August 28, 2012
Kshatriya kings and princes in the Hindu epic Mahabharata (circa 400BC) not only enjoyed a rich variety of food, including meat and alcoholic drinks; two of them – Nala and Bhima - were well known for their expertise in supasatra, science of cooking. Nala's culinary repertoire was so well known that eventually the word Nalapaka became a synonym in India for excellence in culinary arts.
Nalacharitam: The story of Nala and Damayanti
In the Vana parva segment of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, Sage Brihadaswa recounts the story of Nishada King Nala and his queen Damayanti to Dharmaputhra, to exemplify how fateful turn of events in the lives of kings eventually bring them greater glory. King Nala was the benevolent ruler of Nishada kingdom. Besides being a king he was also proficient in pakasastra (science of cooking) and horsemanship. He married Damayanti, the daughter of the King of Vidarbha in a swayamvara ceremony where the bride selects the groom from a group of prospective candidates.
Kali, the vilest of the celestials, arrived late for the swayamvara, and he was furious that Damayanti had already chosen Nala as her husband. He decided to possess Nala and deprive him of his kingdom. With the help of his friend Dwapara, Kali tricked Nala to lose a game of dice with his brother. Nala bet his kingdom and lost everything and he and his wife were exiled to the forest. Kali drove Nala to abandon Damayanti, who eventually returned to her father.
While wandering through the forest Nala saved serpent Karkotaka from a fire. To exorcize the curse that possessed him, the serpent bit Nala, injecting him with deadly venom. The venom changed Nala into an ugly dwarf named Bahuka. After biting Nala, the serpent turned into a celestial being. He told Nala that his new disfigured form will help him remain disguised until it was time to return to his original self. He gave Nala a magic cloth and told him to wrap it around when the time was right.
Nala became the charioteer of Rituparna, the King of Ayodhya. After a few days Nala requested the king if he could prepare a meal for him. The meal was a huge success and Nala became the head of the king's kitchen and the stables.
Meanwhile Damayanti sent envoys to search for Nala. She gave them a question to ask anyone they thought could be Nala and to bring back the answer. The question was, How much of a man is a person who not only deserts his wife in the middle of the night but also steals half her clothes. A few weeks later one of them reported that King Rituparna has a new aide who is skilled in both horsemanship and cooking. But he was dwarfish and ugly. When he was posed the question, he replied that if a person did that in order to make his obstinate wife return to her father, then he was a man.
Damayanti had her suspicions that Bahuka could be Nala and announced another Swayamvara. She kept the notice very short so that only those with the fastest horses would be able to make it to her palace. Rituparna decided to go and Nala took him to Vidarbha. Damayanti sent a maid to inquire who had arrived in the fast running chariot and was informed that it was King Rituparna and his chariot driver.
Damayanti was also informed by her maid Kesini that Rituparna was asking his chariot driver to prepare his meal. King of Vidarbha sent various kinds of meats for preparing Rituparna's food. After visiting Nala in the kitchen the maid returned and told Damayanti: After washing the meat, as Nala took up a handful of grass and held it in the sun, fire blazed up all of a sudden. He touched fire and was not burnt. And at his will, water began to flow in a stream. He took some flowers and began to press them slowly with his hands and the flowers did not get crushed, but, they became more fragrant than before.
Hearing this Damayanti asked Kesini to go once again to the kitchen and bring her without Bahuka's knowledge some of the meat that was cooked and dressed by him. Kesini brought back some hot meat and Damayanti tasted it. Having tasted his cooking before, Damayanti realized that Bahuka was indeed Nala himself.
She ran down to meet the chariot driver and was stunned to meet a dark, short and deformed man instead of a fair, tall and handsome Nala. She asked him - why does a man want to send his dutiful wife back to her father's home? He replied - because he has lost his kingdom and cannot support his wife in the manner she was accustomed to. He then put on the magic cloth and was returned to his original form. After years of separation the couple was united and they lived happily ever after.
According to epic tradition, King Nala’s pakasatra (science of cooking) was documented in Pakadarpana. This text exists in different interpretations, and one of them was printed in Sanskrit in Banaras in 1915. There are various translations of this work in regional languages. The following notes and recipes from Pakadarpana are based on its Hindi translation by Pandit Harihar Prasad Tripathi.
Wealth of Ingredients, Flavors and Techniques:
Although the exact dating of this manuscript is unavailable, it is fascinating that an impressive array of vegetables, meats, spices, flavoring and souring agents as well as culinary techniques were used in the preparation of these dishes. Spices, mostly native to India (or those that arrive very early on) such as black pepper, long pepper, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, coriander, asafetida, fenugreek, and saffron were used in spicing meats and vegetables. Noticeably, the spices that arrived later such as chili pepper, nutmeg and mace are absent. Spices were used in different ways- as whole, or powdered or fried in ghee or mixed and tied as bouquet garni.
Most recipes call for kasturi (curcuma aromatic) a fragrant variety of turmeric root instead of ordinary turmeric (curcuma longa). Perhaps this was because kasturi is native to the foothills of Himalayas while turmeric is native south India. Other than kasturi, camphor and kevra (screw pine- pandanus fascicularis) were also used to add fragrance to dishes. It is intriguing to notice that fragrant flowers were also used in this ancient cuisine to impart aroma to cooked food.
Other ingredients used in these recipes that are not commonly found in Indian recipes today (unless they are used in specific regional cuisines that I am not aware of), include various herbs and berries such nagkesar (mesua ferrea), aromatic blossoms with astringent flavor, kumbhi (careya arborea), berries of slow match tree, and kayaphal (myrica esculenta) berries of box myrtle, and punarnava (boerhavia diffusa) or spreading hog wood. All these ingredients have beneficial medicinal properties and are still used in Indian herbal medicine Ayurveda. This cuisine realized the advantage of using different types salts and specifies whether to use sea salt or rock salt in particular recipes. Lactic fermentation was familiar and yogurt and ghee were made. Ghee and sesame oil were the fats used. Yogurt, Indian lemons, tamarind, pomegranate and mango were used as souring agents.
Cooking was done mainly on wood burning stoves and common cooking methods used were boiling, pan frying, and deep frying. Tempering asafetida and other spices in small quantities of ghee to bring out their flavor was familiar to this cuisine. Another intriguing method I noticed was wrapping partially cooked food in areca palm leaves and frying them in ghee. Later the leaf package was opened and the food was served. Though content with native ingredients, this cuisine went out of its way to treat, transform and prepare them in a variety of ways. These recipes speak volumes about the expertise in high class cuisine that was prevalent in ancient India.
For sampling of recipes please click on the link to Recipes from Pakadarpana.
Ganguli, Kisari Mohan.Mahabharata Translated into English Prose between 1883 to 1896
Thampuran, Kunjikkuttan. Sampoorna Mahabharatam Malayalam translation1906
Tripathi, Pandit Harihar Prasad. Pakadarpana. Hindi translation Cowkhamba Krishnadas Academy Varanasi
Photo of Nala and Damayanti: Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons