Annual Cookbook Issue : BOOK REVIEW : An Armchair Guide to the Indian Table : INDIAN FOOD: A Historical Companion <i> By K. T. Achaya (Oxford University Press: 1994; $35; 290 pp.)</i>
Two undeniable facts: 1) India has one of the richest cuisines in the world, and 2) the average American--even the average American foodie--doesn’t know much about it. If you want to get an idea just how little you do know, look into “Indian Food: A Historical Companion,” which is not a cookbook but a compendium of information about Indian food.
Wow! All these unfamiliar fruits and vegetables, this vast, mind-boggling swarm of local traditions. The 8th-Century Assamese curry made from a salty extract of banana roots, cooked with aquatic plants. The medieval aphrodisiac called vrsyapupalika --an omelet of crocodile eggs and rice flour.
Along the way, you discover that a lot of what people believe--even in India--about Hindu vegetarianism is wrong. It turns out that vegetarianism, like the avoidance of beef, is not an eternal Indian phenomenon but one that grew up slowly. In olden times, religious duty actually required Hindus to give a Brahmin a gift of meat (beef, in fact) on certain holidays, unthinkable as that would be today.
About half the book covers the history of food in India from the Stone Age to the present day. India has no ancient cookbooks, but there are descriptions of foods--sometimes quite detailed--in ancient and medieval literature, in some cases written by royalty. King Someshwara III (1226-1238) was the James Beard of the Chalukya Dynasty, writing loving verses about, for instance, a dish of liver cut into balls the size of betel nuts, grilled, fried with spices and served in yogurt.
The rest of the book treats various topics such as Indian medical beliefs about food, ritual food practices (in some Bengali tales, Achaya points out, everyone is served different food, according to temperament and station in life) and cooking utensils. The most interesting chapters are probably the ones on Indian foodstuffs and the 18 detailed pages on regional cuisines, which give the feeling that even this book has barely scratched the surface.
“Indian Food” has a couple of flaws, however. It seems to have been written primarily for Indian readers, possibly because it grew out of a research project sponsored by the Indian National Science Academy. If you don’t have a lot of Indian vocabulary at your fingertips, starting with elemental terms such as curds (which we call yogurt) and lakh (the number 100,000, as in “one lakh rupees”), you’ll be hitting the vocabularies at the back of the book pretty often. Here’s a typical sentence about grain cookery in Gujarat: “Roasted jowar cobs yielded hurada , and jowar rotis were called didari .” ( Jowar is a grain, roti is a kind of bread.)
The other flaw is more serious. Achaya has clearly read a lot about Indian food, but it was in what historians call secondary sources. In other words, he’s mostly reporting what other people have concluded from the primary evidence. Rarely, if ever, does he go to the original data to verify their conclusions.
This is a dangerous practice, particularly in India, because certain Indian scholars like to claim that everything in the world originated in India a long time ago. Unfortunately, Achaya makes no attempt to winnow the wheat from the chaff. He’ll quote from a serious scholarly work such as Om Prakash’s “Food and Drinks in Ancient India,” and then a few pages away he’ll blithely repeat daydreams like: The Latin word for olive oil comes from the Tamil word for sesame, there was a direct land connection between India and Africa 250,000 years ago, the Aztecs and Mayas worshiped Indian gods, and the inhabitants of Easter Island used a script that resembles that of the ancient Indian city of Harappa.
Achaya even invents one or two myths of his own. He says there is evidence that south Indians were making pilaf 2,000 years ago, but if you look up the book he footnotes, you find that the Old Tamil word pulavu had nothing to do with pilaf. It meant raw meat or fish.
Fortunately, there’s not much of this sort of dubious information, and it’s concentrated in the two chapters on prehistoric India (there are also some wild tales in the chapters on Indian medicine and New World ingredients). It’s a shame that there’s any, though, because when you talk about Indian food--or India itself--there’s so much gee-whiz stuff that’s really true.