From the time of the Mahabharata and Ramayana to more concrete excavation of the Mehrgarh period sites around 8000-6000 BC, food has been an important part of our scriptures. The scriptures, excavations, and other historical evidence throw some startling facts about ancient Indian food habits. All Indian scriptures defined food as the basic part of a cosmic moral cycle, and food is regarded as a gift of God.
Food has always played a functional part because of the presence of functional components such as body-healing chemicals, antioxidants, dietary fibres, and probiotics. These are known to help in weight management, blood sugar level balance, and support the immunity of the body.
There were three main categories of food:
This group comprises cooked vegetables, milk, fresh fruits, and honey meant for the truly wise.
These foods bring out the lowest, crass qualities of human behaviour such as meat, liquor, garlic, and spicy and sour foods.
Raisika are the foods that give enough energy to carry out daily work are categorised.
According to Aryans food materials based on their nature and use like:
Payovarga (milk products)
Madhyavarga (alcoholic beverages)
Mamasavarga (animal products)
As per season:
Vasanta ritu (spring)
Grishma ritu (summer)
Varsha ritu (monsoon)
Sharad ritu (autumn)
Hemanta ritu (fall winter)
Shishira ritu (winter)
Knowing and studying about seasons is important to make an efficient diet plan for an individual, and this also strongly influenced the foods mentioned in ancient scriptures.
Foods mentioned in scriptures
Some of the foods mentioned in the times include barley, wheat, sesame, black gram, and few other crops, especially rice. Commentaries that support the same are Rigveda (Griffith, 1896; Sontakke and Kashikar, 1983; Sharma, 1991), dictionaries (Monier-Williams, 1872; Apte, 1965; Amarsimha's Amarkosa by Jha, 1999) along with the Encyclopedia Britannica (1993), books on barley and rice, as well as communications available on the Internet.
Aryan beliefs and practices & Vedas
The term Aryans refers to a heterogeneous group of people who lived in different parts of ancient India. The Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda, and Atharva Veda discuss a verity of cereal grains and their use in our daily lives. The food at that time was not merely meant for body nourishment but was the essential part of a cosmic moral cycle.
Barley was the 'initial staple food and is also mentioned in the Rigveda.
In the later texts, one can see the mention wheat, lentils, millets, and sugarcane.
The famous lentils at this time were red lentils, green lentils, and black lentils.
A large called Anupa was made by frying barely
Then there is also Kichadi which is made from rice & dal — still consumed mostly in India.
The Vedas also state that the Aryans were aware of parched rice and cereals, a common method of processing during their period.
Buddhist & Jain scriptures
Literature derived from the Buddhists and Jains reveal the extensive use of rice and its gruel. The cloth was soaked in milk by the Jains and dried to yield a reconstituted product called kholas.
Mehrgarh period sites
Around the 8000-6000 BC, excavations from these sites show that plants and animals' domestication are reported in the subcontinent. Foods mentioned in this period include wheat, barley and jujube were among crops cultivated. Around 5000 BC, agricultural communities became widespread in Kashmir valley around 5000 BC. There is also the mention of Oryza wild rice in 4530 BC and 5440 BC in the Belan and Ganges valley regions of northern India.
One of the earliest evidence of food in ancient India comes from excavated sites in the Indus Valley Civilization. This is a civilisation that relied considerably on technological achievements, including the plough. Farmers of this time grew peas, sesame, dates and rice. Agricultural activity during the second millennium BC included rice cultivation.
In many of the early Brahmana scriptures, there is a mention of barley and rice. Mentioned in the Aitareya are dhana, karambha, parivdpa, purodds'a andpayasyd that is basically fried barley; cooked with butter, powder of dhana fried with butter, parched rice fried in butter, rice-cake, a mixture of curd and milk.
Different forms of milk and curd were used like curdled milk, dadhi (curd), karambha (porridge), ghrta (unmelted butter), navanita (cream or fresh butter), sdnndyya (mixture of curd and milk), Ghee or clarified butter and more.
Edible foods include Udumbara (sacrificial fig), jujube and berries.
Meat was consumed during this period too, including beef. Many forms of bird meats were prohibited.
Vegetarian foods became popular post the onset of Buddhism in the Gupta era.
Taittiriya Upanishad mentions about drinks made from fermented rice and Madhu (honey). Wine and somarasa or intoxicating drinks were consumed too.
Rice has been a staple food in the Indian scriptures and among the preparations were odana (cooked with water) and payasa or ksiraudana (cooked with milk), sthdlipdka (rice or barley cooked with milk or water).