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I’m currently on a culinary pilgrimage, and a darn fascinating one at that. Here’s Part 1 of my quest.

Without further ado, here’s the recipe to the world’s oldest curry. I extrapolated it from this video and adjusted it slightly to my own taste. That’s the best thing about Indian cuisine in all its regional variations: with a little imagination, it’s easy and fun to customize recipes to your liking.

Ingredients:Ingredients-1

  1. Small purple eggplants (the smaller the better for taste), slit: 7
  2. Unripe mango, peeled and flesh chopped into small pieces: 1
  3. Ginger: an inch-sized cube, peeled and grated
  4. Sesame oil: 2 tbsp
  5. Cumin: 1 tsp
  6. Turmeric: 1 tsp
  7. Sugar (used instead of sugarcane powder): 1 tbsp
  8. Salt: to taste

Process:

  1. Add oil to a heated pan, then add ginger, cumin and turmeric to it. Let simmer for a minute, or until the spices give out their aroma.Cooking-Curry
  2. Add the eggplants and turn them over every few minutes until they’re roasted on all sides.
  3. Add the chopped mango, sugar and salt. At this point, you might need to add about ¼ cup of water to help the eggplants cook. Cover the pan with a lid so the steam can do its magic.
  4. Within about 10 minutes or so, your curry is ready.

The recipe is rather simple, as prototypes tend to be, but it’s unbelievably delicious. No wonder it has sustained over the millennia without major upgrades or changes—it bears the hallmarks of a basic preparation from an average Indian home of today:

  • Locally grown/procured vegetables
  • Vegetables in season
  • Basic spices, each chosen with care for not only taste but their beneficial effects on health
  • Cooked with minimal fuss with the most scrumptious and healthy results

Anything else added to this recipe (like chillies, curry leaves, sliced onions etc., which are later discoveries or imports to India) is an embellishment to bring out an appealing variation. There’s no harm in this, because where’s progress without experimentation, right?

I would’ve loved to make the curry in a copper or earthenware pot for authenticity, but because I didn’t have either handy, I chose to go with a cast iron pan (although iron wasn’t available during the Indus period).

Depending on their socio-economic status, sections of the Harappan society would’ve probably used copper cooking utensils, while those who couldn’t afford copper would’ve gone with baked earthenware pots.Rice&Curry

I also cooked brown rice to be served with the curry as Harappans would’ve done. Okay, there are two schools of experts when it comes to domesticated rice and Indus Valley. One school believes that the people of the Indus Valley cultivated rice as a staple food grain and the other (the minority) doesn’t think so. Given this situation, I did what any self-respecting enthusiast does: aligned myself with the school that complies with my own beliefs. (I mean, how can I imagine an Indian subcontinent without rice as a staple?) The alternative carbs at a Harappan home would’ve been wheat/millet flatbread or barley porridge.

So, there you have it, my journey to the heart of an Indus home: its kitchen.

Wouldn’t you like to give this recipe a try? I’d love to hear about your experience, if you do.

For a different take on this curry and its history, read Ambika Sambasivan’s Cooking Up a 4,000-year-old Curry. While there, be sure to check out and support Yali Books’s commendable efforts at bringing to life books that highlight South Asian cultures.

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I have always loved making connections in my day-to-day life to traditions and routines I’d read about in a history book or heard as a child from my great-grandmother’s stories (as so much of history and tradition is still passed down from one generation to the next in India). I appreciate a deep sense of preservation and kinship in the knowledge that despite all the technological advances, we, as humans today, aren’t at our core that removed from our earliest ancestors. This is also why I explore predominantly historical themes in my writing.

So, when I received a link recently from Ambika Sambasivan, an advocate of South Asian cultures at Yali Books, inviting me to try out an experience, my curiosity was piqued. I clicked the BBC News link open: it was a video explaining how to cook a curry that was routinely made over 4,000 years ago in the kitchens of the Indus Valley homes. I almost swooned from excitement.

See, ever since I was a young child, the Indus Valley Civilization (or Harappan Culture as it’s also called) that flourished over 4,000 years ago in the Indian subcontinent fascinated me no end. Heck, I even wrote a full-length novel set in the Indus city of Mohenjo-Daro during the time period that the civilization was at its peak.

What is this Indus Valley Culture, you ask?

In simplified terms, the Indus Culture was a Bronze-age civilization (3300 – 1300 BCE) that spread over a vast area of what is today northeast Afghanistan to Pakistan and northwest India. The culture flourished in the fertile basin of the Sindhu River (whose name has morphed into Indus River in modern times) and other monsoon-fed rivers. The culture was highly evolved, and its people are noted for pioneering urban planning—cities that had elaborate drainage systems and one and two-story buildings made of baked-bricks!—and technology for metallurgy and sustained farming among other things.

Unfortunately, compared to how long the civilization thrived, and how successful it had been, we know very little about the culture, religion and day-to-day lives of the Indus people.

During my extensive research for the novel, I learned that the Harappans cultivated, and perhaps exported, grains such as wheat, barley and rice; fruits such as melons, dates and grapes; and produce like sesame, green peas, ginger, garlic and turmeric. However, I had no idea that they knew of aubergines (eggplants) until I watched this BBC video.

And, what’s more, the video gifts us with the recipe for the world’s oldest proto-curry (isn’t that a brilliant word?). Two scientists unearthed this recipe, by use of starch analysis, from the pot shards found at one of the Harappan excavations near the modern-day Delhi. Thank you, Science!

I can imagine a Harappan man or a woman hunched over a cooking fire, fanning the embers to adjust the heat-level, and roasting the eggplants in sesame oil to perfection. This recipe—because food transcends time and place, and nothing draws people together quite like food does—symbolizes the tenuous, yet in its own way tenacious, connection I have with my forebears from so long ago. Just the fact that I can follow the recipe to the last detail and attempt to experience even the tiniest bit of their daily routines fills me with awe and hope.

Because, to me, history and traditions are less about rigid customs and more about deepening ties and understanding.

I’m off, in search of ingredients for the world’s oldest-known curry. I’m going to post here my observations from this compelling exercise of recreating the proto-curry next week. Hope to see you all soon!

P.S: Did you know that “curry” might not even be an original Indian word, at least in the context it’s globally used? Indians don’t necessarily apply that word for their preparations unless they’re using it in a Western/larger-audience context. There are several theories as to what actually constitutes a curry and who originally coined that word. Another post for another day!

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The main character (MC) in my current WIP (Work-In-Progress) loves Mango Lassi. Her dad, who is the better cook in the family and who also happens to be putty in my MC’s hands, makes it for her whenever she craves it.

This version of the recipe has been customized for my MC’s tastes. Basically, it’s simpler to make, but tastes as good as the original. :=)

Owing to its colorful personality, this drink lends itself very well either for a lazy summer afternoon or a rollicking garden party.

 

Mango Lassi
(Mango Milkshake)

 

Ingredients:

¼ cup Mango pulp (available in tins at specialty Indian grocery stores)
½ cup milk (skim or 1% will do)
½ cup buttermilk
a pinch of salt
a few cubes of ice

 

Mix all of the ingredients thoroughly in a blender. The mango pulp usually comes sweetened in the tins. In case it is not, you can sweeten the milkshake using half-a-tablespoon of sugar.

It is as simple as that and makes about 3 servings.

To make this less heavy and more like a punch, dilute it by adding ½ a cup of Sprite or Club Soda to the milkshake.

 

In case you’re interested, here’s the recipe for Aloo Subzi (Potato Curry), also from my WIP, that I posted last summer.

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Today, instead of posting a snippet from my WIP (Work-In-Progress), I’m posting something related to it. Below is the recipe for Aloo Subzi (a traditional, but simple, potato curry) that one of my protagonists loves.

Indian cuisine lends itself very naturally to customizations. This recipe is my own take on the age-old recipe of the same name. Even though I learned it by watching my mom cook, this recipe, along with many others that I use, has deviated from hers owing to restrictions in time and the availability of ingredients.

Aloo Subzi
(Potato Curry)

Ingredients:

  • 1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
  • 2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into two-inch cubes
  • 2 medium tomatoes, chopped into inch-long slices
  • 2 green chillies, cut length-wise
  • 1 stem of curry leaves, the leaves separated from the stem
  • 2 red, dried chillies, broken into two pieces each
  • ½ teaspoon cumin
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons cooking oil
  • ½ cup cilantro, finely chopped
  • ½ cup water
  • salt, to taste

1. Place a skillet on a medium flame and add oil to it. Add cumin, the two kinds of chillies, curry leaves and garlic to the oil.

2. Leave the spices alone for a couple of minutes – they release their flavor when they warm up – and then add the onion to the skillet. Let it cook for about four to five minutes, or until the onion becomes golden brown and translucent.

3. Add tomatoes to this mixture and let them cook for a few minutes, until they become soft. Make sure you keep stirring, so that the ingredients do not stick to the bottom of the skillet.

4. Add potatoes now and stir them for a few minutes before adding salt and water. Place a heavy lid on the skillet to help the vegetables cook with the help of the steam that is released.

5. Keep stirring every few minutes so it doesn’t burn. It may take about 10 to 15 minutes for the curry to be ready. Basically, it is ready when there’s not much liquid left in the skillet and the potatoes break easily when touched with a spoon.

6. Remove from flame, transfer to a serving dish and garnish with cilantro.

For additional color, flavor, and nutrition, a handful of carrots pieces (inch-size cubes), and a handful of fresh green peas can be tossed into this recipe in step 4.

The resulting curry will taste great when served hot either with roti or white rice.

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