A Bengali, a Punjabi baker, a Gujarati law intern, and a Sindhi lawyer walk into a restaurant. They eat the food of the Indus Valley Civilisation, the vegetarian and the coveted non-vegetarian. And with each dish they taste, one or the other finds something in common with the food cooked in their home — a brinjal fry, a meat fat soup, or a fowl curry. That is the power of food and history coming together for one night. That is what the National Museum in Delhi didn’t want you to know. And that is how I spent my dinner at chef Saby’s Lavaash restaurant, connecting with people I didn’t know but with whom I clearly shared a food DNA from thousands of years ago.
After the last-minute non-vegetarian fiasco, the well-researched dinner planned by One Station Million Stories (OSMS) and chef Sabyasachi Gorai or Saby had to be moved out of the National Museum premises and into Lavaash restaurant in posh Mehrauli. It was part of the Historical Gastronomica event. Had the dinner happened at the museum, as it should have, it would have been the first of its kind in India. That would be in keeping with a true ‘museum tradition’ — connecting people to their history, accurately — rather than lying prostrate before ‘gods in galleries’, but only certain ones.
What the Harappans ate
The dinner would have been as accurate as Hrithik Roshan-starrer film Mohenjo Daro had we pretended that the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation did not eat animals and only consumed legumes and vegetables. In fact, 80 per cent of their protein intake came from animals.
It’s time we acknowledge that India’s history is diverse, our roots are diverse and that majoritarianism never made food tasty.
Soumi Chatterjee of OSMS and her team spent months researching the food of the Indus Valley Civilisation, what was eaten, how it was made, how were the ingredients sourced. Then this intensive knowledge of the ingredients and cooking was given to chef Saby, who only had three-and-a-half weeks to ideate and come up with dishes, but without overstepping the list given to him.
Without such exhaustive research, which was vetted by an expert, the National Museum would have never okayed the idea in the first place and they took a big risk by doing so, said Sudipto Sircar, a member of OSMS.
We know for sure that the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation were growing (in multi-crop patterns) and eating chickpeas, lentils, barley, brinjal, sesame, ginger, garlic, among other things. We also know they were eating fish, including Hilsa (at which point most of the Bengalis in my food walkthrough at the museum nodded in appreciation), fowl, and hunting for boars and deer. They were also keeping cattle and eating them — buffaloes, sheep, goat, and chickens.
Their kitchen and hearth, probably community ones, are similar to those still found in rural India today. Wealthy dwellers had metal plates and pots (I think I even saw a frying pan). Storage pots and racks to dry fish were found in most houses. Some ruins even suggest they had the mud equivalent of dustbins.
It would be terribly inconsiderate to the Harappans, the ones who built roads at right angles and sewage systems that mock our current ones, to imagine that they only cooked and ate gruel or that their cooking techniques were rudimentary.
What I ate
Two disclaimers before we move to the dining.
Don’t go to eat the food of the Indus Valley Civilisation if you expect and appreciate only flavours like those of Chhole Bhature and Laal Maas. Tomatoes, potatoes, and chillies are crops of the New World, and yes, there can be food without them. Also don’t go if you keep matching the taste of the food to a variant you eat now. Yes, food evolved but we are at dinner because we’ve never had what would have probably been eaten thousands of years ago.
We were first served split milk (chhena) and carrot on bread, and lamb liver mash on sunflower seed bread as appetisers. Both were delicious, but something has to be said about the liver mash tasting so good without the ‘masalas’. It went down fabulously with the sattu and whey water drink. Then came the quail wrapped in saal leaves (a bit dry).
Now let’s pause a moment for the meat fat and bone stock. It was everything I detested as a child drinking (because I was often ill, ‘tangri soup’ was a regular) but made so much sense in faraway Delhi. Cooked for over six hours in earthen pots, it was spoonfuls of nostalgia and my highlight of the meal. In an episode of Netflix’s Street Food shot in Taiwan, we see Mr Chou making ‘3 days 3 nights goat stew’ in earthen pots buried in the ground. He is one of the last people who make it because the fire is so hazardous. When you eat it finally, he says, you feel “your chi flow through the body”. This soup was no less. And if the average Harappan was actually six feet tall, they needed this.
We were then served flame-grilled fish, soft and rubbed with turmeric, which melted in the mouth.
A platter came next. If you told me it was from a Bengali bhog, I would have believed you. Burnt crispy brinjal with mustard oil, millet and green moong khichdi, braised parwal (or potol, that undying vegetable), grilled yam and guava, and a date chutney that I wanted to buy a bottle of.
Soon came the dishes that made gods and their followers in the National Museum shudder — a deliciously buttery fowl curry (which my Sindhi friend on the table absolutely loved and said it reminded him of home), ancient style lamb offals (too strong and salty for my taste), and salt-cured baby lamb (guilt did not trip me that night and I devoured the soft meat chunks). Beef or buff was intentionally taken out of the menu even before the fiasco, to prevent just that.
And somehow, after all this Dionysian pleasure, we still had a spot for the dessert — oatmeal custard and ragi halwa (which looked like chocolate).
And through it all, I kept thinking: all of us found something similar to what we eat today, something very basic in our taste buds was making sense of this food that we had never eaten and yet we had. That thousands of years ago too, the taste of freshly made bread was as comforting to our ancestors. And that fire, salt, acid can never fail human beings.
Soumi Chatterjee told me that a group of people from Chhattisgarh’s Bastar had come to the National Museum to taste the Historical Gastronomica and said, “Food is in our DNA and our DNA is in this food.” Time for ‘pure veg’ India to think about that.