Wednesday, August 4, 2010

#40. Food Draupadi Cooked

Food Draupadi Cooked
I have been exploring for some time as to what food was cooked during the time of Mahabharat. Or to be more exact what food did Draupadi cook for her five healthy husbands including one who was a glutton. I will tell an apocryphal story about Bhim at the end. For the present, let us explore what foodstuff was available during the period 1500-1000 BC which is the approximate period of the story of Mahabharat.
Flesh of various animals was of course available in plenty. Deer and ducks were the favourite hunt. Other birds like partridges and quails (teetar and bater) are available in plenty in the country even now so it should be available even then. Krishna was shot dead by mistake by the arrow of a professional hunter who lived on what he could get and kill in the forest in the daytime to be sold in the market later in the day. Salt was there, but probably of the mineral variety. The area now in Pakistan has salt hills. Among other condiments and spices, India has been a source of cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, pepper and turmeric in the spice trade with the west for ages, and those should have been there at that time also. But the real question which bothered me was about the cereals. Well, wheat farming spread to Asia about 4,000 BC. Simple domestic grinding stone was probably there for making wheat flour. Unleavened or non-yeasted chapati is made in India even today. Rice is native to India and has been there for 10,000 years., so are cucumbers and gourds including small Indian gourd known as parval. Among the minor millets, sorghum (jowar) is a more recent introduction to the country. . But barley (jau), bajra, kodo, kutki and saawaan should have been very much there. A vaidic writing mentions barley and rice as “two immortal sons of heaven.” Maize was developed in Mexico about 7000 years ago, but it is said that it has spread to Asia only about 5 centuries ago. Whatever be the case, parched grain was quite popular and it could have been used as a snack. Sugarcane is also a native of India. So gur or jaggery would have been there. Honey was known. Milk and milk products were there.
Goat was domesticated long time back, from the time settlements came into being in place of nomadic existence. As for deep and shallow frying, and lacing dal, chapati and rice with fragrant fat, butter and ghee (clarified butter) are milk products. The other source of oil was mustard oil which reportedly has been in the country for over 3000 years. Green peas, masoor and kesari have been in India since 1800 BC to 2000 BC. So have probably chick peas (chana) and pigeon peas (arhar). Wild tubers (kand-mool) including wild onions and fruits like muskmelon or cantaloupe were there and some green vegetables. Garlic and water melon were probably not there. Banana, a native of Malaysia, is mentioned in the Buddhist Pali writings of 6th century BC. This also may have been there. At least Alexander took it from India in 327 BC. This could have been there during Mahabharat times. Among other fruits wild mango, wild berries (ber), and wood apple (bel or sriphal). Tamarind is a native of tropical Africa, but has come to India long long ago. It also was there probably in wild conditions, but whether its use as a souring agent was known at that time or not, I haven’t been able to find out.
So the menu is complete. The normal menu of Draupadi contained plenty of animal or bird flesh cooked with ghee or oil, rice, dal, chapati laced with butter, and the curries spiced with the basic condiments like onions, turmeric, pepper, cloves, and of course, salt. For vegetables, gourd, cucumber and tubers. For the dessert, yoghurt with honey or gur, and sweets like wheat flour mixed with gur syrup and deep fried. And kheer or payas sweetened with gur (milk pudding). Come to think of it, the menu has hardly changed over the millennia for an average Indian.
And what was vanvaas or exile which the Pandavas had to undergo after losing in the gamble where the dice were loaded, courtesy Shakuni? Even now in the tribal areas of Central India, forest adjoins the habitation, so Pandavas must have gone a little away from the habitation, in the forest area, maybe in the fringe and not very deep inside.
It is interesting to remember that the Portuguese brought to India potato, tomato, cauliflower, tobacco and surprise of surprise, red chillies. Another surprise item which has probably been brought by the Europeans to India is pumpkin, which is a native of South and Central America. Good old days in the conservative Brahman family of ours, if you ate vegetables like cauliflower and tomatoes, you had to do penance. This included some rituals including eating a small amount of cow dung. Most priests were satisfied if you touched it with your lips! One story that my uncle (bless his soul) used to relate of his young days was that of a kinsman who had to undergo such penance in the presence of a priest, and as the priest was also a kinsman, after the penance when they went to his house people saw the same vegetables being cooked at his home. Soybean as a source of edible oil came to India only after independence and sunflower even later.
Now the joke. It is said that a sage gave a blessing to Bhim that Bhim will eat and Shakuni will shit. Once Bhim ate an entire tree. Imagine the distress Shakuni was in next morning!

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