What did people eat in ancient India?
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Indian food

Indian food
Indian food

April 2016 - The earliest Indians, the Harappans, probably ate mainly wheat and rice and chickpeas and lentils, and occasionally cows, pigs, sheep, and goats, and chicken. Rice and chicken and citron fruit seem to have come from Thailand, and wheat and chickpeas, lentils and sheep from West Asia. Indian cooks used many Central Asian herbs and spices - cinnamon, cumin, cilantro (also called coriander), anise, and fennel. Some of the wheat was made into stews or soups, and some into flat breads called chapatis or yeast breads called naan. Indian people also enjoyed chewing on sugar cane, which grew naturally in India.

But by around 300 BC, under the Mauryans, a lot of Hindus felt that animal sacrifices added to your karma and kept you from getting free of the wheel of reincarnation. Animal sacrifices became less popular, and although people didn't give up eating meat entirely, they ate much less of it. A lot of people became vegetarians. Mauryan food scientists expanded fruit choices for these new vegetarians by breeding two different kinds of citrus fruit together to get oranges.

In the Gupta period, around 650 AD, Hindus began to worship a Mother Goddess. Cows were sacred to her, and so Hindus stopped eating beef pretty much completely. About the same time, Indian scientists invented a way to make sugar cane juice into sugar cubes, so more people began to eat more sugar and sugary desserts. By 900 AD, new Central Asian fruits and vegetables, lemons and purple carrots, reached India too.


A fourteen-year-old Indian boy making bread

And then around 1100 AD, with the Islamic conquests in northern India, most people in India stopped eating pork as well, because it is forbidden by the Quran. People could still eat sheep or goats or chicken, but most of the people in India became vegetarians, and only ate meat very rarely or not at all.

The vegetarian food that Indians ate was mainly wheat flatbreads or a kind of flatbread made out of chickpeas, with a spicy vegetarian sauce with lentils, and yogurt. Or people ate rice, with yogurt and vegetables. A lot of spicy peppers grew in India.

But if the Indian people gave up pork because of Islam, they also got a new drink: coffee, which Arab traders brought originally from East Africa. Coffee became popular in India, but it was very expensive because they had to buy it from the Arab traders and couldn't grow it themselves.

Learn by doing: go out for Indian food
More about cinnamon
More about chickpeas

Bibliography and further reading about Indian food:

Cooking the Indian Way Indian cooking Eyewitness India Ancient India

Cooking the Indian Way, by Vijay Madavan (2002). Written for middle schoolers, with an emphasis on low-fat and healthy meals.

Land of Milk and Honey: Travels in the History of Indian Food, by Chitrita Banerji (2002). Not a cookbook, but a discussion of food in India, for grown-ups.

Eyewitness India, by Manini Chatterjee (2002). Written for kids.

Ancient India, by Virginia Schomp (2005). Written for teens. Very good for reports.

Cinnamon - an Indian spice
More about ancient India
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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