Empires of food

Published October 18, 2015
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Dining is the privilege of civilisation … The nation which knows how to dine has learnt the leading lesson of progress. —Isabella Beeton

The standard of development in any civilisation can be gauged through food that is eaten and the etiquette around eating that food.

Since the production of food depends on the climate of the land, in mountainous and desert areas the economy is generally pastoral and the main food items are dairy products or the meat of animals. In the absence of wheat, bread is not a staple.

For example, we have historical evidence that Mongol tribes depended on horse flesh and a drink made out of mare’s milk. Similarly in the deserts of Arabia, the available food comprised dates, meat and camel milk. In agricultural areas, where different kind of meat and vegetables are produced, food comprised meat, bread and dairy products.

People become so accustomed to the food of their land, that when they travel to another country, it becomes difficult for them to find the food of their liking. On the other hand, there are also restrictions associated with religion.

In the Semitic religions, eating meat of certain animals is prohibited, and in some cases, the slaughter of animals is essential for religious rituals. Therefore, the believers of these religions are conscious when eating food outside their country.

In the case of Hinduism, in the early period, the Aryans used to eat all kinds of meat including beef, but later on it became a prohibition. Moreover, because of caste system, the upper castes did not eat anything cooked by the lower castes.

After the arrival of Jainism and Buddhism, the upper caste abandoned eating meat and became vegetarian. The Brahmins especially, took great care of their food and did not allow people of lower castes or followers of other religions to enter their kitchens, which was considered a sacred place.

Most probably, for this reason travelling outside of India was prohibited. There are many instances of Hindu Rajas who, during the colonial period, would travel from India to England, accompanied by their cooks and in some cases they even carried Ganges water with them for drinking.

On the other hand, there are some nations who are not conscious and eat everything that is available. Perhaps, it is because of the scarcity of food, as in the case of the Chinese and other nations of the South East Asia where they eat all kinds of animals, reptiles and insects.

Historians and archaeologists are investigating cannibalism in any period of history. Some archaeologists found evidence that in the ancient Chinese history, it was a custom to eat the brain of their enemies.

Some European travellers found evidence of eating corpses of their relatives in Asian tribes. Their argument was that instead of dead bodies being consumed by insects, it was preferably eaten by people related to the dead person.

In one of the tribes of South America, anthropologists discovered the practice of cremating the dead and mixing their ashes in wine. This way when they drank the wine, the dead would become a part of their bodies. In some countries, cannibalism was also practiced during famine and drought. It was also customary in some cases to make a bowl from the skull of the enemy and to drink wine from it.

Etiquettes of food developed in different civilisations which entailed the manner of eating and how to behave at mealtimes.

One can easily assess the culture of any society on the basis of their eating etiquette. In the circle of aristocracy, where food is plenty, sophisticated behaviour was adopted to partake it. However, when food was served in big gatherings, people became impatient and violated all norms and manners.

The French traveller, Bernier, who visited India from 1625 to 1658, gives an interesting detail about dinner in his honour by an Uzbek ambassador who was visiting the court of Aurangzeb.

According to him, “Once I was desirous of dining with them, and as they were persons of very little ceremony, I did not find it difficult to be admitted at their table. The meal appeared to me very strange; it consisted only of horse flesh. I contrived, however, to dine. There was a ragout which I thought eatable, and I should have considered myself guilty of a breach of good manners, if I had not praised a dish pleasing to their palate. Not a word was uttered during dinner; my elegant hosts were fully employed in cramming their mouths with as much pelau as they could contain; for with the use of spoons these people are unacquainted. But when their stomachs were sated with the dainty repast, they recovered their speech”.

Deterioration of the Pakistani culture can be seen when food is served either at parties, at wedding ceremonies and public gatherings.

There is such a chaos, disorder and mess that one is ashamed of even being an observer.

To get food, people squabble and quarrel with each other and in most cases make attempts to carry away the entire platter or dish for themselves, not allowing others to share.

If political parties who cannot train their workers on how to behave when food is served and to observe eating etiquette, how can they manage the affairs of the country?

Published in Dawn,Sunday Magazine , October 18th , 2015

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