All nations have vegetarians, but India is unique in also harbouring non-vegetarians, a term which is unknown elsewhere. The collision of this nutritional thesis and antithesis has dogged national politics, and has now cast a judgemental shadow over an interesting but problematic prehistoric feast arranged at the National Museum, which had partnered with a private body to recreate an Indus Valley kitchen. Under the onslaught of nameless but familiar forces, the non-veg dishes have vanished from the menu.
They had sounded interesting if occasionally transgressive — bati with dried fish, quail roasted in sal leaves, offal pot, fish in turmeric stew (peace, Bengalis, peace!) and the mysterious “meat fat stew”. But trying to recreate Harappan cuisine is problematic, because the chef must rely exclusively on archaeological evidence. With no textual sources, it is a shot in the dark. Besides, trying to eat like the ancients can have unexpected consequences. Our culture and beliefs have changed repeatedly over the last five millennia, since the Indus Valley civilisation flourished. Back then, going by the contents of middens that have been excavated, people ate food that could invite provoke in the present day. Alas, there was no golden age. But our ancestors ate well.
Why this fascination for ancient cuisines? The enthusiasm for “Vedic foods” was masochistic enough, since a three-course Vedic meal closely resembles three kinds of porridge. Fortunately, since those times, medieval cultural exchanges and European adventurism have brought us foundational elements of modern Indian cuisine, such as South American potatoes, tomatoes and chillies, apart from stalwart creations like the samosa. The Harappans did not know of such things. We are luckier. Let go of the past. Enjoy your chilli potato in the present. It’s fully imported, and so scrumptious that you may not care that “meat fat stew” has vanished from an archaic menu.
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