Essay on Culture of Food in India

Food and dress link India to history, culture and identity. Since ancient period India has been famous as the source of exotic spices and its cuisine known for its variety and infinitely subtle blends of aromatic spices and seasoning, which flavour meat, pulses and vegetables. This is evident by the role of South Indian spices in the ancient Indo-Roman trade, which earned huge profits for the Indian merchants.

History of Food in Our Cultures

The Neolithic period is characterized by the domestication of plants and animals. The earliest example of the domestication of plants in the subcontinent comes from the archaeological site of Mehrgarh in Pakistan. In the earlier periods, the Paleolithic and Mesolithic, man depended on hunting animals and gathering plant products for his food as he had no knowledge of agriculture or domestication of animals. The early staple food included cereals like barley and species of beans and lentils. The diet of the Harappans consisted of barley as the staple food including finger millet, wild millets, pulses, oil seeds, dates, and jujube (a small round berry-like fruit). They domesticated cattle, buffalo, sheep, and goats and also obtained food from fishing and hunting.

The Vedic culture developed in the Gangetic region. The alluvial and rain-fed soil was suitable for the cultivation of rice. Other food items included honey, sugarcane, linseed, grapes, cucumber, dates, etc. The dairy products such as yoghurt, butter, and ghee were also consumed. However, one of the most mysterious of these ancient foods was the soma, a sacred drink used in sacrifices. This produced altered states of consciousness. There have been many attempts by scholars to identify the plant source for soma. The studies have indicated a possibility that the fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscarita) could have been the source for the same. The people also knew about other stimulants including marijuana (Cannabis sativa), and distilled liquors that can be put in the category of sura, the popular drink of the period.

Animal sacrifice was an important aspect of Vedic ritual. These animals included the horse, cattle, buffalo, sheep, goat, chicken, etc. The meat of these animals was eaten after their offerings to deities. Due to the development of agriculture and ecological factors, the economical use of animals for dairy products and other purposes became more important. Later, the heterodox sects like Buddhism and Jainism preached non-killing of animals in sacrifices. Thus, vegetarianism became associated with value systems. The transformation of Vedic religion into Hinduism in later periods also brought in the plant products like coconuts, fruits, vegetables, etc. for offerings to deities rather than meat. However, the practice of animal sacrifices continued in tantric practices. Nevertheless, according to an estimate about 75% of the population of the subcontinent is non-vegetarian. In India, the popular vegetarian belts are Gujarat and Rajasthan were majority of the population in vegetarian.

By the 10th century, the contacts with the West Asia added new elements to the Food culture. The Muslim rulers, especially the Tughlaqs (14th century), introduced Kebabs, items stuffed with vegetables or meat, and other eatables to the existing traditions.

In the 16th century, the Mughal emperor Babur brought Central Asian melons, cherries, peaches, and apricots to India. Trade brought the New World crops or plants to the subcontinent. The potato and tomato were commonly used for the vegetarian food during the Mughal period. The use of these New World plants in Mughal cooking such as the dum aloo (potatoes cooked in rich curry) became much liked by the elites. However, the most prominent of the New World plants was the capsicum chili which became an integral part of Indian cuisine. Other important New World plants include the pineapple, papaya, maize, custard apple, peanut, sunflower, topioca, cashew nuts, tobacco, etc. The Hindi name for cashew, kaju, is from the Brazilian acaju and the Brazilian nana for pineapple became ananas in Hindi.

British influence promoted the habit of tea drinking and western habits of wine and dine. In the 1970s, Soviet agricultural advisors introduced Russian varieties of sunflower. By the end of the 20th century the urban snacks market was flooded with Chinese food, pizza, chips, and burgars, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. The economic liberalization in the 1980s resulted in the agreements with foreign companies to manufacture popular western brands of food and beverages.

Food Behaviour

Food in our culture, represents ritual purity and group membership. For example, Jain temple complexes include a dining hall, which serves vegetarian food. Sikhs follow religious services with a communal meal called the langar. Hindus do not eat beef and for the Muslims pork and alcohol is prohibited. Fasts are observed by both, the Hindus and Muslims. This ritual practice is generally observed by the women among the Hindus. The Muslims, on the other hand, may not eat anything between the dawn and sunset during the Ramadan (Ramazan) period.

Classification of Food

The food culture of the subcontinent has many similarities with that of the Middle East and Mediterranean region. On the basis of its quality, the food is generally classified into two – hot and cold. In Indian tradition, the concept of five basic substances (panchatatva) is very popular. These include earth, water, fire, air (mind), and sky (ether). Their respective combinations determine three special qualities – kapha (earth and water), pitta (fire), and vatha (air and sky). Kapha is characterized by courage since it is not linked to knowledge. Fire symbolizes excitement, energy, and passion. So, pitta type of food is associated with intelligence, disciplined knowledge, and pleasures. The heat promotes courage and excitement. The food such as pork, beef, fish, etc. and intoxicants enhance courage while bitter and salty food makes a person excited and restless for taking action. The “cold” food promotes spirituality. These include dairy products, honey, chicken, eggs and wine. Human nature and quality is also determined by the food habit. So, one can balance too much heat with cold food or vice versa. Consuming a particular type of food is also related to the climatic conditions. For example, cold foods are suitable in the summer. In our culture, a particular food habit is also associated with the identity of a community in many cases. For instance, the Brahmans of many regions do not eat onion, garlic or non-vegetarian food because it causes much excitement, whereas the Rajputs prefer meat and drinks to maintain their vigour. However, at present this cannot be applied to all members of the community.

The Sanctity of Kitchen

The kitchen in Indian homes is a sacred place. The ritual purity is maintained in cooking and serving the food. The modern lifestyle, though, has brought about many changes in serving, etc., on special occasions the traditional practices are followed. A general traditional practice is to offer the cooked food to the fire and other divinities before serving it to the family members or guests. In our culture, one is uncomfortable with the idea of jootha, that is, if it is first eaten by someone else other than for whom it is served or is leftover by someone. Even many persons eating in one plate is not considered pure.

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