THE MUGHAL EMPEROR BABUR (who enters later chronologically) had strong opinions of the Indian food scene based on limited encounters. He bemoaned the lack of fruits that appealed to him, or for that matter “any good food in the markets”. However, even he realised that the charms of food had to be worked on to be revealed; he eventually had locals bring in their knowledge into his kitchen. It would be interesting to know what he or fresh settlers made of local meals when they first arrived in the Deccan, from the 13 Century onwards. Forays into mandis (markets) would likely be their first introduction to the variety of local and traded foods. They would have come across a range of new grains – they would see varieties of rice they had never known before. The 12th Century work, Manasollasa, written by the Western Chalukyan king Somesvara III, speaks of as many as eight varieties.
But it is likely that millets eclipsed rice in inland markets. The many varieties would be hard to miss in the mandis of the inland Deccan, but fresh settlers from West Asia or further North would not be seeing millets for the first time. It is known that millets, rather than rice or wheat, formed a critical part of the diet of the prehistoric Indian, Chinese and Korean societies, and eventually made its way westwards to Asia and Europe. As for new settlers in the Deccan, it would be fair to say that they had well and truly arrived the day they understood the pre-eminence of millets in the local diet, and began incorporating it into their own. Millets have a special place in the hearts of the Deccan land. Ragi stands out among the millets here. Ragi however, is native to the highlands of East Africa where it has been growing for 5000 years. It arrived in India around 3000 years back, probably coming from trade with the Axumite Empire. In the Deccan, ragi is prepared in the form of rotti, bhakri, dosa, idli, porridge, pudding, or a large sphere (mudde) that is broken into pieces that are dipped into sambar.
In Sanksrit, the iron-rich ragi is referred to as nrtta-kondaka, meaning dancing grains. Legend holds that Lord Rama, Indra and Hanuman all favoured ragi over rice, on the merits of its immediate and lasting attractiveness. Its merits go beyond looks: it is rich in minerals and unusually for a cereal boasts an amino acid, methionine, that is normally found in significant amounts largely in eggs, meats and fish. In flavour, this red millet constitutes a challenge to chocolate, and brings a grainy and glutenous (though it is gluten-free) texture that makes it a wonderfully original comfort meal.
As for kings and their whimsical tastes, there is one king of the Deccan who improved on Babur’s bias for immediate gratification. This King saw it worthwhile to dedicate his life to better understanding fundamental pleasures, of which food was critical. The 15th C king of Mandu (on the northern rim of the Deccan) went on to create a book of recipes, The Nimatnama – a valuable compilation of his leisurely meditations and observations in the culinary direction, that went on to be completed by his son and successor. The book deals with “cooking food, sweetmeats, fish and the manufacture of rose-water perfumes.” The interplay of local and Persian styles are apparent both in the artwork in the book as well as the recipes themselves. Incidentally, the book also features a selection of rural recipes, a number of which call upon the use of millets.
- Indian Food, A Historical Companion, by KT Achaya
- How the banana goes to heaven, by Ratna Rajaiah
- fao.org: Eleusine coracana (L.) Gaertn.
- aashpaz.com: A history of Persian Food through the ages