Ancient Indian Cookery, Part 3

BY: SUN STAFF - 25.9 2017

Cooks in Vedic Kitchen 
Ayurvedic text illustration

A study of ancient texts on Vedic cookery and foodstuffs, in Sanskrit and Kannada.

In Parts 1 and 2 of this series, we summarized a few of the best known manuscripts on ancient Vedic cooking, including the Supa Sastra, the Shivatattva Rathnakara and the Bhojana Kuthoohala. There are relatively few other treatises on pure Vedic cooking techniques, but one of the most famous among them is the Pakadarpanam, written by Nala Pandava.

During the thirteenth year of the Pandavas' exile, the brothers had to disguise themselves to remain in hiding. They took refuge at the court of King Virata, joining the royal court staff in disguise. Bhima presented himself as a great cook. Taking the name Vallabha (but known to his brothers during this time as Jayanta), he pleased the King by presenting him with many mouth-watering preparations. Bhima is said to be the first to have cooked a dish much loved in South India, Aviyal, which is a thick stew of vegetables, curd and coconut.

Nala Pandava had the extraordinary ability (siddha) of cooking without fire. He wrote a treatise on cooking called Pakadarpanam, in which he describes how the guardians of the four quarters, Indra, Agni, Yama and Varuna, sent Nala as a messenger to princess Damayanti with a marriage proposal. Pleased with Nala, the demigods conferred upon him various boons. Nala utilised these powers in creating many different dishes, and recorded them for humanity in his Pakadarpanamcookbook.


Bhima Disguised as the Cook, Vallabha


Today, Nala's Pakadarpanam is closely associated with Ayurveda. The famous Ayurvedic pandit, Charaka (b. 300 B.C.) is thought to have gained some of his knowledge of healthful eating from Nala's treatise.

In a paper recently presented to the Institute for Oriental Study, Dr. Lalita Kuppuswamy of New Delhi University addressed the cooking excellence of Nala and Bhima, and described how their knowledge was carried forward into Ayurveda. She stated that Charaka emphasizes that the three pillars of good health are food, sleep and self control, and food becomes the most important ingredient. The art of cooking without the loss of nutrients, food intake at proper times and in the proper manner are important for being healthy. Referring to Nala's Pakadarpanam, she writes:

''We come across interesting details on defects of food, preparation of soups with different pulses, preparation of dishes from vegetables with their nutrition contents, various types of sweets dishes, varieties of curds, chutneys, dishes according to seasons etc. The day from sunrise to sunset is divided into six parts and the first part is assigned as spring and the last as winter and the food according to the season''.

The science of Vedic cooking takes all these things into consideration. And as we will see in future segments of this series, the same knowledge is found in Mangarasa's Supa Sastra, that Dr. Kuppuswamy describes as coming from Nala's cookbook (which has not yet been translated from Sanskrit to English). Among the general instructions are the following:

''The cook has to have certain qualifications. Birth in the same country [as the party being cooked for], self control, soft spoken, knowledge about various materials, place and time etc. He has to wash his hands and feet before cooking. Cooking has several advantages in improving quality, digestibility and palatability. At the same time, cooking in a wrong manner can reduce the nutritional contents. We find various devices to keep the dishes cool and free from spoiling due to heat.''

''Satisfaction of hunger is not the only primary criteria for adequate food intake. For sustaining healthy and active life, diet should be planned on sound nutritional principles. The most striking feature of ancient culinary is that it was based on a sound base of well balanced diet, because the base of food preparation is based on Ayurveda - balance of Tridoshas.".

It's interesting to note that the oldest known Ayurvedic texts are the Susruta Samhita and the Charaka Samhita. These Sanskrit texts, which date from the 3rd-4th Century A.D., are primary among the formal works on Ayurveda. However, Nala Pandava's Pakadarpanam, which these text drawn upon, preceded the great Ayurvedic texts by approximately 3,000 years.