What in the world did Indians eat back then?!
Yes! It is true! Tomatoes came to India in 1560s! Chillies came later. Potatoes came much much later. If India were a man, living since the dawn of history, he has just encountered other vegetables like gherkins, capsicums, turnips, and cabbages in the last two seconds!! What in the world did our ancestors eat without these quintessential ingredients? Any basic meal to any refined classic dish in Indian cuisine today boasts of tomato as an ingredient, and potato is an integral part and parcel of the common man’s staple diet. Either way, with both of them absent, the Indian dinner table sure must have been very strange back then! So let us find out what Indians in the days of yore ate, in those days before the mighty potato, the glorious tomato and the redoubtable chilli ruled the shores from Japan to Mexico (and all the way around)!!!
It was ten days after Deepavali of the year 1432 in India. It was an Ekadasi (11th dayof the month, considered auspicious by Hindus), and whats more, it was the first Ekadasi in the auspicious Kartheeka Maasam (a holy month of worship, prayer and fasting for Hindus).
The tiny village of Ramapuram in the Kondaveedu kingdom of the Deccan, was still having trouble finding its routine, after a flurry of festivals which started from Vinayaka Chavithi (Ganapati navaratris), followed by Dussehra (Devi navaratris) and culminating in the festival of lights, Deepavali. Another festival Kaartheeka Pournami (Kartheek Poornima) was looming ahead. Life was a never ending ritual back then, from birth to death.
The mistress of the house, Rajamma woke at her appointed 4:00 am as usual. Having completed her purificatory ablutions, she lit the fires in the kitchens, invoking Lord Agni (The god of Fire), and went to the cowshed. Having duly prayed to the Go Maatha (cow, considered a symbol of the cosmos), she set about milking the cow. Quickly, while the milk was still warm, she skimmed off the cream, which she would churn into curds later in the day, and stored the milk in the coolest place in the kitchen beside the purified water containers.
As dawn approached, she awoke her husband Ranganathayya, as he had to perform his ritual invocation of Gayatri (the Goddess of Life), at the stroke of sunrise. She then set about deciding on the menu for the day.
Indian cooking back then, was strictly dependent on seasonal produce. A practice which has evolved into the present tradition of preparing certain dishes on the occasion of certain festivals!
She wandered into her vegetable patch to see what was available. The Gummadikayalu (Kaddu or Indian pumpkin) were aplenty, the Aratichettu (Banana tree) was flowering, and the Usirikayalu (Amla or Indian gooseberries) were hanging by the boughs. Kanda (Suran or Elephant yam) was anyway available throughout the year, as were Karivepaku (Kadi pattha or curry leaves) and Allam (Adrak or Ginger).
A quick inspection of the greens revealed she had Gongura (Meshta or Indian Sorrel), and Bacchali koora (Poi saag or Malabar Spinach) at her disposal. A quick mental calculation followed, and she decided on what she wanted to prepare. She decided she would cook the banana flowers with a stuffing of mustard powder (aava pindi), make a curry out of the elephant yams and spinach, stew the pumpkin into a broth (Gummadikayi pulusu), make a chutney of the Indian sorrel, and cook the lentils with Indian gooseberries (Usirikayi pappu or Amla Dal).*
If there is one thing in India that has remained constant over the ages, it is the use of spices. Of all shapes and sizes and colors and hues. Its wondrous how the search for India’s fabled spices, led to the discovery of a whole new continent, an Industrial Revolution in another, and the conquest of yet another. The story of spices can be read as a chronicle of human history itself.
Having gathered her choice of ingredients, Rajamma proceeded pronto to the kitchen. After purifying all the ingredients with holy water she duly set about cooking lunch. First she cut the Elephant Yam, cleaned the Banana flower, and cut it up squarely. In the meanwhile, the water in the pot had been merrily simmering away. Cleaning the rice thrice, she threw in the rice with the water. Then getting her pestle and mortar out, she ground a aromatic mixture of spices for the broth: Avaalu (Mustards), Menthulu (Fenugreek), Pasupu (Turmeric), Miriyaalu (Black Pepper), Jeelakarra (Cumin), and Dhaniyaalu (Coriander seeds).
In another pot of water, she added in the pumpkin to boil away, with a few measures of tamarind to render the sauce tangy. A half of the ground muster powder she stuffed into the cleaned banana flower, and proceeded to fry it in hot gingelly oil, seasoning it with salt and black pepper. One dish is done. She threw in the rest of the ground spices into the pot with the pumpkins, and lo! pumpkin broth was ready!
The sorrel leaves, which were soaking in water were then brought into the pestle where they are ground into a fine paste, to which a similar mixture of spices fried in oil is added. Gongura Pachadi, that quintessential element of Andhra cooking to this day, was thus ready. Rice had also gotten cooked in the meanwhile. Once again, she tossed the Malabar spinach and Yam into one pot of boiling water, and pigeon peas (Kandi Pappu or Toor Dal) into another. She de-seeded the gooseberries and tossed them in with the pigeon peas. A last dash of oil fried spices was added to both pots, and thus the lunch was announced!
Then hurrying along, Rajamma went to the cowshed once again, and started churning the milk, skimming off the sweet curds from the urn, and collecting the buttermilk in a separate vessel. Arranging everything on the plaintain leaves, Ranganathayya and Rajamma sat down to enjoy a sumptious 6 course meal! And the paan daan followed later with the after meal betel nut sorbet of sorts!
*All these dishes are now traditionally eaten in Andhra households during Kartheeka Maasam.
Owing to my Telugu roots, I have used the Telugu names of ingredients, however, I have tried my level best to give references in Hindi and English and speak from a pan Indian perspective. To serve our purposes better, I created a typical rustic setting, in medieval days to make the post more impactful.