Feasts and Fasts

By Colleen Taylor Sen

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Caraka (2nd century CE) makes some general recommendations for healthy eating. It is not advisable to eat a lot of foods with the same taste at the same time, nor to indulge constantly in dishes with various tastes. Eat only one main meal a day. Avoid bread, which is hard to digest; if you must eat it, drink twice as much water as usual. Take only half portions of heavy foods, but eat as many lighter items as you like. Avoid foods that are incompatible with one another, such as dairy products and fish. (This is one of the earliest mentions of a belief that may have originated in India and which gained wide currency in Africa, the Middle East, Europe and North America.) Other rules are as valid today as they were centuries ago:

• Eat properly combined food after digesting the previous meal to allow a free passage for all substances

• Eat in a congenial, quiet place either alone or with affectionate people so that the mind is not depressed

• Eat neither hurriedly nor leisurely, to appreciate the qualities of the food you are eating

• Eat without laughing or talking, with concentration, considering your constitution and what is good and not good for you as you eat

• Do not eat when you are not hungry and do not fail to eat when you are hungry

• Do not eat when you are angry, depressed or emotionally distraught, or immediately after exercise

• Keep as large a gap as possible between meals

• Sit to eat whenever possible, facing east

• Pray, thanking the Creator for the food you are offering your digestive fire

• Never cook for yourself alone; the gift of food is the best gift of all

• Feed all five senses: look at the food and savour its appearance and aroma; listen to the sounds it makes, especially when cooking; eat with your hands to enjoy its texture; chew each morsel many times to extract its flavor

• Stroll about a hundred steps after a meal to assist the digestive process

• Do not eat heavy or kapha-producing food like yoghurt and sesame seeds after sunset, and eat nothing within two hours before going to bed

• Never waste food.

• Food should be ‘alive’ in order to give life to the eater. Raw food is more alive than cooked food. Overcooked, undercooked, burnt, bad-tasting, unripe or overripe, putrefied or stale food should never be eaten.

• Leftovers should be heated as soon as possible or, ideally, avoided all together.

According to Susruta (c. 700-600 BCE), dishes should also be served in a certain order. Sweet substances are eaten first to subdue wind, followed by sour and salty dishes to stimulate digestion, and finally pungent foods to subdue phlegm. During a meal the diner should frequently rinse his mouth or gargle, since a clean palate enhances the flavour. At the end, the diner cleans his mouth with water and removes food stuck to the teeth with a toothpick, and perhaps chews a betel leaf wrapped around areca nut, camphor, nutmeg and clove – one of the earliest references to paan. After resting for a while, he should walk a hundred steps, then lie down in a bed on his left side, all the while enjoying ‘soft sounds, pleasant sights, sweet perfumes, soft and velvety touch’.


Recipes from the Manasolassa (12th century CE)

Barbecued Rat
The strong black rats that live in fields and along riverbanks are called maiga; they are held by the tail and fried in hot oil until the fur comes off. The rat is then washed in hot water, the stomach cut open and the inner parts cooked with Indian gooseberry and salt. The rest of the rat is put on an iron skewer and fried over red-hot coal until the skin is charred. When the rat is well cooked, it is sprinkled with salt, cumin and dried ginger.

Lamb or goat is cut into small pieces, which are mixed with asafoetida, turmeric and ginger and strung on to iron skewers. The kebabs are turned constantly over hot coals, and flavoured with salt and pepper once cooked. This dish is called bhaditrakam; it is tasty, light and wholesome, and stimulates the appetite.

In another recipe, the meat is marinated with a sour substance (perhaps citron juice) and asafoetida, and then mixed with ginger juice, coriander, ground fenugreek and ground cumin. The mixture is cooked in ghee until the liquid dries up and then flavoured with pepper.

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