August 2016 By Lakshmi Venkat A History of Food in India by Colleen Taylor Sen Speaking Tiger Publishing Pvt Ltd INR 699; 349 pages Food and wine pairing recommendations from around 700 BC, chicken soup and meat broth prescribed for the cure of ailments in the early centuries of the first millennium, barbecued rats and blood puddings _that these should find a mention in the book would probably come as a shock to most readers today. But surprises like these are what set Colleen Taylor Sen’s food tome apart from most others in its genre. However, neither the precious nuggets of information nor the plethora of charming recipes, illustrations and maps strewn across the text can take away from the fact that this is essentially a work of great depth and scholarship. Sen places Indian food in its historical context, giving us a pithy introduction to each period, from the prehistoric era to the modern day, and expertly weaves in the story of how Indian cuisine evolved, at every stage. Setting the tone with Nehru’s description of India as a palimpsest bearing the imprint of many layers of thought, Sen proceeds to then demonstrate how rivers and rainfall, religions and rituals, rulers, thinkers, healers and even invaders have shaped and moulded the story of Indian cuisine. If Neolithic Indians subsisted on a staple diet of ‘two pulses and two millets”, milk and its products came to play an important part in the diet of the Vedic Indians. Vegetarianism made its appearance with the advent of Jainism and Buddhism, while the first taboos regarding food crept into Indian society in the early centuries of the first millennium. The Puranic period, distinguished by elaborate feasts and austere fasts, was followed by the appearance of medical traditions such as ayurveda that brought in the idea of healthy eating dictated by one’s body type. The Delhi Sultanate, the Mughals and the Europeans all added to India’s rich culinary cornucopia. Sen tempers this rich fare with a garnish that is light and clever, amusing us with stories of how Gandhiji promoted soy beans as a source of cheap protein, of how each paratha served to the Nawab of Lucknow was cooked in four and a half kilos of ghee, or of how the “kulcha” became the official emblem on the State flag of the Nizams of Hyderabad. This is indeed a work that leaves the reader hungry for more.
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