If you had been invited to an Indian banquet 2,000 years ago, what would you have found on the menu? Rice, accompanied by chickpeas (chana) or kidney beans (rajma). Lentils (urad, moong, masoor), either boiled, made into a batter and deep-fried (vade), or rolled into thin papads. A variety of vegetables, including squash, bitter gourds (karela), peas, sweet potatoes and lotus stems. The food would have been well spiced, using generous amounts of turmeric, cumin, asafetida (hing), pepper, mustard seeds and fenugreek. Coriander, lemon and ginger would have been used for added flavour, but garlic and onion would have been frowned upon. The food would have been cooked in sesame or mustard oil — or, on special occasions, ghee — even though the great physicians of the time, Charaka and Sushrutha, warned against eating too much fried food.
People with a sweet tooth would be satisfied with apupa (barley or rice cakes deep-fried and dipped in honey), kheer from rice cooked in milk, and mandaka (parathas stuffed with sweetened lentil paste). A variety of meats were offered, including chicken, goat and venison — but the taboo against eating beef was already established, and vegetarianism was becoming widespread.
A modern guest at this ancient feast would have been equally struck by what was missing, as many of the ingredients indispensable in Indian food today would have been absent. Potatoes and tomatoes were still unknown in India, as were chilies — the only heat in the spicing came from black pepper and mustard seeds. There were no nuts or cream.
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