What Did 12th Century Indian Kings Eat?
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A glimpse into the foods mentioned in the Manasollasa by 12th-century Chalukya King Somesvara III

"A meal fit for a king," is a phrase you have heard all too often. We have some idea about what and how the Mughals ate. We know of the introduction of various meats and styles of cooking from various parts of the world into India. We also know in great detail what was on the tables of the royal families of the West. But what did our own medieval kings and queens eat? That is a question we have often pondered.  

There is mention of food in ancient Tamil Sangam poetry. Unfortunately, a vast majority of the literature may be lost to us. But the surviving poems, written by about 473 poets, are collected in ten volumes of longer poems called Pathuppattu (Ten Idylls) and eight volumes of short poems in Ettuthogai (Eight Anthologies). The legendary poetess Avvaiyar, in the Purananuru, speaks of a summer lunch consisting of steamed rice, smoked and mashed aubergines, and tangy, frothy buttermilk. Kanniyar, another poet, describes "skewered goat meat, crispy fried vegetables, rice, and over 16 varieties of dishes" as part of the royal lunch he was treated to in the palace of the Chola king. 

In the Charaka Samhita, a treatise on Ayurveda, food is viewed through the lens of health. It is a surprisingly rational and liberal book. There is Lokopakara, literally "For the Benefit of the World", a work in Kannada by Chavundaraya, a writer and poet under the patronage of King Jayasimha II of the Western Chalukya kingdom or Kalyani Chalukyas. Written in poetry form, Lokopakara is a remarkable collection of vanishing local knowledge on various subjects. With twelve chapters on various aspects of life and living, the eighth focuses on food and eating.  

It is from the same Western Chalukya kingdom—covering present-day Karnataka, Telangana, and Maharashtra—that we get a peek into how and what the kings ate in the 12th century. And better yet, it comes straight from the horse’s mouth—the king himself. Of course, it may be the work of courtiers, but Manasollasa (literally, "refresher of the mind") by King Somesvara III, a Kalyani Chalukya, written in Sanskrit and in a hundred chapters, offers a great glimpse into kingly ways, including cuisine. According to Mary Ellen Snodgrass, editor of the Encyclopedia of Kitchen History, the Manasollasa contains recipes for vegetarian and non-vegetarian cuisines that predate Europe's cookbook writing history by a century.

Even as parts of the kingdom were slipping out of Chalukyan hands, the king busied himself with writing a detailed account of kingly affairs. A compendium of 12th century luxe life, there are passages relating to hunting, massage, sex, jewelry, carriages, royal umbrellas, and, of course, food. Somesvara had paid attention to Ayurvedic texts that recommended meat-based aphrodisiacs and concoctions to promote youthfulness in kings and noted that a king needed to eat a "suitable, healthy, and hygienic" diet. As Lizzie Collingham notes in her book ‘Curry,’ "This might include lentil dumplings in a spicy yogurt sauce, fatty pork fried with cardamoms, or roast rump steak. Some of Somesvara’s other favorite dishes sound less appetizing: fried tortoise (said to taste like plantains) and roasted black rat. Five centuries later, the habit of eating fabulous meats was still being kept alive by the kings of Vijayanagara, one of the largest and most powerful Hindu kingdoms in the south. Alongside mutton, pork, and venison, "sparrows and rats, and cats and lizards" could all be found on sale in the markets of the capital city."  

Somesvara noted that a king's food should be served in gold plates and bowls studded with pearls. A king should commence his meal by eating hot, cooked rice with ghee and cooked mung beans—a tradition that is still followed in the South, especially during ceremonial meals. Food writer and historian Ammini Ramachandran elaborates: "The second course should be tender meat cooked with hulled and split pulses." It also speaks of a serving of sauce mixed with rice. "The next serving should be meats cooked with green leaves that have a sour taste and different seasoned vegetables, leaves, and fruits." Again, they are enjoyed by mixing first with rice. This sour concoction could be a reference to a ‘huli’, which is a dish that is still prevalent in Kannadiga households. Midway through the meal, the king is served a well-cooked payasam made of rice, milk, and sugar as well as sweet and sour tasting fruits. In between courses, he should also drink the sweet drink panaka (juice), sip sweetened buttermilk, and lick sikharini. This Sikharini continues in Kannadiga households as ‘seekaraNe,’ especially during mango season. His recipe for Sikharini calls one to "combine powders of cinnamon, dry ginger, black pepper, rock salt, sugarcane jaggery, nutmeg, white turmeric, and ironwood flowers and mix with yogurt. Purify this with honey, sugarcane juice, yellow myrobalan. Stir in edible camphor." 

And of course, even a royal meal ends with "thick yogurt with cooked rice and salt." 

The Manasollasa is an intriguing, important document that some scholars believe also contains recipes—perhaps for the first time—for such enduring south Indian classics as idly (iddarika), dosa (dosaka), and vada (vataka). There is even a recipe for roast black rat—hey, if it’s good for a raaja, I suppose it’s good for the prajaa.

Recipe for roast black rat from the kitchens of King Somesvara III, 1126–1138

(as recounted in ‘Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors’ by Lizzie Collingham, OUP)

The rats, which are strong and black, born in the fields and along river banks, are called maiga. These are fried in hot oil, holding with the tail till the hair is removed; after washing with hot water, the stomach is cut and the inner parts are cooked with amla [sour mango] and salt; or the rat is kept on iron rods and fired on red-hot coals till the outer skin is burnt or shrinks. When the rat is cooked well, salt, jeera [cumin], and sothi [a flour made from lentils] are sprinkled on top and relished.