There is no such thing as “Indian food”; the term can only be defined as an amalgam of several food-styles, just as “Indian literature” is the sum-total of literatures written in a dozen or more languages. And I think it is no less difficult for Indians to eat each other’s food than speak each other’s tongue; an “Indian” dinner which a Tamil and a Sikh and a Bengali can eat with equal relish is more of a dream than reality.

This point was curiously brought home to me on one occasion during my travels in America. I had arrived rather tired after a jerky flight at some little university town; meeting me at the airport, my sponsor told me with a smile that he had arranged for me an Indian meal with an Indian family. “I’m sure it would be very much to your liking,” he added. I at once asked, “Which part of India do they come from?” The professor did not know.

The upshot of it was that I spent the night hungry, having been unable to consume anything except a few spoonfuls of plain rice and a cup of coffee at the table of the charming Tamil family where the professor had piloted me from the airport. I hasten to add that no offence is meant to my gracious host of that evening, nor do I think I need apologise for my “provincialism”, for I have seen highborn South Indian ladies ready to faint at the fishy odour issuing from a Bengali kitchen. It’s a case of the fox and the stork, and you can’t do a thing about it. Certain varieties of Indian diet are mutually exclusive.

We cannot be sure whether there was ever a standard diet for the whole of India – available records are meagre, and no gastronomic counterpart of the Kamasutra is in existence.

All we can say on the basis of literary evidence is that our ancients were a meat-eating, wine-tippling people, inordinately fond of milk-products and beef-eaters as well. (Of this there are many attestations in Vedic and Puranic literature.) The Buddha himself did not impose a ceiling ban on flesh-eating, many of his followers (Bengalis?) ate fish habitually. The only strict vegetarians in ancient India were the Jains – a rather small and relatively isolated community with scant influence on the social life of orthodox sects.

How and when both beef and pork came to be interdicted and the great schism between vegetarians and flesh-eaters arose on the Indian soil cannot be ascertained with any degree of precision; we do not even know whether these arose of religious or circumstantial pressure. Nor can we form a clear idea about the type or types of cooking current in the Vedic and epic ages.

Homer describes every meal with meticulous care, dwelling on every detail from the slitting of the bull’s throat to the hearty appetites of the heroes, but the great sprawling Mahabharata is remarkably – even annoyingly – silent on such points. The phrase randhane Draupadi – “a Draupadi for cooking” has come down to us and is cited to this day, but not once do we see this proud lady actually in the kitchen, not even during periods of exile; the feeding of the wrathful Durvasa and his one thousand disciples was magically accomplished by Krishna, without any effort on Draupadi’s part. Bhima, we are told, served a whole year as the chef in Virata’s household, but as regards the delicacies he presumably concocted for the royal table, we are left completely in the dark.

The Ramayana does a little better; we often see the exiled Rama and Lakshmana bringing home sackfuls of slain beasts (wild boar, iguanas, three or four varieties of deer); we are also told that their favourite family diet consisted of spike-roasts (shalyapakυa, known nowadays as shik-kabab or shish-kebab); – unfortunately no other detail is supplied.

Who skinned the carcasses or made the fire or turned the flesh on the spit, what were the greens and fruits eaten with the meat or the drinks with which it was washed down – all this is left to our conjecture. Nevertheless, we are eternally grateful to Valmiki for the passage describing the entertainment provided by the sage Bharadvaja to Bharata and his retinue; there is nothing to compare with it in the Mahabharatan accounts of the Raivataka feast or Yudhishthira’s Horse-Sacrifice.

For once in our ancient literature we find the courses itemised – savoury soups cooked with fruit-juice, meat of the wild cock and peacock, venison and goat-mutton and boar’s meat, desserts consisting of curds and rice-pudding and honeyed fruits, and much else of lesser importance. All this is served by beauteous nymphs on platters of silver and gold, wines and liqueurs flow freely, there is dance and music to heighten the spirit of the revels. Granted that the whole account is somewhat fantastical – it was the gods who had showered this splendour on that forest hermitage – a splendour that rivals that of Ravana’s palace in Lanka; but this at least tells us what Valmiki thought a royal banquet should be; evidently he had experience of a highly sophisticated culture.

To read the same passage in the medieval vernacular versions is to be transferred to altogether another world – a world hedged in by scruples where the cult of Kama, the pleasure-principle of life, which was highly honoured in the heroic age, had fallen into desuetude and the epic tales were used as vessels of unrelieved piety. In both Tulsidas and Krittivas many details of the original are suppressed or glossed over; in both, the vegetarian bias is strong. Tulsidas vaguely mentions “many luxuries”, but lists no more than roots and herbs and fruits; the only drink he names is “undefiled water”. Krittivas begins and ends with milk-products. Both poets, living in impoverished rural-agricultural communities, recoil from magnificence, and reduce Bharadvaja’s feast to a modest meal which their public would find both tempting and innocuous.

It is refreshing to turn from Krittivas to Kavikankan and watch the huntsman Kalketu wolfing his dinner – putting away huge mounds of rice with the aid of crabmeat and one or two leafy vegetables. We almost hear him crunching the crab shells and spitting out the well-chewn remnants; we admire the authenticity of the remark he flings at his wife: “You have cooked well, but is there more?”

Yet we cannot accept this as typical of the daily Bengali fare in Kavikankan’s time; the eater’s taste reflects his off-track occupation rather than the norm. Bharatchandra’s famous line “May my children thrive on milk and rice” must not be taken literally, for “milk and rice” is a metaphor for prosperity and wellbeing. It is only in our prose fiction from Rabindranath and Saratchandra down to the present times that we find adequate accounts of what the Bengalis eat, each according to his station in life and individual taste. Menus are often mentioned, variations noted; some lady-novelists have done us the additional favour of describing methods of cooking.

Of food as a means of characterisation there is a fine example in Rabindranath’s novel Jogajog. Madhusudan has made his millions by honest toil, is aggressively proud of his wealth, is fond of vain display, his dinner service is all silver; yet his favourite diet is coarse rice, one of the inferior varieties of dal, and a mash of fish-bones and vegetables. The addition of this little gastronomical detail makes it all the more clear what a “tough guy” the poor ethereal Kumudini has to confront in her new home.

On another level, food has made its way into Bengali verse – and not merely for comic effects as in Ishvar Gupta. In a poem entitled Nimantran (“An Invitation”) and addressed to an unnamed lady, the aged Rabindranath imparted a touch of his lyricism to mundane food, albeit half in jest and with a slant on the “modernist” poets. “No golden lamps or lutes are available now,” (I am giving a rough rendering of the passage), “but do bring some rosy mangoes in a cane-basket covered with a silken kerchief,...and some prosaic food as well – sandesh and pantoa prepared by lovely hands, also pilau cooked with fish and meat – for all these things become ineffable when imbued with loving devotion. I can see amusement in your eyes and a smile hovering on your lips; you think I am juggling with my verse to make gross demands? Well, lady, come empty-handed if you wish, but do come, for your two hands are precious for their own sake.” The last two lines lift the poem to a non-material realm, but the reality of the mangoes and pilaus remains undiminished.

Excerpted with permission from “Bengali Gastronomy” from An Acre of Green Grass and Other English Writings of Buddhadeva Bose, Buddhadeva Bose, edited by Rosinka Chaudhuri.