Ancient India—Sacred Cows and Ayurveda

Food: A Cultural Culinary History—Episode 07

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In this episode, we’re going to learn about the culture of the Aryans, whose religion prefigured Hinduism; we’ll discuss food customs relating to India’s caste system; and we’ll even touch upon the traditions of vegetarianism in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. Then we’re going to hear about the dietetic system of Ayurvedic medicine and break down the components of Indian cuisine.

Images for this Episode:

Culinary Activities for this Episode:

• Making Ghee

Clarifiied butter, also known as Ghee

Among the explicit food taboos in ancient India, there were a few substances considered absolutely pure. Ghee, a kind of clarified butter, is one of those. It was used in sacrifice, and because it is made from cows’ milk, it is considered among the most nourishing substances on Earth. There are also very practical reasons why ghee is used in India; it is practically imperishable, even in intense heat. You can even fry in it.

Take a pound of butter, and place it in a pot on the lowest possible heat— or even in the oven at about 200 degrees. Let it slowly simmer without disturbing. After foaming up briefly, the excess water will evaporate, and the milk solids will come together and eventually will precipitate to the bottom of the pot. Unlike clarified butter, this gives the ghee a deep, nutty flavor. Simply pour off the clear fat, and store in a jar. Discard solids.

A Recipe Using Ghee

Unlike in the West, spices in the East are always gently toasted before cooking, which brings out the flavor, and then ground fresh. This recipe is vegetarian and could be eaten by any caste, as long as it was prepared by someone of the same caste.

In a small iron skillet, dry toast spices, including coriander, cumin, cinnamon, and pepper. Be careful not to let them burn. Transfer to a mortar or spice grinder, and reduce to a powder. Add to this ground turmeric and fenugreek. This is a simple spice mix, and every family has their own; these mixes are often extremely complex, which is not surprising because may of these spices are native.

Next, cut up an eggplant, leaving the skin intact. Heat some ghee in a pot, and add the spice mixture and the eggplant pieces. Leave to stew very gently until the eggplant has cooked through and is tender. For observant Brahmans, onions would be left out, but they are actually a very tasty addition.

Suggested Reading:

Achaya, A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food.

Ferrières, Sacred Cow, Mad Cow: A History of Food Fears.

Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture.

Images courtesy of:

• Map of Ancient India: By Dbachmann (talk · contribs) (Own work) GFDL , via Wikimedia Commons
• Mohenjo Daro ruins: By Saqib Qayyum (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
• Ghee: Shutterstock
• Sacred Cow: Shutterstock
• High Caste members: By Charles Shepherd and Arthur Robertson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Siddhartha Gautama :Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
• Asoka:World Imaging assumed (based on copyright claims). GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons
• Paneer: By Ian Brown (Flickr: Homemade Paneer) CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons 

• rice comparison photo: By nagualdesign (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
• Indian Spices: Shutterstock
• Vindaloo: Shutterstock 

• Chutney: Shutterstock
Indian Sweets: Shutterstock
Paan: Shutterstock
Chicken Tikka Masala: Shutterstock
Ghee: Shutterstock
Eggplant: Shutterstock