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  • Writer's pictureSaY India

"SaY" it with Culture: Fables, Folktales, Epics and FOOD!

Little do we realise that food has seeped into our consciousness at a very early age — through folktales, parables, fables, rhymes and bedtime stories.

If I had to close my eyes and recall one memorable story that I had read in my childhood, it would have to “The Monkey and the Crocodile” from the Panchatantra. The image of the monkey, living atop a lush rose apple tree, is seared into my memory.

Every time I read the story, I imagined what a rose apple would really taste like. It was only much later in life, while on a trip to Trichy, that I came across a vendor selling these. As I devoured the beautiful bell-shaped, crisp, slightly sour fruits, it was a culmination of all those memories.

Little do we realise that food has seeped into our consciousness at a very early age — through folktales, parables, fables, rhymes and bedtime stories.

For me, glossy images of hearty stews and pies in the Russian magazine, Misha, which was quite the rage in the 1980s, jostled for attention with delectable descriptions of Google Buns, cold lemonade and picnic lunches in Enid Blyton’s books.

And adding to the vivid tapestry of memories was Indian lore — “Tenali Raman and the Mango Tree”, “Birbal ki Khichdi” and “The Pigeon and The Crow” from the Jataka Tales; folktales from Buri aair Xaadhu from Assam and Thakurmar Jhuli from Bengal.

These kisse kahaaniyaan, with rich descriptions of dishes and ingredients, take us on a time travel in two magical ways: they paint a vivid picture of culinary practices and eating cultures of those times and also take us back to the childhood moment we heard those stories.

They trigger food nostalgia as well as a strange craving for something we have only experienced verbally and yet want intensely. These tales make you long for a simpler time — of poring through Dreamland Publications’

English translation of Sinhasan Battisi and salivating at the royal feasts laid out, or of pestering your grandfather for a story during a power cut with smells of kachua chaap mosquito coil for company.

These stories served a dual purpose: to keep kids engaged, and to get them to eat. According to him, certain verses from Sangam literature — a huge expanse of poetry, written between 300 BC and 300 AD — have descriptions of local cuisine and culture.

Mangalkabyas, a large corpus of narrative poetry composed in Bengal in the 15th and 18th centuries. This has local histories and food memories. Narayan Deb’s Padmapuran (15th century), has an elaborate list of ingredients and dishes cooked by one of the characters.

It was not always Sangam. “A quaint tale about the kozhukattai was narrated to me by my grandmother”. The story goes that a man has a kozhukattai somewhere and keeps reciting the name all the way home. But then a puddle appears on the road, and he exclaims, “athiripacha”, as he jumps. His wife is confused when he asks her to prepare athiripacha, having forgotten the original name, and he beats her up. “When the neighbour’s wife comes to the rescue, she tells the husband that his wife’s head is swollen like a kozhukattai, and that’s when enlightenment dawns on him. The story also highlights the patriarchy prevalent at the time”.

There is a similar story in the delightful set of tales about Sheikh Chilli, a simpleton whose goof-ups were very popular with children. It is about khichdi, which shows the popularity of this dish back then as travelling back keeps reciting the name and the recipe. However, soon khichdi turns into Khaa Chidi, which means chidiya aao khao (birds come and eat). And he is beaten up by the bird catchers there. Along the way, the name keeps changing and mutates into aata jaa, phasta jaa by the time he reaches home, and his mother can’t figure out what it is. He then describes the dish and she finally gets it.

In the past, efforts have been made to document these age-old stories, passed down orally, into compilations. One landmark effort in this sphere was by Lakshminath Bezbaroa, a literary stalwart from Assam, who compiled and rewrote the anthology of children’s stories Buri aair Xaadhu. “Another one is Burhi Aaita’s Kotha Kahini (grandma’s stories). One common Assamese folklore, which we have all grew up on, is about a little girl, who was killed by her stepmother in a dheki, which is where we pound the rice into a flour”. “A beautiful lemon tree grows on the girl’s burial place. Every time someone goes to pluck a lemon, the tree sobs and tells its tale. Now, of course, we know that these are wrong stereotypes about stepmothers”.

Children also grew up reading stories in Thakurmar Jhuli and Pantabuirir Golpo. A lot of these tales have references to food – the iron pulses that only a witch could chew, the lost prince who survived on nectar of flowers in the jungle, the stepmother who served eight courses cooked in ghee to her sons and thick morsels of half-cooked rice with leafy greens to the stepsons. The one, which stands out, is of two women, who are asked by a wizard to make pithe for the festival of pithe kuruli. “Kakonmala, an evil maid masquerading as queen, made crude ones like ashke pitha, chaske pitha and ghaske pitha. The woman, who was actually the queen and had been tricked into slavery, made intricate ones like mohanbanshi, chandrapuli and kheermurali, thus proving her royal disposition”.

According to experts, through the retelling of epics and folk tales, our ancestors have tried to impart culinary wisdom. To elaborate on this with a story, which my grandma told me, about Lord Ganeshas' love for ukadiche modak. The sweet was created when Shiva, Parvati and Ganesha were visiting Anasuya, wife of the sage Atri. In the course of the meal, she realised that none of the delicacies could satiate Lord Ganeshas' hunger, and she created a sweet made with jaggery and coconut. The use of fresh regional ingredients for the filling and using steaming as a technique are examples of simple cooking, which have been handed down through time.


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