What Indians Ate in the 12th Century

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    Dahi vada, dosa and barbequed rats… the cuisine of 12th century India sure was a mix of the known and the bizarre. The fascinating 12th century Sanskrit text Manasollasa, or the Delights Of The Mind, considered to be one of the oldest surviving cookbooks in India, gives us a fascinating insight into what people ate at that time, and how they lived.

    It has 20 chapters dealing with food and recipes

    Indian food historian Colleen Taylor Sen in her book Feasts And Fasts: The History of Food in India explains that while gastronomical issues were given great importance in ancient Indian texts, little attention was paid to the culinary aspect. Most of the references to food in these ancient texts pertained to what should or should not be eaten, in what season, and so on. They gave little or no importance to the palate. Not this one, though; it offers very specific directions on how to prepare, cook and consume different foods.

    The Manasollasa – the earliest known ‘non-medical’ text on Indian food – was written in the court of King Bhulokamalla Someshvara III (r. 1127 – 1138 CE), a king of the Western Chalukya dynasty, which ruled a large part of peninsular India from their capital at Kalyani (Basavakalyan) in Karnataka.

    Written almost entirely in poetic verse, the Manasollasa is voluminous, with 100 chapters dealing with topics such as the qualifications of the king, governance and economics, food, music, entertainment and games. It is like an encyclopedia, offering advice ranging from how to train war elephants, to types of taxation and even make-up tips for women.

    It is in the third section of the book (Bhartur Upabhogakāraṇa) that you find 20 chapters dealing with food and recipes that are most interesting for the lay reader. Spread over 1,820 verses are food recipes that range from very familiar ones like dosaka (dosa), polika (puran poli) and vadika (dahi vada) to some really hair-raising ones like barbequed rats and roasted tortoise. It gives a glimpse into what the elite in 12th century India ate.

    Spread over 1,820 verses are recipes for barbequed rats and roasted tortoise

    Manasollasa places great emphasis on eating in sync with the seasons – pungent food in the spring, sweet and cold foods in summer, salty in the monsoon, and hot and spicy in winter. It also suggests a combination of six basic flavours (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent) in meals. It recommends that food such as meat should be eaten with sour items, while acidic foods should be eaten with salt, and so on. Interestingly, the most common spice used is asafetida (hing) dissolved in water, a cooking practice widely prevalent in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Karnataka even today.

    In the text, we encounter a great variety of grains, pulses, vegetables and fruits that were consumed at the time. For example, Colleen Taylor Sen notes that while there are 40 fruits listed in the text, none of them has any English equivalent. Interestingly, there is even a recipe for a salad of raw mango, plantain, bitter gourd and jackfruit in sesame with black mustard-seed dressing, a platter that could quite well be on the menu of a trendy molecular gastronomy restaurant today!

    There are 40 fruits listed in the text and none of them has any English equivalent!

    For medieval fast food lovers, there are recipes of purika, deep fried small dics popular today as paapdi eaten with chaat. There are also dumplings of urad dal and pepper soaked in yoghurt, a forerunner of the modern day dahi vada. Then there are recipes of the very familiar and ever-popular dosika (dosa), polika (puran poli) and different types of mandakas (parathas). Other snacks include peas pattice and what seem like five-lentil fritters (modern-day dal vadas).

    The Manasollasa has something for every palate and fish lovers will find listings of 35 varieties of fish, their habitat, size and appearance, what they should be fed to get the best flavours, how they should be cut and even recipes to prepare them. There are recipes for fried rohu, popular in North India even today, crab meat (to be cooked only in copper vessels) and roasted tortoise.

    For meat loves, recipes discuss a wide array of skewered meats (today’s kebabs), and not surprising for those pre-refrigerator times, a variety of offal. There is also a variety of black puddings made from sheep’s blood. And most eye-catching of all is the recipe for barbecued river rats.

    For refreshments, there are recipes for panaka, various types of fruit blended with buttermilk, known as fruit smoothies today; and molasses sprinkled with pepper and majjika, the equivalent of spiced buttermilk or chaas.

    The Manasollasa suggests that dishes prepared in earthen vessels are always tastier and recommends serving them in gold or gold-plated utensils to the king. The art of preparing wine from grapes and sugarcane is also described, with unusual sources being based on the brewing of talimadya (palm), narikelasava (coconut) and khajurasava (date).

    The book suggests that dishes prepared in earthen vessels are always tastier

    The non-food chapters of Manasollasa describe various types of musical instruments, dances, types of games, perfumery, the art of painting, tips for laying gardens and so on. It captures an amazing snapshot of life in 12th century India.

    Thankfully, copies of this valuable time capsule have survived the ravages of time, and are preserved in the Bikaner Archives in Bikaner in Rajasthan, and in the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune. For those whose appetite has been whetted by this medieval slice-of-life treatise, English translations are available.

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