Ancient Indian Cookery


Radha in the Kitchen
Kangra/Guler, c. 1810

Aug 21, 2013 — CANADA (SUN) — A study of ancient texts on Vedic cookery and foodstuffs, in Sanskrit and Kannada.

The number of sastric texts on the Vedic art of cooking are relatively few in number, and fewer still have been translated into English. Among those most loved by Gaudiya Vaisnavas are sections of the Govinda-lilamrta by Srila Krishna das Kaviraja Goswami, with associated Rasa-tarangini Tika (commentary) by Sri Yadunandana Thakur. But there are several other notable manuscripts in Sanskrit and Kannada that we will summarize in this brief series.

We begin with the Supa-sastra (or Soopa-sastra), written in Kannada, the native language of ancient Karnataka. The Kannada script evolved from the 5th Century Kadamba script, thought to be approx. 1,500 years old. Kannada language flourished in Karnataka under the 6th Century Ganga dynasty, and again under the 9th Century Rashtrakuta Dynasty.

The Supa-sastra was written in 1508 A.D. in Kannada under the direction of King Mangarasa III. The text discusses the origin of recipes, discusses the Vedic philosophy of eating, and contains much anecdotal lore on devotional preparation of foodstuffs.

Fortunately, Supa-sastra has been translated to English and has also been a recent topic of discussion in India, thanks to a lecture series presented by Dr. Sathyanarayana Bhat, who at one time served as Executive officer (Ayush) of the Karnataka Biodiversity Board. Dr. Bhat prepared a nice summary of this medieval manuscript on Vedic cookery, highlighting main sections of the text.

King Mangarasa III's empire was seated at Kallahalli, an ancient village in Hunasur Talluk, Mysore district of Karnataka. We recently did a Sun Feature on a famous temple residing there - the abode of Lord Varaha and Bhu Devi at Pralaya-Varahanatha Swami Temple, Kallahalli. This Deity of Lord Varaha was installed by the sage Gautama some 500 years before King Mangarasa's time.

The 16th Century Supa-sastra is one of the earliest known texts documenting the art and science of Vedic cooking. The text is composed in vardhaka shatpadi, a metrical form employing six lines per verse. The text is thought to be translated from an earlier Sanskrit text, although its title and original author are unknown.

Supa-sastra is arranged in six chapters, comprising 358 slokas, or verses. Included are chapters devoted to snacks, drinks, rice dishes, curries and dishes made of bamboo shoots and myrobalan. The necessary ingredients and cooking methods are described in great detail, and even the types of utensils and ovens needed are exactingly provided.

Many vegetables are mentioned, some of them regionally specific, and others widely available in India and elsewhere. Some of the preparations described in the text are purivilangay, savadu rotti, himambupana, amritavallari, and gujjaraveni.

Supa-sastra explains the devotional understanding that foodstuffs are bhoga, and offered food is nourishing for body and soul. This exclusive text on vegetarian cooking discusses nine plant parts that are sources of nutritional value, including: tree, shrub, grass, creeper, tuber, stalk, leaf, flowers and fruit.

Among the many topics addressed in the 6 chapters are the following:

Starchy foods, including: 9 types of Rotis (sweets); 10 types of vataka (wada like milk, curd, iddali, kadubu and dosa); various preparation of Soji; and other sweets including chandra manadala, peeyoosha, jengoda, amritavallari (ambrose-creeper, known today as jangir), and sakkare burude (sugary blow-ups).

Panakadhyaya (beverages/soft drinks), including: sour, salty and sweet, made from all dairy products and forms of milk like buttermilk, rasala, mathulunga, siddha dadhi and lassi; all types of oils and butter; fruit juices like jamun, kadali, amra and aloe juice; and rain water and other types of water.

Ogara/Odanadhyaya (rice), including: 8 types of cooked rice (pongal), 9 types of payasa, 24 types of bath (mixed rice) like pickle, nimbu, tamarind and curd, as well as buttermilk rice.

Cooking of vegetables: 21 types of brinjals and cooking methods, processing of brinjal and vangi bath, and many other curries, kumbalakai (green gourd) and jack fruit savouries.

Leafy vegetables and sabjis, including: tender bamboo, gooseberry processed in jaggery, sugar and amalaka pooga; bitter gourd, radish, milk wada, thair wada and patrawada; and use of asfoetida. (Garlic and onion are absent from all recipes due to the fact that King Mangarasa III was a Jain, if not because they are also absent in an original Sanskrit text.)

Cooking for enemies: The 4th Chapter describes the service of the 'cook and poisoning woman', who is employed to kill enemies. This, along with the more mundane topic of kitchen utensils and vessels…

Fruits and vegetables, including: all vallee phalas, jack fruit and 16 jack fruit recipes, 16 kadalee (banana) recipes, 8 kadalee, recipes, 25 varieties of raw banana, along with banana stem and 20 preparations using banana flowers are described. Except for the leaves, all other parts of kadalee is consumed as food.


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