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Food habits in ancient Bengal

The fine taste in food (see this link for information about current bengali food and recipes), and its importance to Bengali culture, is clear in the writings of the middle ages. From the ancient period (i.e. before c. 14th century AD) little evidence has survived.

Rice was the staple food in Bengal, and indeed all over Southern and Eastern India for a very long time. Linguistic evidence points to this being true even when Bengal was the home of the proto-Australoid speaking people. However, the details of rice cooking in this early period are not known today. A description of a marriage ceremony in naishadhacarita: ghee on hot steaming rice was probably common even then. The description continues on to say that the rice grains were unbroken, not sticking to each other, cooked well, very white, thin, aromatic and tasty. A description of rice cooked in milk is also available. The same book describes the use of yoghurt made of buffalo milk. The prAkrta paiGgala granthas (around the end of the 14th century), describe Bengali food as hot rice with bran eaten with ghee with a banana leaf used as a plate.

Various kinds of leafy vegetables, meat and fish were eaten with rice, but there is no mention of use of lentils with rice. Of these mention of nalitA (pATa) and mauralA fish is found paiGgala. During marriage feasts, a completely vegetarian diet was frowned upon (naiSadhacarita): we find instead a list mentioning a very spicy dish made from yogurt and mustard, many preparations of deer, goat and bird meat, a non-meat dish that looked like meat, many preparations from fish, other spicy and aromatic food, varieties of sweetmeat (coconut based and various kinds of piTha) and yogurt. As drink one finds camphorated water, and after food was served betel leaves folded with various ingredients. That huge feasts took place during the marriage ceremony, and a lot of food got wasted, is clear not only from the descriptions in naiSadhacarita, but also from writings of I-Tsing (late 7th century).

Milk, rice cooked in milk, concentrated milk and other milk products find common mention, and the few prohibitions against drinking milk found in the writings of bhavadeva bhaTTa (c. 11th century) seem more concerned with health and hygiene. However, panIra (cottage cheese) came to India from the Portuguese as late as the 16th century, and today's popular sweets like ledikenI (tradition says so called because Lady Canning liked it), rosogollA (according to tradition, invented by navIna mairA around 1869), rAbrI are all 19th century inventions.

Deer meat was considered very tasty. Goat meat was also common. Some people ate dried meat, though bhavadeba bhaTTa writes against Hindus eating dried meat under any circumstance.

Starting around the sixth century BC, killing animals for food was considered improper in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain dominated regions of India. This influence, though it did arrive in Bengal, was quite weak; and led to the rest of upper class India disliking the Bengali habits and Bengai foods. In the burnt mud carvings and paintings we find fish being carried to the market in little baskets, and being cut and cleaned; a man carrying a deer home over his shoulder is also portrayed. Deer was caught using nets, using nets to catch fish is also mentioned in the carYAgiti around the 11th century.

bhaTTa bhavadeva c. 11th cent. tried to justify the meat and fish eating habits of Bengalis based on ancient writings: according to him the prohibitions existed only on certain festive days. shrIdevAcArya also concurred on this. According to brhadddharma purANa, the rohita (rui), shaphara (pu~Ti, shapharI), sakula (sola) etc. white fish with scales are allowed for brahmins. jImutavAhana mentions oil from illisa (ilisha, ilsA) as commonly used. However, fish that live in holes or in mud, fish whose head is shaped like a snake's (e.g. vANa), those that look ugly and those that do not have scales were not allowed for the brahmins. mukundarAma and bhAratacandra at a slightly later period mentions koi, mAgur, kAtlA, sonAkhaD.kI, bheTki, cital, shol, jiol, rui, ciMri, and pÃkAla; the omission of illisa here is a bit puzzling. It does, however, appear in the list ‘iliszaH khalizcaiva bheTaki madgura eva ca | rohitaH matsyarAjendraH paJcamatsyAH nirAmiSAH ||’ from an indefinite period.

Rotten and dried fish was also proscribed, except people of bangAla (i.e. the region of southern Bangladesh today) liked to eat dried fish. Snails, crabs, chicken, crane, duck, dAtyUha (cAtaka), camel, cow, and pigs were considered inedible by the upper caste, though no doubt at least snails, crabs, chicken, and various kinds of proscribed fish and birds were eaten by the common people. godhA, rabbit, porcupine and turtle/tortoise was allowed as food.

Many of the vegetable names in Bengali (like beguna, lAu, kumD.A, jhinge, kA~karula, kacu/kanda) come from the proto-australoid language group. One can therefore imagine these (i.e. eggplant, various kinds of squash and tubers) go back to the early period in Bengal. Of the fruits we find mention of banana, tAla, mango, jackfruit, coconut, sugarcane and tamarind; mango and jackfruit being very common. Banana is of course very old, both as food and in ritual: it probably came from a proto-Australoid origin. Sugarcane juice was drunk, and was boiled to produce jaggery and unpurified sugar. The current bengali fascination for the ‘new jaggery’ season also traces its origin very far. During the kojAgarI festival in the month of Ashvina, the eating of parched rice (cipiTaka, ciD.A) with sweets made from coconut, and playing of pAshA was common. The tradition of khai-muDi (lAja) as a part of marriage ceremony also dates back to this early period.

Milk, coconut water, sugarcane juice, and palm juice were very popular drinks. An alcohol made from jaggery called gauD.IYa was well known all over India, though alcohol was never considered proper for the upper caste. Fermentation of rice, wheat, jaggery, honey, sugarcane juice and palm juice provided a wide variety of alcoholic drinks, even though bhavadeva bhaTTa writes against alcoholic consumption by Hindus. bRhaddharma purANa writes that during certain periods, a brahmin should not worship shiva with gold, alcohol, blood, fish or meat, nor should he perform human sacrifice. The alcohol sellers provided a symbol on their door, and people flocked to drink it; at least, that is what is portryed in the carYAgIti around the 11th century. The wife of the alocohol manufacturer purified the drink with the powdered bark (or root) of a tree and poured into storage jars.

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