Like most Indians, most Marcellus staff members have an obsession about eating well. However, whilst we are willing to invest significant time and money to satiate our eating obsessions, this piece from Priyadarshini Chatterjee confirms that our efforts pale in front of what our ancestors were capable of: “In any gustatory experience, aroma is as important as flavour. Few have appreciated this truism over the centuries as much as the Mughals. In their obsession with creating fragrant food, the storied epicureans would go to the extent of growing vegetables on plots irrigated with rose- and musk-infused water. Hens were raised on breadcrumbs soaked in saffron and rosewater, and massaged with musk and sandalwood. Rare flowers were grown in the royal gardens and their fragrance distilled into luxurious perfumes, some of which would find their way into the matbakh (royal kitchen).
When the royals ate, the dining halls were perfumed with aloeswood- or camphor-scented incense. Adding to the heady experience would be the aromas wafting from the flatware. In their food, the khansamas would add a delicate but complex balance of aromatic ingredients, ranging from saffron, dill and mint to basil, rose water, orange blossom water and musk.”
If like us you too believe that you would have been better suited to being a Mughal emperor (or at least a junior noble in the Mughal court) rather than a modern-day office worker subsisting on a diet of dal chawal, you can take courage from the fact that such culinary obsessions were shared by commoners as well: “Sophisticated techniques of aromatising food exist outside the royal kitchens too. Food writer Saee Koranne-Khandekar, for instance, talks about Guravali, an intricate recipe archived in Kamlabai Ogale’s iconic Marathi cookbook Ruchira. In this dish, jasmine buds are painstakingly inserted at night into deep-fried dough balls with sweet stuffing. The next morning, the pastry is served once the buds bloom inside, infusing it with fragrance.
In southern India, edible camphor, an aromatic terpenoid derived from the bark of the camphor tree, is often added to desserts, especially payasam. Another summer favourite in the south is paanagam – jaggery-infused water made fragrant with camphor, basil and dried ginger. Moving east, in Odisha, pana – a mix of jaggery, milk, yogurt, chhena (fresh cheese curds), coconut scrapings, bananas, flavoured with aromatics like cardamom, nutmeg and edible camphor – is a ritualistic offering to the deities on Pana Sankranti that falls in April.”
So why is India so singularly fortunate to have so many cultural and ethnic groups collectively obsessing about eating well? Why, for example, did the British or the Scandic countries not share such obsessions? “The Indian subcontinent, with its rich reserves of natural aromatics, always had a tradition in the alchemy of olfaction. But the tradition got richer because of the region falling on old trade routes. “India was characterized in medieval European discourses as the land of spices, perfumed by paradise,” writes scholar James McHugh in Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Food and Culture (2012). “In terms of the real long-distance trade in the primary aromatic materials of the old world – namely sandalwood, musk, camphor, aloeswood, saffron, frankincense and ambergris – the Indian subcontinent was on the way to everywhere.”
Ancient Indian texts and medical treatises mention numerous aromats used in perfumery and curative concoctions (such as medicated oils) that possess potent medicinal virtues. The Charaka Samhita, for instance, lists a class of aromatic drugs – Sarvagandha – that includes white sandalwood, aloeswood, cubeb, cassia leaves along with spices like cloves, cardamom and cinnamon. Aromats also appear in recipes for aphrodisiacs and love potions documented in ancient texts and treatises like Vatsayana’s Kama Sutra and Kokka’s Rati Rahasya.
Over time these spices and aromatic plants “transcended the obscurity of the pharmacopoeias by their renown and became familiar in daily life in medicine, perfume and cookery,” writes scholar Anya H King in Scent from the Garden of Paradise: Musk and the Medieval Islamic World (2017).”
Now that we appear to be done with Covid, it is time to hit the streets again and reclaim our heritage. Parantha Wali Gali in Delhi, Muhammad Ali Road in Mumbai, Rawat in Jaipur, the Khao Gali of Indore, MTR in Bangalore and many other such mindblowing experiences lie in front of us.
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