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Fact Check: What did the Harappan people really eat?

The menu at 'Historical Gastronomica' suggests that the food of the Indus Valley people would be familiar to many Indians today, even as it challenges the idea of an essentially “Indian” culinary culture.

Written by Pooja Pillai , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: February 21, 2020 1:14:33 pm
Explained: What did the Harappan people really eat? A promotional image for Historical Gastronomica.

The National Museum in New Delhi has decided to keep meat out of the ‘Historical Gastronomica’ event that it is hosting on its premises until February 25, allegedly after “a couple of MPs” reacted to the menu posted online by the Ministry of Culture (The Indian Express, February 20).

The last-minute diktat has resulted in dishes such as fish in turmeric stew, quail/fowl/country chicken roasted in saal leaf, offal’s pot, bati with dry fish, meat fat soup, lamb liver with chickpea, and dried fish and mahua oil chutney being knocked off the table.

Food of Harappans

The event, presented by the Museum along with One Station Million Stories (OSMS), claims to treat visitors to “The Indus dining experience” through a “specially crafted menu that strictly includes ingredients that were identified by archaeologists & researchers from sites of the Indus-Saraswati Civilisation”.

However, archaeological evidence from Indus Valley sites (c. 3300 BC to 1300 BC) in present-day India and Pakistan suggests that a purely vegetarian meal will not provide a complete picture of what the Harappan people ate.

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“To judge from the quantity of bones left behind, animal foods were consumed in abundance: beef, buffalo, mutton, turtles, tortoises, gharials, and river and sea fish,” food historian K T Achaya recorded in his magisterial history of Indian food, Indian Food: A Historical Companion (Oxford University Press, 1994).

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Apart from meat, the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation grew and ate a variety of cereals and pulses. There is archaeological evidence for cultivation of pea (matar), chickpea (chana), pigeon pea (tur/arhar), horse gram (chana dal) and green gram (moong). Several varieties of wheat have been found at Harappan sites, as well as barley of the two-rowed and six-rowed kinds. There is evidence that the Harappans cultivated Italian millet, ragi and amaranth, as well as sorghum and rice.

Achaya writes that oilseeds such as sesame, linseed, and mustard were also grown.

Food made with many of these ingredients finds a place in the menu curated by OSMS. There are rotis made of millet and saktu (barley meal), and dishes like boiled lentil stew, barley griddle cakes, fermented vine or spinach leaves stuffed with millet, chickpeas and moong, puffed rice tossed and flaxseed tossed with honey, barley bread, brown sesame seed and jaggery laddu, and a drink made of saktu.

Condiments use ingredients that have been identified at Indus Valley sites: chickpea and black pepper chutney, cucumber and cumin pickle with sesame oil, mustard greens and sesame oil chutney, and jaggery and cinnamon syrup.

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A history of taste

The menu at ‘Historical Gastronomica’ suggests that the food of the Indus Valley people would be familiar to many Indians today, even as it challenges the idea of an essentially “Indian” culinary culture.

Many of our staples today — potatoes, tomatoes, chillies, leavened bread, cheese, apples — came to India from other parts of the world. The people of the Indus Valley, as well as those of ancient and most of medieval India, for example, would not have known what to with a potato or a tomato.

At the same time, much of what was once eaten by our ancestors has been taken off our plates over time, thanks to cultural and economic forces. Among these foods are a number of animals that were once hunted or reared in the subcontinent.

To seek to understand what was once eaten on this land may be a worthy quest, but to try and tailor it to suit a modern perspective on history is a task with many pitfalls.

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