Book Talk – The story of our food by KT Achaya


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As I mentioned you will be seeing couple non-recipe posts this month and here is the first one.

When I was reading the background of Idiyappam and its references in Ponniyin Selvan I came across this book and got fascinated right away. My interest in historical novels, attributed to my interest in history of food too. So got this book and here I am to talk about it.

I am not an architect nor a historian nor a botanical scientist but just a foodie. That said I am not reviewing this book. I am just sharing the interesting facts from the book about our food.  Also I don’t think I can bring out the facts in just one post.

The book is all about our ancestors, Mohenjo-Daro, Harappan culture, native grains, fruits and vegetables of India and how the invasion over India affected our food culture.

The author starts with a brief description of our ancestors and about ancient languages like Munda, Sanskrit and Tamil. It was very surprising that the English words rice and curry got its name from Tamil words Arisi and kari. Basically our story of food goes back to Aryan age.  Architects were able to find the grains of burnt wheat and husks of barley still lying in the crevices of the storage granaries excavations. These were the same grains that were eaten by people nearly 4000 years ago.

The author then explains how weeds became food grains. Man used to look for weeds bearing lot of grains, tasted them and started cultivating them. Rice, Wheat, Barley, Millets and Ragi were all once weeds.  Sugarcane and Banana are from India which went across various territories. Mustard oil and gingelly oil were also native to India.

The Aryans impacted a lot in our food culture. Agriculture being the chief occupation, they taught us the process of sowing, irrigation, seeding, transplanting, weeding, watering, defensing against pests, reaping and threshing. Crop rotations and seasonal sowing were followed 4000 years ago. Boling, steaming and fermenting, frying foods were followed by Aryans too. Paneer, ghee, buttermilk, and even shrikhand find the roots from Aryans.

In the famous manual of statecraft written in 300BC, the Arthasastra of Kautilya, a balanced meal of a gentleman is described. This consists of rice 500g, dhal: 125g, oil: 56g and salt 5g respectively. This balanced diet mentioned so long ago is the same in essentials as the so-called recommended balanced diet which the Indian Council of Medical Research laid down in 1987!.”

I really liked all the chapters where author explains food and culture through other’s eyes. India had lot of Greeks, Chinese visitors and then the Mughals who invaded. From the beginning rice was the principal crop of the country.Mughals contributed new foods like biriyanis, shullas, kababs, pulaos. Author explains how each and every region in India prepared their food and what all fruits, vegetables and spices they used.

Then came the Europeans and britishers who bought in tea and coffee for us but took a lot from us. Europeans obseved Bengal as one the fertile and cheap lands and they had a proverb among themselves which said, “The kingdom of Bengal has a hundred gates open for entrance, but not one for departure.”

Foods that we take it for granted like tomato, potato, papaya, groundnut, pineapple,coffee, tea all came via europeans and above all chilli from Mexico. Yes, India got introduced to chilli just 300 years ago, till then pepper was used for spicing up the dish. But just imagine today, can our cooking be complete without red chillies or green chillies?

This book was very informative and really a good read.

Earlier cross posted here

11 thoughts on “Book Talk – The story of our food by KT Achaya

  1. I, sometimes, used to add pepper in coconut chutney instead of green chilly. My father told me that our traditional cooking had only pepper and not chillies. I didn’t believe him but now I am wondering from where he got that information. Need to ask him :-)
    Nice write up, Sri.

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