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Indian food: Then and Now

Take one big culinary history class with Colleen Taylor Sen’s book, Feasts and Fasts, A History of Food in India

When author Colleen Taylor Sen sat to write Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food In India, which released in May, she had 30 years worth of research data. “I have been collecting more information for ‘if and when there is ever a reprint’. There’s so much to add.”

“The Vedas contain a lot of information about what ancient Indians ate. There is no documentation of the Indus Valley civilisation, though there is presence of archaeological material,” says Sen, who referred to an online translation of the Vedas, and even consulted Sanskrit specialist Professor David Gitomer, for the book.

Colleen Taylor Sen
Colleen Taylor Sen

This is the 72-year-old’s sixth book, but the one on her bucket list is an encyclopedia of Indian food with Indian journalist Sourish Bhattarchya. “And when I finish that book, it may be my last. It’s such an ambitious project!” she says, over a phone conversation from Chicago.

Sen first got introduced to the concept of food history when, out of sheer curiosity, she began attending the Oxford Food Symposium in 1998. At the time, Sen was already an established food writer. “Till then, I had only written for newspapers and magazines, but nothing concrete on food history. I went on to write a research paper at Oxford on the Portuguese infl-uence on Bengali cuisine,” says Sen.

In the early 1970s when she moved to Chicago along with husband Ashish Sen, a professor and transportation statistician, their home was three blocks away from the city’s main Indian shopping centre on Devon Avenue, where she was introduced to Gujarati and Hyderabadi cusine.

One of the main ingredients in Indian cuisine, ghee, says Sen, finds mention in the Rig Veda (1200 -1100 BCE). According to the book, Agni, the god of fire, was considered the mouth through which the gods ate the sacrifices; he was both priest of the gods and gods of priests. One of his favourite foods was ghee (clarified butter), a divine substance exalted in many of the hymns of the Rig Veda. “Dairy was an integral part of the Indian diet, unlike China. Today, though ghee is not consumed as much, with preference for lighter meals,” she explains.

The book traces India’s food history from the time when food revolved around religion, class and medicinal practices, to external influences, including the Delhi Sultanate and the Moghuls, that added kingly richness and many meat dishes. It touches upon the legacy of the Portuguese who introduced Indians to cheese (called Bandel, which is a smoky cow’s milk cheese still sold in Kolkata’s New Market). The Portuguese also introduced potato, okra, papaya, pineapple, cashew and tobacco to us. The British left us the Anglo-Indian cuisines that trickled down from the sahibs and to present-day Indian diaspora. But, assimilation has never been a problem for Indian society. Indian food, according to Sen, has shown continuity over the ages. “India valued its indigenous crops, such as millets and other grains. But history is proof that it is open to the outside world, absorbing techniques, and exporting its food to other countries,” says Sen.

“During my recent visit to India I was amazed how restaurants in the capital today serve Assamese, Naga, and other regional cuisines. It is an authentic food revolution.”

One interesting project she worked on in 2010, was a 22-page guide on what to order at an Indian restaurant. “I did this at a restaurant owner’s request. Do you know what foreigners order at an Indian eatery? Tandoori chicken, butter chicken, samosa and saag paneer. I wanted to help them broaden their culinary horizons.”

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