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Indian cookery in Vedas, Puranas, Kavyas

Indians have little considered that the food they eat is just for satisfying hunger. Eating for eating sake is not their tradition, not their culture. Over centuries they have built a culture, a food culture unique to each region, change of climates and to suit their philosophy and religion. Indian cookery, therefore, cannot be compartmentalized into a particular category. It is a variety. It is a tradition. It is a culture. It is one of the 64 arts. The items that go into preparation of the rich Indian foods have medicinal value. Developed on experience of several centuries, the ingredients are such as to help maintain good health. They have curative effects and protect the body from diseases.

The Jains, Veerashaivas and Vaidikas (the followers of Jainism, the followers of Lord Shiva, and the traditional followers of Vedas - Brahmins) are vegetarians. The tribals and the hill-people have their own variety. They do very little cooking. They live on what nature has provided to them, both in food and medicine. The folk culture of food has it own uniqueness. These rich traditions can be seen even today in different parts of India among different sections of people.

How old is this tradition, this culture? It is as old as the Vedas, the earliest scriptural works of this great land. The 'Kannada Sahrudaya Balaga' of Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI), the Mysore-based premier research institute in food, both modern and tradition, had arranged a seminar on "Food: Then - Now", to mark its 10th anniversary. Experts presented some interesting papers. One such paper was by Dr. Y.C. Bhanumathi of the Institute of Kannada Studies, Manasa Gangotri, who has edited some unpublished Kannada classics preserved in palm leaves or manuscripts. Her edited works have been published by the Kannada Institute. The title of her paper was "Cooking in ancient and folk literature". Here are a few interesting excerpts from her presentation.

During the period of Vedas, varieties of grains were being produced for use. Bhagavad Gita classifies food into five categories - Bhakshya, Bhojya, Lehya, Peya and Choshya (fried food, dainty cooked food, linctus or ointment-like food good to be licked and enjoyed, beverage, and suckable food). Nala, famous in the epic work for his excellent art of cooking, is said to have cooked food without fire and air! Similarly, Bheema, one of the five Pandava princes of the epic Mahabharata, was an excellent cook. "Bheemadi Matha", "Bhojana Kuthoohala", "Paaka Rajeswara" are some Sanskrit works related to food. A 12th century work, "Chalukya Maanasollaasa" refers to non-vegetarian food. There are also a number of works relating to Ayurveda, the ancient system of Indian medicine, which suggests use of particular food, beverages, greens, etc. for curative purposes.

Influenced by such ancient Sanskrit works, several works have appeared in Kannada over the period. These classics not only describe varieties of food, but also narrate the various gadgets used in kitchen. They also describe the ideal qualities for a good cook. "Kaviraja Marga" is the earliest available work in Kannada. It has references to food. While giving a comparison, a poem there says, "Ari Samasa (a grammatical conjunction) is like mixing butter milk (Majjige) to steaming milk". (Ari samasa majjigege bisi haalu beresidanthe).This is not done and also not good for health.

Adi Kavi Pampa (940 A.D.), though a Jain poet, mentions that 'Chakana' (non-vegetarian item) was being used along with liquor. Another Jain work 'Chamundaraya Purana' mentions the use of crow's meat as a medicine. Kannada poet Harihara describes Ragi as 'Shankara Ganda', while the saint composer of Karnatak music Purandaradasa, 'Rama Dhanya'. Well-known poet Kumara Vyasa highlights the qualities of a cook. 'Idli', the popular South Indian breakfast item, finds mention in 1,000-year-old Kannada work, 'Vaddaradhane'. Mangaraja in his 'Mani Darpana' explains how water should be purified. There are many such examples in Kannada classical works.

Even in Karnataka alone, each region specializes in its own variety of food. Different varieties of foods are used depending upon the seasons, festivals, traditions and customs, and beliefs and circumstances. In all these, health plays a major part. There are several poems, Vachanas and proverbs relating to food.

The famous saying, 'Oota ballavanige rogavilla' (one who knows what to eat gets no disease) holds good even to this day in the Indian food tradition.

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