I was in a narrow kitchen in Mumbai, one of India’s most strikingly modern cities, watching an ancient Indian meal being cooked on vessels of baked clay. Utensils made from leaves, wood and metal were scattered across the kitchen. The food was being prepared using only ingredients native to the subcontinent, which meant that the sharpness of chillies (native to Mexico) and the starch of the potatoes (imported from South America) were missing.

“No cabbages, cauliflower, peas or carrots, either,” said Kasturirangan Ramanujam, one of the cooks preparing the meal. But that won’t stop him from making an elaborate feast for my family that will include rice, the mulligatawny-like saatramudu, protein-rich kuzhambu gravy and an astonishing array of vegetables and snacks.

This is the shraadha meal that is eaten by many Hindu families in southern India on the death anniversaries of close family members – in this case, the anniversary of my father-in-law’s passing. While the feast is believed to feed families’ departed ancestors, it has inadvertently created a living memory of the region’s culinary history, because it is made entirely from recipes and ingredients that have existed on the subcontinent for at least a millennium.

In a country famous for its rich red curries made from tomatoes (introduced by the Portuguese) and the texture of its naan (from Central Asia), many of the most famous ingredients that go into typical ‘Indian’ food aren’t actually native to India.

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Potatoes, tomatoes, cauliflower, carrots and peas, which are now staples in contemporary Indian cooking, arrived in the subcontinent relatively recently. Accounts from the late-18th Century report that the Dutch brought potatoes to India primarily to feed other Europeans. Now, however, potatoes are boiled, baked, roasted, stuffed and fried in nearly every kitchen in India.

The late Indian food historian K T Achaya believed that chillies probably arrived from Mexico via Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama and answered a deeply felt need for a pungent spice that could be grown in every part of the country without needing as much rain as pepper.

This has now started changing the palate of people

And according to Ruchi Srivastava, producer for Indian television show The Curries of India, “All cuisines in India have adopted the tomato.” The plant arrived in India through a circuitous route – from South America to southern Europe, then to England and finally to India in the 16th Century courtesy of the British. Srivastava argues that restaurants and hotels have popularised red curry sauce as ‘Indian’ in the last 100 years. “This has now started changing the palate of people,” she said. “For anyone who doesn’t know much about Indian food, the onion-tomato gravy has become a classic.”

However, the food eaten after the religious shraadha rite showcases the indigenous biodiversity of the Indian subcontinent. It’s a rich medley of unripe mangoes, raw bananas, cluster and broad beans, sweet potatoes, banana stems, taro roots and a succulent called pirandai (veld grape). These ingredients are flavoured with pepper, cumin and salt, while soft yellow mung dal provides much of the protein.

Throughout southern India, shraadhas are intensely private affairs involving only the immediate family. Before the feast, a codified ritual of prayers and offerings takes place. The meal is one of the most important events on the family’s calendar, and there could be a few shraadha meals each year performed by the family’s eldest male on the death anniversaries of immediate family members. It brings together a vast variety of delicacies designed to please the palates of their deceased ancestors.

“The traditional understanding is that when members of your family pass on, they become pitru devata [divine beings],” said Pazhaveri Chakravarti Raghavan, a senior Hindu priest in Mumbai. “It is believed that a whole year on Earth equals a single day for pitru devata, so the annual shraadha is their daily meal.”

Certain dishes – such as stir-fried bananas, saatramudu or kuzhambu – are often made at home. However, since the feast involves an elaborate preparation of vegetables, desserts and snacks, professional chefs are usually employed by those who can afford them. The cooks who prepare these meals often spend years in training. They also learn to customise the menu to reflect the local produce that was available when the family’s ancestor was alive.

“For example, if the family traces its roots to the Tondaimandalam [a historical region on India’s east coast], lady’s finger [okra, commonly grown in the region] is prepared,” Raghavan said.

Watching the chefs work quickly and efficiently, I realised that it could be hard to recognise these ancient dishes in India’s modern culinary climate. As foreign powers and traders have come and gone, Indian cooking has changed in the past 1,000 years. In many homes across the country, older dishes made with local ingredients that represent distinct subcultures now co-exist with imported influences from halfway across the globe. For instance, a South Indian meal may include rice with a light rasam (thin soup) made entirely from local ingredients like cumin, pepper and coriander seeds, but also include spicy stir-fried potatoes.

For this shraadha meal, Ramanujam was busy preparing five different vegetable-based dishes, using raw bananas, sweet potatoes, taro, cluster beans and bitter gourd procured from local markets. He seasoned them with a mixture of mustard seeds, cumin seeds, curry leaves and black gram beans, all lightly tossed in sesame oil.

“I will also prepare five bakshanam,” he said, referring to the fried snacks that will decorate the banana leaves on which the meal will be served. The desserts were sweetened with jaggery (a soft blend of processed and unbleached sugarcane juice) and made with coconut, black sesame seeds and coarsely ground wheat. Other snacks were salty and spicy, made from lentil paste and pepper. One of the meal’s centrepieces was the thirukannamudu: a milky sweet made with lentils and jaggery.

Because of the intimacy of the event, the shraadha meal is not something that most travellers ever see and taste themselves, but certain dishes served at the feast are available throughout southern India. For instance, adhirasam, an Indian-style doughnut that’s crunchy on the outside and soft and sweet on the inside, and thenkuzhal, a crispy and savoury snack made from rice and white lentil flour, are often available in snack shops. Many homes, temples and very traditional South Indian restaurants also serve at least a few heirloom dishes which also appear in private shraadha meals.

Srivasatava said that religious rituals like the shraadha meal are helping to maintain true Indian cuisine. “Home is the only place where food traditions are really preserved,” she said. While Indian food served at many restaurants rarely resembles what people eat at home, most home kitchens in India retain several traditional recipes passed down for generations. Even with newer ingredients, they maintain a balance of older spices, and reflect the nuances of their family’s traditional culinary subculture.

It has inadvertently created a living memory of the region’s culinary history

In fact, because shraadhas are typically much smaller and more intimate family affairs than other religious rituals, they have preserved culinary traditions much more effectively than larger family celebrations. “Weddings, for instance, are social occasions,” Raghavan said. “You have to cook a cosmopolitan meal, make it palatable to a large number of guests from different backgrounds. Shraadhas are more private. We can stick to tradition.”

Ramanujam worked together with a colleague, their fingers deftly mixing dollops of jaggery with rice flour and patting them down on a small piece of banana leaf. The flat discs were then skilfully deep-fried to become adhirasam doughnuts. Ramanujam added the adhirasam to a large bamboo basket lined with leaves, which was already filled with four other bakshanam.

“Traditionally, this meal was cooked on a wood fire,” Raghavan said. “Serving utensils were made of brass or silver. Nowadays, however, it is common to see stainless steel. A gas stove is also more convenient than a wood fire.”

The cooks sandwiched a thick dough of rice and black gram flour between a brass instrument made of two cylindrical units, and intricately shaped the fried thenkuzhal. Ramanujam turned his attention to the thin slivers of bitter gourd that were cooking with mung dal in clay pot. Another stove held a frying pan where taro discs were being deep-fried.

Elaborate as it was, the meal only incorporated a very small slice of India’s food diversity. Two thousand-year-old texts, like the Indian medicinal tome Charaka-samhita, have described a bewildering variety of oils, fruits, local grains, vegetables and animal products – many of which continue to be used in the country.

After the ritual was complete, the cooks placed a large serving of rice and a few spoonfuls of salted, boiled mung beans on a banana leaf for each person before adding the rest of the dishes. I looked at the rich delicacies on my leaf and felt grateful for this bounty, knowing that it was the work of generations of chefs who are preserving India’s living culinary history.

Culinary Roots is a series from BBC Travel connecting to the rare and local foods woven into a place’s heritage. 

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