Sunday Levity: Curry, roast beef & Italian wine

Tamil non-vegetarian cuisine two millennia ago

From K T Achaya’s wonderful little book, The Story of Our Food (pages 78-79):

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.

8 thoughts on “Sunday Levity: Curry, roast beef & Italian wine”

  1. Apparently, Biryani was a Tamil/South Indian thing, and the invading persians just copied the recipe and changed the name. Subject of a MA/PhD research paper I once came across.

  2. Hi Nitin: Interesting note;

    I thought the Cholas only came to power around the 9th century CE. 150 CE must be just before the Pallavas. It was the Pallavas (Mahendravarman and others) who developed the links to further East and spread Hinduism to present day Indonesia, Cambodia, etc.

    Before the Pallavas we had the Guptas/Mauryas, including Ashoka who had a strong Buddhist inclination.

    There is some mention of the earliest organization of Tamils as far back as 150BCE, and the Cholas were involved in that. But they were never even a regional power after that till the 9th-13th century CE.

    Would you be able to clarify some of this?

  3. Thanks Nitin- that Chola dude’s description so totally rocks; I gotta get this book! I always liked my rice erect like mullai buds, only never could articulate it as well!

    Roadside kallu (toddy) shops in Kerala will still serve you a mean little combo of sizzling fried aral and the AM’s fresh sweet toddy (the latter, provided you have the right connections of course ; )  And when the sweet toddy has dulled your senses enough and you leave the toddy shop’s mud and thatch protection into the hot blazing sun- ah, to reminisce those pleasures on a gray chilly manhattan day…   

  4. Ravages,

    Yes, Achaya mentions pulao originated in India, and was Sita’s favourite food. The word biryani might be non-Indian in origin.


    I’ve quoted Achaya in extenso. But you raise a good point..will take some time to look this up.

    Perhaps another commenter could switch on the light for us all?

  5. The comparison of finely cooked rice to jasmine buds is still very much in vogue. Everybody in my family uses this phrase when the rice turns up exceptionally good. (I am from Andhra).

    I think the taboo on beef and meat in general has come through Buddhism and Jainism. Such verses as you mentioned can be found also in the Vedas.

  6. vakibs,

    Then I think we are a little mullai-pu challenged/scarce in Kerala : )

    I may be wrong but I seem to have read that the Buddha (at least once) ate beef. If memory serves right, it seems to have been in a Amar chitra katha/ Tinkle copy.

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