Inde : Unearthing the food of ancestors to shed light on the evolution of eating 

Avantika Bhuyan
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Did you know that the concept of the good ol’ tandoori chicken dates back to the Harappan period? Or that the singhara — the water chestnut — has been found as a 70 million-year-old fossil in India? What if you could find out not just what was on the menu of the ancients but also how their table was laid? A clutch of archaeologists across the country is working hard to unearth the food of our ancestors to shed light on the evolution of food materials and practices in the Indian subcontinent. 

FarmanaA view of residential complexes No. 2 and 4 in a dig in Farmana, Haryana 

Kashyap spoke about this unexpected finding in Farmana: “Archaeobotanist Linda Perry, my PhD mentor, used starch grain analysis — a method of examining starch granules stored within plants under the microscope — to prove that the pre-Columbian civilisation in Mexico grew seven kinds of chilli some 6,100 years ago.” Kashyap started looking for tubers and fruits in the Harappan diet using this method. After collecting residue from pottery and human teeth, she found that people had been cooking wit .. 

SilbattafoundinrakhigarhiA silbatta found in Rakhigarhi 

Curry Forward 
The current cooking methods in Farmana guided her in the quest to trace the protocurry as they were still using some of the ancient techniques. “After talking to the local people, I realised I was doing things wrong. Instead of boiling eggplants and turmeric individually, I should have cooked them together. When you mix all the ingredients with salt, the starches are at a perfect stage to be identified under the microscope,” says Kashyap. With such a signifi .. 

It was at the behest of Vasant Shinde, now vice-chancellor and professor in South Asian archaeology at Deccan College, Pune, that Kashyap went to Farmana to mentor a group of women archaeologists and ended up making this discovery. He says that the concept of tandoori chicken goes back to the Harappan era. “We found similar tandoors at the sites and lot of poultry bones as well,” he says. Having worked across Gujarat, Haryana and Maharashtra, he is busy supervising findings from the site of Rakh .. 

In his findings, Shinde has found out not just traces of what our ancestors ate but also the crockery that they used. “For instance, from 5,000 BC to the beginning of the Christian era, we got remains of plates in Punjab and Haryana. For the same period, we got bowls in Gujarat. It indicates that more rotis were eaten in the former, and more porridge-like foods using sorghum and millets were consumed in Gujarat,” he says. 

What these findings also do is take one on a journey through the evolution of food habits — some of which we take for granted. “Chillies, tomatoes, potatoes are all recent additions. They arrived on the west coast through the Portuguese,” says Kurush Dalal, Mumbai-based archaeologist and culinary anthropologist. “There was no makki ki roti being eaten with sarson ka saag earlier. The saag was being eaten with jau (barley) ki roti.” According to him, beef was the No. 1 source of protein at all Br .. 

With no formal recipes to fall back on, chefs and writers often take the liberty of recreating dishes by adding ingredients that have been locally grown in a region for years. For instance, when food writer Soity Banerjee set out to recreate the proto-curry, she had only three ingredients to work with: turmeric, ginger and eggplant. She felt that the recipe needed something else and that’s when she added pabri, which lent a “sweet, slightly peppery note to the dish”. “This led to many more quest ..