Many animal foods are described with great relish in the early Tamil literature.
Even Brahmins did not lack relish for the meat and toddy served to them at feasts held by the chieftains and princes of the land.
The meat dishes cooked with (black) pepper were called kari in Tamil, a word now used in English as curry. Fried spiced meat was called tallita-kari, fried meat was pori-kari, and meat with a source sauce made of tamarind was termed pulingari…
Beef was freely eaten: there are four names for this meat in the early Tamil language, showing that it was a common and well-liked food. In the north, as we have seen, the domestic fowl was not eaten, but there was no such taboo in the south. Other delicacies were the cooked aral fish served piping hot, and the meat of the tortoise, rabbit and hare. Wild boar was hunted using nets; it was then kept in a pit and fattened by feeding it with rice flour to yield pork of exceptional taste.
Here is a description from the Tamil literature of a feast given about 150 AD by a Chola ruler:
Goblets of gold with intoxicating liquor, soft-boiled legs of sheep fed on sweet grass, and hot meat, in large chops, cooked on the points of spits … fine cooked rice which, erect like fingers and with unbroken edges, resemble the buds of the mullai (jasmine) flower, together with curries sweetened with milk.
It is interesting to note the reference to wine and to roast kababs, and the beautiful comparison of shining white rice grains to jasmine buds. Tamil literature also describes the brisk trade with both the east and the west from the ports of south India; one commodity brought in was Italian wine for use by the royalty.
Most people—most of all South Indians—react to this with shock and denial. Some go on and come to terms with it.
Well, the fact is the idli—a dish that is almost synonymous with South India—was probably an import from what is now Indonesia (and what was then the Sri Vijaya empire). This little morsel comes from the late K Thammu Achaya, food scientist and historian. As Vikram Doctor writes:
It’s…surprising then to read K T Achaya’s theory that idlis are a relatively recent introduction to India. He notes that the word might derive from ‘iddalige’, first mentioned in a Kannada work of 920 AD, but the indications are that this was made from an urad dhal batter only.
The Sanskrit Manasollasa of 1130 AD has ‘iddarika’, but again made from urad dhal flour only. Tamil apparently only first mentions ‘itali’ in the 17th century. All these references, Achaya notes, leave out three key aspects of idlis: “the use of rice grits along with urad dhal; the long fermentation of the mix; and the steaming of the batter to fluffiness.”
Only after 1250 AD are there references to what seem to be idlis as we know them. Achaya’s contention is that this absence from the historical record could mean that idlis are an imported concept — perhaps from Indonesia which has a long tradition of fermented products, like tempeh (fermented soy cakes), kecap (from where we get ketchup) or something called kedli, which Achaya says, is like an idli. This is plausible enough given the many links between Southeast Asia and South India, through Hindu rulers and traders. [ET]
D Balasubramanian had a good report on Dr Achaya’s works in The Hindu and there’s a little discussion on the subject over at Manjunath & Co’s blog. Although two of Dr Achaya’s most well-regarded works on Indian food seem to be out of print, his last book, The Story of our Food is available.
Meanwhile, the chillies in the chutney and the tomatoes in the sambar came from the Americas with the Europeans.
That’s not all though. It was Baba Budan, a 17th century Sufi from Karnataka who broke the Arabian monopoly on coffee. Legend has it that:
On pilgrimage to Mecca in the middle 1600s, Baba Budan, a revered holy man from India, discovered for himself the wonders of coffee. In his zeal to share what he’d found with his fellows at home, he smuggled seven coffee beans out of Arabia, wrapped around his belly. On his return home, he planted the beans in the hills of Mysore, India, and nurtured the young coffee bushes that resulted. Coffee flourished in the hills of India – hills now named after Baba Budan.
In short order, enterprising Dutch traders bought some of these coffee plants, and shipped them to faraway colonies in Indonesia and Ceylon. The Arabian monopoly of the coffee trade was over, and the Western world was waking up to a new aroma… one that would play a fateful role in Europe, and beyond. [Green Mountain Coffee]
Baba Budan gave his name to a hill in Karnataka, and more recently, spread his seeds wide—to cafes in Cincinatti and Melbourne.
Tea? Okay, it was probably grown and consumed in India long before the British came, but you don’t have to be Aakar Patel to accept that tea as we drink it today is largely a gift of British colonial rule.
So there’s more than one ‘foreign hand’ in the ‘traditional’ South Indian breakfast. The sugar that goes into it though–we have on Dr Achaya’s authority—is an Indian invention.
Tailpiece: Mr Balasubramanian notes that “Dr Achaya points out how in 300 BC, the Arthasastra described the balanced meal of a gentleman as 500 g rice, 125 g dal, 56 g oil and salt..(and this) is the same in essentials as the recommended balanced diet that the Indian Council of Medical Research laid down in 1987 AD.”
Swaminathan Iyer took the words out of this bloggers mouth. The UPA government, he writes “has suddenly shifted from protecting Indian farmers against cheap imports to protecting the consumer by cheapening imports”. He is referring to the ban on rice exports (which follow the export of wheat late last year, followed by the ban on export of maize and pulses).
The April 2008 issue of Pragaticalled for the government to free the farmers. The UPA government did just the opposite—far from allowing Indian farmers to benefit from selling their produce at record prices, the government is forcing them to sell at artificially low prices. So who is hurting the farmer? And why is silence replacing Sainath? And next year, when farmers find themselves unable to repay their loans, the UPA government—if it is in power at that time—will simply increase payouts and write-offs.
In the end the consumers pay the farmers: only the government gets itself into the equation causing unnecessary leakage and wastage.
Unnecessary? Why, isn’t it at least helping curb inflation? Not quite. As Mr Iyer explains:
The lesson is clear. Curbing exports is a form of national hoarding. If every country tries to hoard food, food prices will naturally rise. Governments would like to believe that hoarding by traders is terrible, whereas hoarding by governments promotes the public interest. But the impact on prices is exactly the same in both cases. Indeed, when governments start to hoard food out of panic, the panic itself stokes further inflationary fears.
That is why I am not optimistic about the Indian government’s anti-inflation package. The government thinks it is improving domestic supplies and hence bringing down prices. In fact the government is adding to the global hoarding problem, and stoking panic too. So, expect food inflation to keep rising in coming months. [TOI]
It’s all very well, you say, but what should the government do when poor people can’t afford food? Well, it should buy food grain at market prices and distribute it to those who need it. That way it will least distort the price signals that farmers receive and allow them to benefit from the good times. And by spending taxpayers’ money in a targeted manner—only the poor will enjoy cheap food—it will spend less. That is, if the government actually wanted to address the policy challenge, and not flail about paranoid of losing votes.
You are in Britain. You want to try the local cuisine. The vindaloo tastes like…goulash. You feel cheated. And demand to see the chef. He steps out of the kitchen, and speaks…Hungarian.
The ‘BBC’ got it wrong. This is not a curry crisis. It’s an evil EU conspiracy to reverse the course of British culinary history.
…restrictions on lower-skilled workers from outside the EU are causing a labour shortage so severe it could cause “irreparable damage” to the curry industry….attempts to get eastern Europeans to work in curry restaurants have failed because they do not have the “cultural sensitivity” required. [‘BBC’]