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Home > History of Food > Indian Food Ethos
Indian Food Ethos

Every Indian community in India follows different food ethos. Aryan beliefs and practices, however, have influenced most of these.

[ Aryan Food Beliefs | The Classification of Food | Cooked and Uncooked Foods | Polluting The Food | Domestic Food Practices | Eating Rituals and Practices | Festivals and Temple Foods | Fasts ]

Aryan Food Beliefs
The idea of food : Food in Aryan belief was not simply a means of bodily sustenance; it was part of a cosmic moral cycle. According to them, the eater, the food that the eater eats and the Universe must all be in harmony.

All food on being digested was believed to give rise to three products. The densest of these is called the faeces which gets excreted; the product of intermediate density is transmuted into flesh, and the third product, the finest and rarest, is called manas, which is thought or mind.

Prasad, which is the left over of food that has been offered to the Gods, is thought to be pure rasa or essence that leaves no residue and maintains mans spirituality. The deep and unique Hindu ethos of food is built on these exalted premises.

The classification of food
The classification of foodFood materials were classified into various Vargas corresponding to the divisions in use today:

At certain auspicious ceremonies, or for men who had taken sanyas, only the latter category of foods was permitted. Thus the starchy yam or water chestnut (singhda) would qualify not as anna but as phala, permitted during a fast. So would flowers (pushpa), roots (mula), bulbous tubers (kanda), leaves (patra), fruits (phala) and some pods or legumes (shimbi). Lentils (masur), qualify as anna, not so chana (chickpea), which is not classed as an auspicious grain. Milk and ghee are ritually pure, especially auspicious and therefore extremely flexible in use as food ingredients. Ghee is quite different ritually from a cooking oil: frying in the former constitutes a superior ritual act, not comparable to frying in vegetable oil.

An outcome of these ritual distinctions is the two major classes into which cooked foods fall, namely kaccha (uncooked) and pucca (cooked).

Cooked and uncooked foods
Kaccha (uncooked) foods are basically foods cooked in water like rice, khichdi and dal. These items of food are considered both exclusive and pure. Boiling with water tends to render any anna or its flour pure.

Once the cooking of a kaccha food starts, usually by setting the rice or dal to boil, the cook cannot leave the food area till the meal has been prepared, served and eaten following ritual rules.

Wheat breads like roti and chapatti were not in vogue in Vedic times, and therefore escaped ritual classification since they do not involve boiling. These items are strictly termed as kaccha foods, even though they are eaten at every meal. Kaccha food are to be cooked afresh for every meal; leftover or stale food, termed as basi or jutha, was likely to have become polluted.

Pucca or cooked foods are essentially those foods that are cooked with fat (course ghee). These are used outside the domestic cooking area. According to ancient practices, cooked foods are essentially those foods whose first contact is with ghee (fat). Thus in preparing halwa, the ghee must first be added to the pan and only then should the anna or phala follow. Sometimes, use of the same ingredients in a different sequence will determine the ritual classification. Thus to make kheer, a pucca food, the rice must first come into contact with ghee, before milk, fire and sugar come in its contact. If this sequence is not followed, and the rice is added to boiling milk, followed by ghee and sugar, the dish will be called doodh bath, and is a restrictive kaccha food. Common daily dishes are most affected by such sequences. Pucca foods suffer fewer restrictions, are less liable to pollution, and can be shared outside the family by those of either lower or higher levels of purity.

Polluting the Food
Concepts of pollution are intimately woven into the practices of eating and cooking. The cook should not taste the food while it is being prepared. Also, water should not be sipped from a tumbler, but must be poured into the mouth from above, since ones own saliva is polluting. Water used for rinsing the mouth must be cast out, never swallowed.

Domestic cooking practices
The domestic hearth in a Hindu home was considered an auspicious area of high purity, even of sanctity. The domestic hearth had to be located far from waste disposal areas of all kinds and demarcated from sitting, sleeping and visitor receiving areas. The cook was obliged to take a bath and don unstitched washed clothes.

Eating Rituals and Ceremonies
Food was never to be eaten standing up, lying down, and moving about or from the lap. One had to eat sitting on the ground, alone, facing east or north, and in total silence. Morsels of the meal were to be cast into the fire as an oblation, and prayers offered to various deities and ones ancestors. Portions of food reserved for Brahmins, serpents, dogs and insects, and laid outside for crows, who were believed to be messengers to the world of spirits. The householder was expected to see to the feeding of his guests and of any pregnant women, infants and aged persons in his household before he himself sat down to eats.

Prior to eating, a few drops of water would be sprinkled on the leaf for purity, and, on the rice that had been served, a few drops of ghee. Every item placed on the leaf had its exact position and ritual eating order. Today these practices have become region specific. The higher male principle resided on the right, therefore, only the right hand was used for eating, reserving the left for baser functions outside the meal.

Festival and Temple Foods
Temples have their own special foods. The Prasad that is offered to the presiding deities in different temples also varies. The Padmanabgaswmi temple in Trivandrum has a special aviyal that uses traditional vegetables, fresh coconut and coconut oil, and no mustard seeds. The Ganesha temples of Kerala have the unni-appam, which are spongy brown fried pieces made of a mιlange of rice powder, banana, jackfruit and jaggery.

Some of the most elaborate preparations of temple food are perhaps those at the Jagannatha Temple in Orissa.  Everyday a thousand persons manning 750 chulahs and ovens turn out a hundred varieties of dishes using rice, wheat and their flours, grits, urad dal, indigenous vegetables, jaggery and spices, with cow ghee as the cooking medium. The Gods are served ritually five times a day, and pilgrims can eat at the spacious bhoga mandapa (dining area), or buy Maha Prasad at a huge market within the temple walls.

Fasts or vratas make special demands on the orthodox Hindu. They are of five kinds. Vara fasts are on weekdays, the Adityavaravrata to Surya is one such example. The tirthivratas occur on certain days of the lunar months eg. Durgashtmi and Krishnajanmashtmi. On certain days of the lunar stations occur the Nakshatra fasts. Masavratas are fasts that occur in certain months, like Karthika, while Samvrata fasts with restrictive eating could even spread out from one ekadashi to the same one a whole year later. Fasts that are commonly observed among Hindus are Ram Navmi, Shivarathri, Sankranthi and the ekadashi, which is on the eleventh day of the lunar fortnight.

Fasts do not usually involve complete abstention from food, but only varying degrees of restrictions. Sometimes use of pure ghee is mandatory to induce sattvika (pure) thoughts, and rock salt may replace sea salt in domestic cooking.

In some fasts, plough-grown rice is abjured in favour of wild rice or other wild grains. In others, only restrictive kaccha (uncooked) foods are permitted, in yet others only food left over from previous day. Fruits only is a common form of observance, others take the form of eating only before moonrise or perhaps only after sunset. Modern practices, like fasting on a Friday, or missing the night meal on one day of the week, may tend to be dietic in intention, but do have a ritualistic origin.

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