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Kameshwari Ayyagari - Cuisine in Indian Literature

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Citation of cuisine in Indian Literature - A Critical Review


“Having good health is very different from only being not sick” - Seneca the Younger. A vast number of claims have been made over the years regarding dietary and health practices. Sometimes there seem to be a never ending procession of health experts promoting often contradictory advice. As with any controversy, we could endlessly analyze the data and arguments behind each new and conflicting claim. There are easier ways however. Societies have empirically adjusted to dietary changes. Over thousands of years, most cultures develop standard diets, food preparation methods, and health practices based on trial and error. This wealth of knowledge represents the cumulative experience of millions of individuals over hundreds of generations. 

Rather than theorise or conduct limited studies, it is almost always simpler and more effective to learn what our ancestors traditionally ate, and how they prepared their food when given choices. It is also useful to recognize that every sub-population and individual has genetic variability. In order to arrive at the optimal individual diet at any given period of life it helps to keep an open mind, experiment with traditional practices, and follow the instincts. Let’s explore the literature for the practices of old generation to know whether they simply followed the tradition or was there any reason for health also.

The Food in India is classified into three major categories. Satva, Rajas and Tamas. Satva, stands for balance, Rajas stands for passion, and Tamas stands for indulgence. Food is consumed according to the lifestyle of the person. For E.g.: A King has to be aggressive to defend his country; he would be taking food which would give much passion and that aggressiveness which is required. When a person tries to lead his life in want of self realisaiton, he would prefer a Satvic food or known as Satvic diet, which would help to keep his mind in balance. Tamasic food is to be taken only if it’s required, like consumption of Alcohol. This is the reason why many Indians try to abstain drinking.

The multiple varieties of Indian cuisine are distinguished by their sophisticated and subtle use of many spices and herbs. Each family of this cuisine is characterised by a wide assortment of dishes and cooking techniques. Though a significant portion of Indian food is vegetarian, many traditional Indian dishes also include: chicken, goat, lamb, fish, and other meats.

A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food (Oxford India Collection), Oxford university press 1998 by K. T. Achaya (Author) gives us plenty to chew on. This is a truly valuable reference book.

The Chinese pilgrim, Zuan zang, who traveled all over the 118 kingdoms of India between AD 629 and 645, describes about food in his time. “Rice and corn are most plentiful. With respect to edible herbs and plants, we may name ginger, mustard, melons and pumpkins. Onions and garlic are little known and used by a very few people. The most commonly used foods are milk, butter, cream, soft sugar, sugar candy, oil from the mustard seeds, and all sorts of cakes made from grain are used as food.

Fish, mutton, gazelle and deer are eaten fresh. They are forbidden to eat the flesh of the ox, ass, elephant, horse, pig, dog, fox, wolf, lion, monkey and all the hairy kind. Those who eat them are universally reprobated.”

With respect to juices and drinks, the juice of the sugarcane and grapes are used by the kshatriyas as drink. Vyshyas used strong fermented drinks. Brahmans and sramans used a sort of syrup made from sugarcane or grapes but not the kind of a fermented wine.

There is the mention of Annaprasana which is a ceremony in which a child about 6 months old is given its first solid form of food which is called paramanna (of boiled rice, milk, sugar/jaggery and honey.),a little of which was gently placed in the mouth of the baby. This all can be known from the writings of the Chinese pilgrims.

In some books the qualities, person gains by the consumption of certain kind of food are mentioned. e.g.: ram's meat would confer physical strength, partridge meat saintliness, fish a gentle disposition, and rice and ghee glory.

Antelope meat is listed among others in Vishnupurana (3rd to 4th c. AD) as very meritorious for use in the ancestral shraaddha ceremony. Emperor Jahangir found the milk of the female antelope palatable and remarks that it was said to be of great use in asthma.

Appam, a circular pan-cake of a toddy fermented batter of rice, baked on a well seasoned clay dish to yield a thick spongy centre dish with lacy browned edges. It is breakfast food in Tamilnadu which was mentioned in Tamil Sangam literature. Another food item mentioned in Sangam literature is the Idi-Appam (called nu-puttu in kodagu, and string hoppers in Srilanka. 

The Apple: the first mention of apple is in Charaka's Sinchitika Phala, which could have been an apple of Chinese origin and also the paravata, which as palevat still grows in Assam. In about 1100 AD, Dalhana describes " a ber as big as a fist and very sweet" grown in the northern regions of Kashmir, which surely suggests an apple. Amir Khusrau mentions apples in India in about AD 1300.

India is known for its love for food and spices, and it plays a role in everyday life as well as in festivals. Indian cuisine varies from region to region, reflecting the varied demographics of the country. Generally, Indian cuisine can be split into 5 categories —northern, southern, eastern, western and north-eastern.

Despite this diversity, some unifying threads emerge. Varied uses of spices are an integral part of food preparation, and are used to enhance the flavour of a dish and create unique flavours and aromas. Cuisine across India has also been influenced by various cultural groups that entered India throughout history, such as the Persians, Mughals and European colonists. Though the tandoori originated in Central Asia, Indian tandoori dishes, such as chicken tikka made with Indian ingredients, enjoy widespread popularity.

Indian cuisine is one of the most popular cuisines across the globe. Historically, Indian Spices and Herbs were one of the most sought after trade commodities. The Spice trade between India and Europe led to the rise and dominance of Arab traders to such an extent that European explorers, such as Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus, set out to find new trade routes with India leading to the Age of Discovery .The popularity of curry, which originated in India, across Asia has often led to the dish being labeled as the "pan-Asian" dish.

Mention of Cookery in Ancient Texts:

"Nalabhima pakam” refers to the preparation of food by a cook duo Nala and Bhima who lived in different periods of history, who are known for their excellent culinary skills.

When Yudhistira opened the banquet, there were hills of food cooked by Bhima. He served 18 kinds of barbecued meat, wild rice and sesame seeds in 30 kinds of sauce, grains boiled in milk and butter, hot candies of, sugar, ginger and pepper, sour and sweet preserves, fruits fresh and dry,70 kinds of vegetables raw and cooked, 93 soups,11 stews,29 kinds of fish cooked in 51 ways, unleavened bread baked and refried,100 kinds of pie and cake, and curds, raw sugar, roots, salty fried leaves, broiled nuts, honey light and dark and in the comb, and oceans of wine and rivers of clear water and lakes of milk.

In Nalacharita there was the mention of Nala (Hundika) cooking a dish and the king after eating presents him ornaments, a lakh rupees and 500 villages.

The ancient Indians wrote books not only on religion and philosophy but also on the art of cookery, called Supasastra. There are many works on cookery in Sanskrit and other languages from the Southern part of India. Of the many works on cookery, one written by Mangarasa (1508 AD) is important. He states that his work is in accordance with the tradition of ancient Indian celebrated cooks like Nala and Bhima. It is of interest to note that generally women have been doing cooking at homes but tradition remembers men Nala and Bhima as great cooks.

Another work dealing with cookery was written by Kannada writer Chavundaraya in 1025 AD. His work, Lokopakara, contains a full chapter on the art of cookery. It includes preparation of many delicacies also. As rice was the staple food of Karnataka, the author has referred to the preparation of rice first (anna).

Gandhasali rice when cooked gives sweet smelling aroma. He states that de-husked rice should be washed thrice in pure water and should be cooked and after sometime it should be passed through a stainer. By mistake if it becomes sticky, water mixed with ambili should be added to get good cooked rice. He has also described various methods of preparing sweet smelling anna (rice) by adding various herbs and leaves like tulasi, lamancha, clove, cinnamon etc.

Idli was and still is, a popular dish in the South India. It was referred to as Iddalika and Kadubu. Spongy and smooth idlis are prepared by making a paste of rice and black - gram and adding buttermilk mixed with asafotaeda, coriander, pepper and ginger. Obviously Chavundaraya was referring to what we call masala idli today. However, it is disappointing that he does not refer to dosa.

Chavundaraya describes in detail the preparation of curds and buttermilk. He has specially described the preparation of curds of different colours and tastes. This is particularly popular in United States as scented yogurt, though Indians love plain curds. He has also described methods of preparing fresh fruit juice from pomegranate, myrobelan, madala, tamarind etc. Many inscriptions refer to the preparation of puliyogare (crudely translated as tamarind rice), as it was an important food item offered to the God in the temples.

Food in Epics:

In the Valmiki Ramayana, there was the description of Rama and Lakshmana bringing home sackfuls of slain beasts (wild boars, iguanas, three or four varieties of deer. We are also told that their favourite family diet consisted of spike-roasted (meats) (shalyapakva), known nowadays as shik-kebab or shish-kebab); unfortunately, no other detail is supplied. Who skinned the carcasses or made the fire or turned the flesh on the spit, what were the greens and fruits eaten with the meat or the drinks with which it was washed down - all this is left to our conjecture. But in some places the information given was that Lakshmana roasted the meat on fire. 

Nevertheless, we are eternally grateful to Valmiki for the passage describing the entertainment provided by the sage Bharadvaja to Bharata and his entourage. When Bharata visits Sage Bhardwaja’s Ashram, he gives feast to the king and soldiers. Sage Bharadwaja gives a feast to 11 akshauhinis of soldiers. (In 1 akshauhini, there will be 109350 infantry soldiers other than 65610 horsemen, 21870 charioteers etc.)In that no one was there to serve the food. The soldiers sat in two lanes. Between the lanes there was facility for 16 canals of food. They have to serve themselves. Like our buffet. May be the first of its kind in any of our ancient books the mention of buffet. The soldiers after taking the feast said that they want to live there as they had the best feast in their life time.

There is nothing to compare with it in the Mahabharatan accounts of the Raivataka feast or Yudhishthira's Horse-Sacrifice. For once in our ancient literature we find the courses itemized--savoury soups cooked with fruit-juice, meat of the wild cock and peacock, venison and goat-mutton and boar's meat, desserts consisting of curds and rice-pudding and honeyed fruits, and much else of lesser importance. All this is served by beauteous nymphs on platters of silver and gold, wines and liqueurs flow freely, and there is dance and music to heighten the spirit of the revels. Granted that the whole account is somewhat fantastical--it was the gods who had showered this splendour on that forest hermitage--a splendour that rivals that of Ravana's palace in Lanka; but this at least tells us what Valmiki thought a royal banquet should be; evidently he had experience of a highly sophisticated culture.

In the book “Andhra Puranam” by Sri M. Satyanarayanasastry, there was a beautiful story of Vijayaraghava, son of Raghunathanayaka the Tanjore ruler. He used to feed 12000 Brahmins daily. Only after they were satisfied, he used to have his food. One rainy season, there was shortage of firewood for cooking as there were incessant rains for several days. He gives all the valuable things from his mansion and also the basic structure of the mansion was given to use as firewood. But the cooks won’t turn up to cook. Maa Annapurna comes to cook in disguise and she lost her nose ring while cooking. As a result, the priest of the temple was about to be punished by the king for the loss of the nose ring of the goddess. She appears in the dream of the king and tells that when she cooked for the Brahmins on that day, she lost her nose ring in his kitchen. He founds that and the temple priest was released. 


When I think of mention of food in Telugu Literature, the reminiscences of literature by different authors comes to my mind. They are firstly, Sri Bammera Pothana’s Sri MadBhagavatam, in which Pothana describes SriKrishna, the cowherd, eating his breakfast (chaldi) with his friends. He describes how they ate rice with taravani, and butter, and the pickle avakkaya and curds. Kuchela fed Srikrishna with puhe (atukulu) and gets all riches.

In Krishnadevaraya’s Amuktamalyada, he describes how Vishnuchitta, father of Goda prepared different items of food for offering to Lord Ranganayaka. Kavisarvabhouma Srinatha travelled to Kanchipuram to convert Tippaiah Chetty, a leading trader to his side. Although Srinatha produced and dedicated a host of books to kings and enjoyed a luxurious life, penury struck him at the end. He mentioned many varieties of items of food in his writings and chatu padyams( one kind of poetry) He used not only vivid descriptions, but also metaphors shined like stars in the night sky. He also describes many trees which give fruits like mango, jack fruit etc along with fields of rice and trees which give nuts in “Bhimakhandam.”

Srinatha, who used to eat the royal food in Rajamahendravaram and Kondaveedu circled many kingdoms. When he was in Palnadu, he was forced to eat the poor man’s food, which includes only, garlic, til, buttermilk with broken rice soup. He was not able to drink the jowar soup / upma made with broken jowar. We can know about the character of Srinatha from his chatu padyams (poems). 

Whenever the occasion for a royal feast emerged, Srinatha described it vividly. He mentioned eating dal with ghee, grape wine, (draksha panakam) sugar and cow milk,bananas, he mentioned, boorelu, bobbatlu, pulihora, kajjikayalu etc different snacks and sweets which are purely made in telugu kitchens.

A special observation by Srinatha reveals that even selection of the banana leaf in which one supposed to eat is very important. It should not be very tender at the same time it should not be very rough. It should be of a middle of these two as it won’t be torn while eating and it enhances the taste of the food. As he travelled, Palnadu, Renadu, Gurajaala, Karnataka, Dravida Desa, the non- availability of proper food made him to express his dissatisfaction in the way of poems (padyam which has its chandas, yati and prasa). Warm rice spread in golden plate / banana leaf gave him great pleasure and satisfaction. The inaccessibility of such food made him to write about his discomfort in the form of poems. He even challenges Lord krishna like this in a poem in the style which is mark of Srinatha. 

phulla saroja netra yala pootana channula chedu travi naa
dalla davaagni mringiti vatanchunu nikkedavela ,Tintrinee
pallava yuktamau nuduku bachhali saakamu jonna kootito
mellana nokka mudda diga mringumu nee pasa kaananayyedin

“Oh, lord, who has the eyes of a lotus flower, when you were young, you drank poison from Pootana, the demon. That’s not a great act. Now you try this. If you can eat a curry made with leaves of tamarind tree and leaves of spinach with jowar rice, then I’ll agree that you are great.” 

He also mentions that if the divine nymph from Indra’s court, Rambha comes to Palanadu, she has to make thread from cotton and even though he is a king, he has to plough the field and even though he is Manmadha, he has to eat jowar rice in Palanadu. 

Tenali Ramalinga Kavi, who was in the court of Srikrishnadevaraya, penned “Panduranga Mahatyam”, an epic–novel. In that a short story “Nigamasarmopakhyanam” appears. In that Nigama Sarma’s sister prepares food for his brother and offers him with love and affection. Gutti Vankaya Koora (Eggplant Fry) is one of the famous Andhra dishes. This is one of the traditional recipes prepared with stuffed baby brinjals cooked in authentic Andhra style. A special mention of this was made by the poet Dr.Duvvuri Ramireddy in his poem Sankranti Laxmi.

19th C. Literature

It is only in our prose fiction from Rabindranath and Saratchandra down to the present times that we find adequate accounts of what the Bengalis eat, each according to his station in life and individual taste. Menus are often mentioned, variations noted; some lady-novelists have done us the additional favour of describing methods of cooking. In Tagore’s beautiful story” Cabuliwallah “in which there is the mention of nuts, raisins and almonds. It’s not only mere mention, but the first link between Cabuliwallah and Mini.

Of food as a means of characterization the best example could be Tagore's novel Joga jog. Madhusudan has made his millions by honest toil, is aggressively proud of his wealth, is fond of vain display, his dinner service is all silver; yet his favourite diet is coarse rice, one of the inferior varieties of dal, and a mash of fish-bones and vegetables. The addition of this little gastronomical detail makes it all the more clear what a "tough guy" the poor ethereal Kumudini has to confront in her new home. On another level food has made its way into Bengali verse--and not merely for comic effects as in Ishwar Gupta. In a poem entitled Nimantran ("An Invitation") and addressed to an unnamed lady, the aged Rabindranath imparted a touch of his lyricism to mundane food, albeit half in jest and with a slant on the "modernist poets.” No golden lamps or lutes are available now," (I am giving a rough rendering of the passage.) "but do bring some, rosy mangoes in a cane-basket covered with a silken-kerchief, ... and some prosaic food as well--sandesh and pantoa prepared by lovely hands, also pilau cooked with fish and meat--for all these things become ineffable when imbued with loving devotion. I can see amusement in your eyes and a smile hovering on your lips; you think I am juggling with my verse to make gross demands? Well, lady, come empty handed if you wish, but do come, for your two hands are precious for their own sake." The last two lines lift the poem to a non-material realm, but the reality of the mangoes and pilaus remains undiminished.

In “Chokher Bali”, since tea is a Christian thing, one must observe their tenets.” The women then ask God’s forgiveness for drinking the tea and then continue to do so. After Binodini’s affair with Mahendra, Lakshmi rejects Binodini and her foreign tea. “By giving me tea once a day, you think you control me?” Lakshmi screams. Binodini snaps back, “Is only physical desire a sin? As a pious widow, why this need for tea every evening? “Even Binodini has to eat the chocolates in secret. Thus we come to know about the restrictions imposed on women and traditions beside knowing about the practices of preparing and consuming food.


Past societies often ate bitter vegetables that were believed to have a cleansing effect on the system. Perhaps the bitter compounds assisted in the production of bile or were intermediary products used to bond and flush toxins from the body. At any rate, such vegetables are almost completely missing from the modern diet. Stimulants such as caffeine have been around for millennia. Many groups with the strictest and most advanced dietary guidelines, however, refrained from these drugs. It appears that most cultures, after a period of exposure, come to the conclusion that stimulants over-tax and tire the nervous system.

We find the mention of a variety of food in contemporary literature which is somewhat different from that of the traditional texts and some authors utilized the food customs and dining traditions of Indian-American characters to illuminate the importance of family, culture and community. 

People, traditions, habits and especially food habits in the present society are changing. People are adapting themselves to get curries from fast food centres and slowly the traditional way of cooking different dishes for a unique cause is disappearing. In order to arrive at the best as well as healthy individual diet at any given period of life it helps to keep an open mind, experiment with traditional practices. The old tradition is giving way to the new and thus after some time, people may forget the traditional practice of cooking and some names of dishes will be limited only to books. But whether it is a conventional or non– conventional, the health factor is more important for the generations to lead a healthy and happy life.


Achaya, K. T. A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food (Oxford India Collection) [Paperback] OUP, first edn. 1998, reprinted 2002.P 10 -34.

Andhra puranam: Madhunapantula Satyanarayana Sastry p 68-75.

Khare, R.S., and M.S.A Rao, eds. Food, Society, and Culture: Aspects in South Asian Food
. Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic P, 1986.

Mahabharata: William Buck, Motilal Banarasidass Publishers Pvt Ltd., New Delhi.

Nalarayadavadanticarita (Adventures of King Nala and Davadanti) Edited by Ernest Bende. The American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1951. 

P.T. Srinivasa Iyengar. Life in Ancient India,( 1912)Asian Educational Services, New Delhi, reprinted 1982 a) p23-24 b)p.86 c)pp47f.

P.L.Bhargava. India in the Vedic Age. Upper India Publishing House Pvt Ltd., Lucknow, 2nd Edn.,1971., ch2 pp 80f.


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