle of the nineteenth century the British defeated Indian princely states and extended its sovereignty over the Indian subcontinent. They introduced printing presses and ushered in the precursors of the modern Indian cookbook.

In the following weeks and months I invite you to join me in a journey to explore Indian cuisine through centuries.

I very much appreciate the help I received from V. Anandavalli, Bharti Mittal, and my sisters Girija Narayanan and Rathi Ramachandran in translating various recipes from Tamil, Hindi and Sanskrit. My sincere thanks to Aparna Balasubramanian, Shalini Nanada Nagappa, Anuradha Shankar, Jennifer Malsingh, and O.N. Damodaran for providing the beautiful photographs for this segment. I am very thankful to my friends Babu and Jolly Chirayil for their continued help in developing and maintaining my website.