History. The word conjures up an unsmiling teacher driving a classroom of children into a slow coma by reciting a litany of irrelevant dates and places. The lessons never feel connected to anything real or useful. I remember a particularly dull day in sixth grade when our teacher brought up the Indus Valley Civilization. She droned on about paved roads and wax seals, interspersed with details that held little meaning. 3500 BC. Mohenjo Daro. Painted Grey Ware. Most of the class was fighting back yawns and doodling in their notebooks. History lessons in school had put me off anything to do with the past. I can almost hear my 10-year-old self saying, ‘Borrrring!’.
As an adult, it took many years for me to fall for the unlikely charms of history. The more I read about bygone societies, the more questions I had. It is their everyday lives that held most of my interest. How did they dress? Did they go to school? What did their weddings look like? And most important of all – what did they eat? Food is possibly the most tangible link we have to our ancestors. Most traditional cultures hold on to recipes zealously and replicate them in the smallest detail. They carry ingredients with them as they travel and migrate, smuggling in jars of spices and herbs inside their luggage – contraband packed lovingly by their mothers. Food is home. Food is also a glimpse into our histories. It provides a window into antiquated agricultural practices, trade systems, technology, gender roles, and cultural tastes. Wouldn’t you be curious if you could find out what the Rajput kings of Rajasthan ate for breakfast? Or what the Chola sailors ate during their long sea voyages? Or what someone ate for lunch 4000 years ago in the cities of the Indus Valley? I had to find out.
A recent archaeological discovery in an Indus Valley site close to New Delhi caught my attention. When analyzing a shard of pottery for chemical traces, researchers discovered a fascinating (and lip-smacking!) piece of ancient history. The pottery piece revealed small amounts of ginger, turmeric, and aubergine, leading researchers to believe that they were looking at one of the oldest-known curries known to mankind. Precious little is known about the Indus Valley Civilization – one of the earliest advanced societies in the world – which makes even this minor discovery extremely interesting. It provides clues into indigenous crops and technological practices – for example, we now know that a wild aubergine was cultivated in the sub-continent in that period.
By this time, I was thoroughly hooked. This recipe had to be replicated. Here is what you need to begin (crediting the original BBC article) –
6-7 small aubergines, washed and slit
1-inch piece of ginger, ground
1 fresh turmeric, ground, or ¼ tsp turmeric powder
1 tbsp raw mango cut into cubes
2-3 tbsp sesame oil
¼ tsp cumin
Dehydrated sugarcane juice to taste (I substituted powdered jaggery)
A few leaves of sweet basil (optional)
Wet grind the ginger, turmeric and cumin seeds. Heat sesame oil, add the paste and cook for a couple of minutes. Cook it in earthenware, if you can. Tip in the aubergines, add some salt and give it a good stir. Cover and cook until the aubergines are nearly cooked through; add some water, if need be. Now, stir in the mango and dehydrated cane juice. Simmer for a few minutes or until the mango is cooked. Serve with bajra roti (pearl millet flatbread).
An unbelievably delicious curry! For someone who views aubergine with some disdain, I have to say that this curry had me licking my fingers. And for one sunny afternoon, I was transported to a Harappan kitchen, joining another family for a simple lunch.
Try this at home and write to us on Facebook, Twitter or in the comments section below. Also, follow Hema Penmetsa – a fellow Indus Valley enthusiast and writer – as she documents her culinary adventure with fascinating details about these ancient people.