The Food Post


The iconography of Annapurna is given in the Agamas as a youthful goddess of red complexion having a face round like moon, three eyes, high breasts; the left hand carrying a vessel set with rubies and containing honey, and the right hand spread, holding ladle. [X]

Let’s begin with the goddess of food, Annapurna. Pic Source. More S Rajam paintings here.  Another Annapurna painting, more illustrative of the quote, here. The vessel is usually filled with rice (anna) in many illustrations.


When he was bathed and had rubbed himself with oil and myrobalan, she laid a plank on a part of the floor well swept and levelled, on which he sat down: she then placed before him on a well trimmed plantain leaf two platters.  Having given him some water to drink, she served him with two spoonfuls of rice, to which she added ghee and sauce, the rest of the rice he ate with spices, curds, butter, milk and rice gruel. She finally brought him water to drink pure, cool, and fragrant in a new jug, perfumed with agallochum.  From the section on Mitragupta in the दशकुमारचरित (7th cent. CE)

And move on to a 7th century tale. You know its an Indian story when a rich 18 year old from Kanchi disguises himself as a poor fortune seller to find a bride who will agree to cook rice for him. The orphan girl who agrees to do so does a mighty fine job of it too from sending off the rice bran to the goldsmith (to clean jewels), scenting the rice water from her cooking for a bath for her guest and finally serving up the rice with various little preparations.  A most accomplished girl.

Still from Vaagai Sooda Vaa.

Another kind of Ghiyath Shahi’s samosas: take well cooked mince with the same amount of minced onion and flavour it with dried ginger (zanjabīl). Having ground a quarter of that with half a tūlcha of garlic, mix them all together.  Grind three tūlchas of saffron in rosewater and mix it with the mince.  Remove the pulp from aubergines and having mixed it with the mince, stuff the samosas and fry them with ghee.  They can be either of thin dry bread or fine flour bread or of uncooked dough. Cook each of the three kinds of samosas, they are delicious and good.

Another recipe for bhrat (mash or stuffing): fry aubergines on hot embers, add onions, fresh ginger, salt, pepper and much relish. Flavour it well. Add aniseed, then cook chapati and eat the bhrat with it. Extracts from the Ni’matnama Manuscript of the Sultans of Mandu.

The Ni’matnama is a late 15th century illustrated cookbook completed in 1500 which contains the recipes of the Sultan of Malwa, Ghiyas-ud-Din Shah (the moustache man of the pictures). Apart from the exhaustive recipes (some of which are still around like samosas and baigan bharta in the extracts), the book is also important as it provides the first indications of the Indianisation of miniature painting as well as the Persian language.

And of course there are the costumes. Some are Turkish and Persian costumes (long layered robes, belts and headgear like a wimple or a turban). There are some Indian elements like the addition of a bindi (pic 1 and 4). Then there are Indian costumes as in pic 2 and 3 which are like ghagra cholis with a diaphanous dupatta and coiffures with elaborate ornaments. Some illustrations have costumes that combine both elements (e.g. an exposed midriff which is Indian combined with foreign headgear).

See also X, the illustrations on the whole have beautifully patterned cholis and skirts. Note that female attendants sometimes wore male clothing in some courts in this period.  Further the courts were a bit of a melting pot – the Ni’matnama for e.g. refers to Abyssinians and they also feature in a number of illustrations.

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A typical meal at the court consisted of dozens of dishes of vegetables, grains, rice and meat including lamb, goat, chicken, waterfowl and venison.  A popular way of preparing meat was to put it in skewers and roast it over a fire or in an oven.  This dish, known as kebabs (which means “without water” in Persian), probably originated with the Mughals’ Mongol and Turkic nomadic ancestors, since it was easy to make over a campfire. Food Culture in India, Colleen Taylor Singh. 

Mughal influenced cuisines are probably the most written about and well travelled of all Indian cuisines. Given this it is a little surprising that almost all the dynasty’s Emperors were personally not very interested in food.  The late 16th and early 17th century were probably the most decisive in shaping Mughal culture and its cuisine but Akbar had frugal eating habits (tending to Sufiyana or vegetarian according to the Ain-e-Akbari) while Jahangir was more fond of wine.

This late 18th century repast in today’s pic is also decidedly simpler given it is outdoors. The figure cooking the kebabs is a yogini – many a miniature painting shows yoginis in forest settings visited by royalty. The ankle length jamas (tunics) of the prince, his companion and the attendant are are very much late Mughal period, note that the prince has riding boots.

Hope the attendant and grooms got fed!

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In several texts written in medieval Bengal, cooking was done by women but they were not specifically seen as inhabiting the domestic space.  In other texts, specifically in Vaishnava literature, even if men did not directly cook for Chaitanya, the way they served him food symbolised acts of devotion to the preacher…….The aesthetics of cooking has been reflected to some extent in the Vaishnava texts as a form of devotional exercise. [X]

Food as devotion – detail from Radha in the kitchen, ~1810.

Ankle length jama/anarkali worn with a dupatta. Interesting colour scheme, the pink jama has a small green edging which is also picked up by the orange dupatta. Armbands with tassels appear to have a long history – you can see it even now in dance costumes.

One can also know from Pak pranali that cabbage seeds were brought into India every year from abroad. A detailed discussion on how to choose and clean a cabbage precedes the recipes in the first volume of Pak pranali, the periodical; this discussion became imperative since cabbage was a new vegetable. In the periodical, as well as the cookbook, so-called Bengali recipes happily co-exist with “new” recipes, which ranged from British to Italian to French cuisines. [X]

The first recorded recipe (as the King of Oude’s omelette) appears in Eliza Acton’s Modern cookery (published in 1845). This included onion, chilli, fresh mint, cloves and leeks. As time went on the cloves and leeks were eliminated and replaced with tomatoes and fresh coriander (a touch borrowed from the Raj loving Parsis of Bombay). [X]

With the arrival of Europeans in India came a whole host of new ingredients due to the Columbian exchange. Staples of Indian cooking like the chilli (one ingredient Indians took to fairly quickly), potato and tomato date from the European presence in India.

The influence of these cultures on Indian cooking itself was not as extensive though more than a few Goan, Parsi, Anglo-Indian dishes are a result of the mixing of traditions. However, though the cooking manuals of the 19th century are dominated by Indian influences on the British kitchen and club, there is some incorporation of new elements into Indian cooking or the Indianisation of these recipes – e.g. tea drinking, biscuits and cakes, cutlets, masala omelette and double roti or pao. Given that Bengal was amongst the first places to adopt new trends, they also seem to appear in early Bengali cookbooks.

At least some of the adapted recipes must be due to the cooks of the British (and perhaps royalty) in India. The bawarchi or cook (along with the khansamah – somewhat akin to a butler) earned about Rs 12 in the early 19th century which was the highest for household staff. A helper earned Rs 4. Bawarchis – like the maharaj of Indian households – were generally men. They duly appear in portraits of the time.

The costume of the cook in 1880 (pic 1, probably in Bihar/Bengal) is not very different from the Lucknow khansama  circa 1825-1830 (pic 3).  The jama or tunic is very voluminous in the 19th century and the patka or sash equally expansive.  The paijama or trouser was very wide in the early to mid 19th century but is a bit toned down by 1880. The circular headgear is common for the time.

The cook at the Government House in 1914 wears a veshti with a shirt/coat, the turban is Northern and the kind of safa that was popular in many parts of India at this time.

It wasn’t uncommon for cooks in Indian houses to wear just a lower dhoti as in this 1840 pic (pic 2). Perhaps due to the heat in the kitchen as well as a number of purity and pollution taboos regarding cooking amongst Hindus.

VeeraswamyThe first Indian “curry house” in the UK was Sake Dean Mohammed’s Hindostanee Coffee House.

Veeraswamy which has been around since 1926 bills itself as the oldest Indian restaurant in the UK, probably because its a fine dining place and is still around.

Today’s pic (click to see the large pic) is from 1928.  The flash probably resulted in a few closed eyes.  Lots of 1920s elements – slightly high sari, the drape over the head, Mary-Janes. shoulder brooch, thin zari borders on a few saris.

Raj cookbooks are in plenty [just two examples – X, X] and Veeraswamy’s cookbook, published in 1947, is still available.

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Though cookbooks often refer to Indian food, it is a bit of a misnomer.  The country has a number of culinary traditions of which a few now constitute Indian cuisine in restaurants. Many cuisines remain local, it’s probably easier to spot a Thai eatery than an Assamese one in many major cities. So I intended to do a post on early/mid 20th century culinary books from as many Indian states as possible but this turned out to be difficult. While the education of women in the early 20th century and the rise of periodicals meant that there were books on food, perhaps quite often recipes were orally transmitted and not written down. Or maybe books are not online. Listed here are a few, chosen because of the covers.

Pic 1 is a 1915 Parsi cookbook, Vividh Vani. The cook’s long lacy blouse and the hair net make it both Parsi and early 20th century.

Pic 2 is a 1954 “expat” cookbook, Savitri Chowdhury’s Indian Cooking. The style of wearing the sari and the blouse makes it very United Provinces.

Pic 3 is the English version of the Saraswat cookbook Rasachandrika. This book was first published in 1943 in Marathi, in 1958 in Hindi and in 1988 in English. The cover painting by P.G. Sirur is of a 1940s Saraswat kitchen (the standing lady’s blouse and sari is very characteristic of the decade, you can also see a scalloped petticoat).

Pic 4 is Vanttalu – Pindi Vanttalu by Malathi Chunder, a Telugu cookbook probably written around the 1950s. Its cover is like representations of Indian women in the 1960s and 1970s.

Other examples are the Bengali Amish o niramish ahar by Prajnasundari Devi, Samaithu Paar by Meenakshiammal, Ruchira by Kamlabai Ogle and Mrs KM Mathews cookbooks. By the 1970s middle class women were more likely to read English periodicals and books but I won’t go into these books here.

See also X, X (Bengal), X (Punjab), X (UP),  X (Indian Jewish cooking), X (South Africa).

picnicMahendra proposed, ‘Let’s go on a picnic to the orchard at Dumdum this Sunday.’

He greeted the ladies and made them sit on a platform. Soon he served each with a hot cup of tea and a plateful of sweets.  Binodini remarked again and again, “Thank God that Bihari Babu had the foresight to come so well equipped. What would Mahendra Babu have done without tea?”

The day advanced but the servants coach did not arrive.  Bihari opened his box and out came the provisions for a full fledged lunch – rice, dal, vegetables, and finely ground spices in small bottles. Bnodini stared in amazement and exclaimed, “Bihari Babu, you put us women to shame. You’ve no one at home – where did you learn all this?”. Bihari smiled. “Necessity is my teacher. Having no one to look after me, I have to look after myself.”

Picnics are common in Indian movies and literature. As expected memsaab has a picnic songs list. And I am all praise for the Satyajit Ray socially awkward picnic drinking game. But it is uncommon to have a man in charge of the refreshments as in the above passage from Chokher Bali. Pity the movie omits this but lets make do with another picnic in which Madhabi Mukherjee and Soumitra Chatterjee exude 60s cool.
mukul dey sushilsenThe paintings: 1)  Getting Ready for the Meals, Mukul Dey (1916) and 2) Untitled, Sushil Sen, 1940s.  List of Indian names for the cutting instrument here.

Awhile back I had a conversation on tumblr regarding starched vs non–starched saris and how we preferred the latter. The two saris here only confirm that view.

rahuldasnsharshaAnd last up how we eat. 1) Illustration by Rahul Das for My Grandmother’s Table and 2) Detail from N.S. Harsha’s We Come, We Eat, We Sleep. Click for bigger view.

120_11My personal view on food-though not on clothes! But hope you enjoyed the somewhat chronological food and fashion in India post.

About Anu M

A potted history of Indian clothing and fashion.
This entry was posted in 16th Century, 17th century, 18th century, 1910s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 19th century, Ancient India, British Raj, Colonial, historical art, historical costume, indian art, Indian Cooking, Indian Literature, Indian men, Indian Women, Medieval India, Mughal India, Paintings, Sanskrit Literature and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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