Most recipes of India before the 19th century were royal projects– Andrea Gutierrez

AHARA – 2019

Andrea Gutierrez of the Department of Asian Studies in the University of Texas, Austin, is a researcher of Sanskrit, Prakrit and Tamil. Her journey started when she came to India to learn Yoga in Mysore and soon led to her interest in Indian cuisine. Andrea speaks about her interest in the Pākadarpaṇa, the first work in any Indian language concerning the recipe tradition, which she says is a Royal text probably composed in a Royal court. She says the Pākadarpaṇa was perhaps the very first cook book to be written in India.

How did your interest in Indian, particularly Tamil, scriptures begin? And in Indian culture and tradition.

It all started when I came to India to study yoga with my guru’s guru (in Mysore). I began studying Sanskrit there and became quite immersed in aspects of Indian life, including the fascinating cooking practices! I soon realized I needed a sophisticated knowledge of Sanskrit to understand the history of Indian cuisine, so I returned to the US to complete a PhD at one of the best universities for Asian Studies, at the University of Texas at Austin. I started studying Tamil language as an additional entry to the texts and early history of India, and as a way to bring South Indian traditions more fully into my research.

There is a general belief that India is poor in documenting its traditions, sciences etc unlike the West. Has your experience been contrary to this?

There are some amazing scholars in India and there is an amazing textual record in manuscript libraries, on temple walls (epigraphy), and in state and private archives. Indians continue to do this preservation work and what is also important, studying and working with the less common scripts (like Grantha). But it’s an uphill battle. Places like the Sarasvati Mahal in Thanjavur (TSMMSL) have made incredible strides in conservation and preservation of their materials, and serve as role models for other libraries. Some libraries (such as Roja Muthiah in Chennai) have sought out foreign support funds and preservation tools to aid their preservation of materials (working with the University of Chicago Library). It is crucial for all of these manuscript libraries in India to continue the effort to preserve materials in spite of climatic difficulties and limited financial resources. What we’re seeing now (I think) is almost a last generation of amazing scholars and pundits (some retired but still working in their manuscript libraries and archives); these people have amassed remarkable knowledge about their libraries’ materials (I’m thinking in particular about a retired individual at the Sarasvati Mahal in Thanjavur and about an individual at the GOML [Government Oriental Manuscript Library] in Chennai who basically single-handedly has organized and keeps in order all materials held at that library). When these individuals are eventually too old to continue their work then a great loss indeed will be felt for scholarship in India.

To answer your specific question, India has actually been one of the historically finest examples of a culture (or better said, cultures) documenting their traditions. All of the vast textual corpus written in Sanskrit, Prakrits, and then vernacular languages of India are such a massive and stunning number of texts that no one could ever get a handle on a tenth of it. Lots of scholars in the West (if I can call it that) are studying the historical science traditions of India. There is a lot there. It just can’t and shouldn’t be framed using western, modern, enlightenment paradigms for thinking about what science is. What science was and how it might have been understood (were there such a term) in early India just looks very different from what it looks like in, say, 2020 or even in the 19th century in a European city.

Andrea interviewing a priest in Srirangam

In your research you talk about the Pākadarpaṇa. What is the role of this grantha in the history of Indian cuisine?

This text is a real mystery. The Pākadarpaṇa (written in Sanskrit and purportedly composed by Nala of Mahābhārata fame) is probably the first fully text dedicated to cooking to have been written in India. My guess is that it dates to the medieval period, probably best guess somewhere between the 11th and 15th centuries CE, based on linguistic evidence.

Before this, a lot of larger works contained sections or chapters on food with recipes for cooking, but this is the first work in any Indian language concerning only the recipe tradition, what I call “culinary writing,” writing about food preparation, rather than having other priorities. It’s definitely a royal text (probably composed in a royal court), and definitely a Hindu text, but the actual location and precise date of its composition remain unclear to this day, and I need to do a lot more work on it to continue to pin down terms, dishes, and sources. So it’s hard to say exactly what its role has been in terms of the culinary or textual history of India. We see it cited in very late Sanskrit manuscripts on food, and we see the Nalapākaśāstra (possibly this same text or more probably a legendary text) cited and quoted on occasion in very early āyurvedic works, such as the Caraka Saṃhitā. These early works are not actually citing the Pākadarpaṇa, but it’s no wonder that the Pākadarpaṇa (AKA the Nalapākadarpaṇa) was the first real cookbook to come out of India: the name was a famous one, and if you wanted a successful name for your cookbook, Nalapāka was the way to go.

Indian royal kitchens always worked with Ayurveda. What evidence have you found of this in your research?

You definitely find textual references to āyurvedic vaidyas preparing medical treatments and medical recipes in the same shared royal space as royal cooking happened in palace kitchens, but this was not always the case. In a few early texts we read that the āyurvedic doctors (and possibly food-tasters for detecting poison) were working in different spaces from the king’s cooks. There was no one single norm or way to organize palace procedures, although it is certainly true that there is a great deal of overlap between royal cooking and āyurveda, mostly in terms of language and using common terms, although with very different meanings usually. The overlap is due to the same shared medium of food, although royal culinary concerns usually differed very greatly from āyurvedic priorities. Take for example the royal Cāḷukya era Mānasollāsa. The whole lengthy recipe section, the annabhoga, is all about royal eating and cooking, mostly recipes. And nowhere in the Mānasollāsa is there any interest at all in āyurveda for humans. King Someśvara III did not care at all about āyurveda, but he did care about recording the sort of cooking that went on in his palace kitchens.

What was the role of Indian Royalty in her cuisine?

This is complex. It is clear that, historically speaking, Indian kings and queens were great patrons of texts concerning food. It is also clear that certain royal modes of food preparation and of dining must have differed greatly from common people’s food–for we see recipes for very complicated, very time intensive and very contrived dishes. But it is also equally sure that royal cooking must have influenced later trends in Indian cooking, although this is hard to be sure of historically speaking, since there is little actual evidence of what was being cooked on the ground outside the royal context. It’s also not fair or correct to speak of Indian royalty as one thing. Sultanates and minor or lesser kingships (which I don’t group together because of similarity, but because they might easily be ignored when looking at Indian culinary history) contributed greatly to the culinary heritage of India as much as great Indian emperors and empires did. Because we are left with this corpus of very elite texts describing (usually) elite practices, and because we have very little evidence of what “commoners” must have eaten, the “middling” peoples, it’s hard to actually pinpoint the exact degree and role of influences from royalty on the cuisine. For sources of “middling” foods and culinary practices, we have to look to literature, religious texts, sangam poems, and so on. But the formal textual corpus is largely elite, privileged, and pertaining to either Brahmanical culture or royal culture. So we have some major gaps in the history and in our ability to write it.  What is clear is that Indian royalty were by and large the only patrons of texts written on food, on culinary practices, and on food preparation for most of the history of the common era (and preceding it, as, for example, in the Arthaśāstra with its recipes for preparing alcoholic drinks). Indian kings, queens, emperors, minor kings, and sultans were obviously patronizing chefs and cooks of all sorts, and the root cause of most elite culinary practices in early or historical India. All of the cookbooks I work with (up until the 19th century) are royal texts, either composed by or for kings, or at the command or expense of kings, having kings as the obvious audience and readership. This is true across the board. And in all of the texts I work with, cooking is a “bhogic” practice. One cooks and eats for the pleasure and delights of consumption, not for health or āyurvedic motivations. This is true at least with all of the cookbooks and recipe sections from larger works (such as encyclopedias) that form the body of my research. My specialty is not āyurvedic recipe traditions, although there is obviously a little overlap. Still, overall, the culinary traditions of India that can fall under the umbrella term “pāka” are largely royal projects, with royal priorities of bhoga that leave health and āyurveda far from the picture. This is not to say that Indian kings weren’t also patronizing compositions on āyurveda or that they didn’t employ medical doctors who prepared preparations for them. I’m just saying that most of the cookbooks and recipe collections of India before the 19th century were royal projects mostly removed from the āyurvedic realm.

Andrea interviewing a Mahut Pondicherry

What does the body of your work include in terms of research methodology? How many visits to India, how many temples, how many cities. Was researching temple architecture difficult given the poor state of many of our temples?

I’ve made many visits to India, sometimes for research and study with stays as long as 8 or 9 months, often for 6 months, with a few shorter trips. I’ve travelled to most states in India and countless temples. I don’t focus on architectural study but always make a point of visiting local temples, sampling the prasad, and observing whatever temple food service practices one can observe. While most of my research concerns ancient and medieval history and texts, I have made a point of bringing my culinary textual work up to the modern day, by interviewing temple priests on the naivedya practices they follow, interviewing temple cooks, etc.

Is there a link to your research on the lessons taught by birds in our scriptures? What can we learn from your research on India’s close connect to nature?

My other main area of research focus is animal language and animal bodies in the textual traditions of early India. Right now I’m working on elephant language and elephant communication (along with their human mahouts), both historically and in the modern context. I’ve worked extensively on birds as they have quite a close connection and relevance in numerous Brahmanical Sanskrit texts (and a little bit in Tamil as well). But my research on animal language and animal bodies in India is quite a separate topic from my study of India’s culinary history. Certainly, a close observation of fauna species has led to their relevance in a great deal of Indian texts, even in the Upaṇiṣads or philosophical texts of nyāya, for example. My work in animal studies for India is a whole complex thing unto itself; anyone interested might check my academia page for links to some publications, for example ( This fall I’ll be preparing a new set of research and a conference paper on elephant language; this is an ongoing project for me and will probably be a lifelong one, as well as my food project.

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