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Growing wheat, rice and other cereals is very labor-intensive. Wheat has very small edible mass compared to the other tissues. Wheat is very weather-dependent.
Why were other cultures not used instead?
For instance, dandelions are abundant everywhere, do not require any labor, grow well in all weather and all their parts are edible.
About the particular example: Wheat and other grains have high nutrition value and dandelions not. You need to eat several kilo of dandelion to cover your basic calorie needs. 40Cal/100g, that is 400Cal /kg. You need to eat 5 kg if you are an office worker sitting all the day. But most probably you would be pretty sick in the first day if you can finish that, and you wouldn't be able to digest even that amount of calory due to the enormous amount of fiber it has in it.
Also, dandelion do not grow everywhere, hard to collect, even harder to store. Most leafy veggies are originally poisonous, and needed domestication + cooking to make them edible. Wheat, corn etc are practically grass. Saying that dandelion is more common than grass is kind of arguable.
All agricultural society based on domestication of grains and starchy roots/vegetables. Corn, potato, rice, wheat, malt etc. For the simple reason people needed calorie and protein. Dandelion has neither. Those people were not looking for loosing weight fast or something healthy and hipster to eat with their pizza. They were looking for survival.
What's wrong with modern wheat
Grain has been at the heart of humankind's diet for thousands of years. It is, in fact, the foundation of civilization: it cultivates easily, stores for years in kernel form, releasing its nutritional bounty when the seed is ground and prepared into fresh breads or porridges. This is how grains have been consumed over the millennia: stored in whole kernel form and milled fresh, full of life and nutrients.
It’s a 10,000 year food tradition. But in the last few generations, something’s gone wrong.
At farmers' markets and natural food stores, we've talked to hundreds of people about wheat. And it’s very clear to us: modern wheat is making people sick. More and more people are going "gluten-free" to fix long-standing digestion issues and they feel better. Yet, it is also very clear that there is more to this than gluten. For instance, we get many people telling us how they can't eat gluten so they eat spelt or Kamut. Yet both these ancient grains have gluten.
So what’s changed? In fact, almost everything.
The way we grow it, the way we process it and the way we eat. The very wheat itself. Since industrialization, everything has changed, and it has happened in two distinct “technology revolutions”. The first was in milling, the second in cultivation and farming. Both have had a profound effect, yet most people have no idea.
Revolution # 1: Industrial milling, white flour and the birth of the processed food industry
Our rallying cry is “Bake Like it’s 1869”. That's because, in the 1870’s, the invention of the modern steel roller mill revolutionized grain milling. Compared to old stone methods, it was fast and efficient and gave fine control over the various parts of the kernel. Instead of just mashing it all together, one could separate the component parts, allowing the purest and finest of white flour to be easily produced at low cost, so every class of person in rapidly growing cities could now afford “fancy flour”. People rejoiced for modern progress.
And, beyond being cheap and wildly popular, this new type of flour shipped and stored better, allowing for a long distribution chain. In fact, it kept almost indefinitely. Pest problems were eliminated because pests didn’t want it. Of course, we now know that the reason it keeps so well is that it has been stripped of vital nutrients. The bugs and rodents knew this way before we did.
The steel roller mill became so popular, so fast, that within 10 years nearly all stone mills in the western world had been replaced. And thus was born the first processed food and the beginning of our industrial food system: where vast quantities of shelf-stable “food” are produced in large factories, many months and many miles from the point of consumption.
This excerpt from Wikipedia says it well: “From a human nutrition standpoint, it is ironic that wheat milling methods to produce white flour eliminate those portions of the wheat kernel (bran, germ, shorts, and red dog mill streams) that are richest in proteins, vitamins, lipids and minerals.”
While these “advances” in milling were hailed as an innovation of modern living, nobody thought much about what was happening to the actual food value of wheat. Ironic indeed.
Even more ironic perhaps, is that although we’ve understood this problem for many many decades, industrial white flour is still—by far—the most popular way to eat wheat.
But there is another, newer problem, caused by a second technology revolution in the 20th century, which is not nearly as widely understood: so-called “advancements” in farming food production may have wrecked wheat itself.
Revolution # 2: Radical genetic modification and industrial “high-input” farming
Most of us are too young to remember, and those old enough will likely remember it only as a shining example of the wonders of modern science. But the world’s wheat crop was transformed in the 1950s and 60s in a movement called the “Green Revolution”. The father of the movement, Norman Borlaug, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, credited with saving one billion lives.
According to his Wikipedia entry, Borlaug led initiatives that “involved the development of high-yielding varieties of cereal grains, expansion of irrigation infrastructure, modernization of management techniques, distribution of hybridized seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides to farmers.”
He pioneered new “improved” species of semi-dwarf wheat that, together with complimenting fertilizers and pesticides, increased yield spectacularly. This amazing new farming technology was propagated around the world by companies like Dupont and Monsanto, while mid-20th-century humanity applauded the end of hunger.
Like the industrial milling revolution before it, the green revolution applied new technologies to improve efficiency and output, with little or no regard to the effect on human nutrition. This Green Revolution was about solving world hunger, but we’re now discovering some unintended consequences.
According to Wheat Belly author Dr. William Davis, “this thing being sold to us called wheat—it ain’t wheat. It’s this stocky little high-yield plant, a distant relative of the wheat our mothers used to bake muffins, genetically and biochemically light-years removed from the wheat of just 40 years ago.”
And now scientists are starting to connect modern wheat with all manner of chronic digestive and inflammatory illnesses. And based on our personal and customer experiences, we would have to agree.
So let’s summarize
For 10,000 years, we cultivated wheat, stored it, milled it and consumed it. The system worked, and it nourished civilization. Then, in the industrial era, we changed things.
First we invented mechanical technologies to turn wheat into barren white flour. Then, we invented chemical and genetic technologies to make it resistant to pests, drought and blight and easier to harvest, dramatically increasing yield per acre. And, while we were tweaking genetics, we also figured out how to increase glutens for better “baking properties” (fluffier results). Put another way:
If all this alarms you, the simple and obvious prescription is “don’t eat wheat”. Hence the gluten-free craze. But, for most of us, there is an alternative solution: don’t eat industrial flour made with modern wheat.
The gluten-free bandwagon: Misinformation and confusion
As we mentioned, in our many market conversations, we hear all the time: “I’ve gone gluten-free and feel so much better. Now I only eat spelt or Kamut”. (These both have gluten.)
What’s going on here? For the very small percentage of the population that is celiac, even minute traces of gluten can cause terrible discomfort. But for the vast majority of people (myself included) with some level of “wheat sensitivity”, symptoms are much milder and seem to be triggered not necessarily by gluten per se, but by *something* about modern wheat. There is an increasingly understood distinction between gluten intolerance and modern wheat sensitivity, yet as more and more people go gluten-free, many are unaware of any difference.
So we have waves of people (with varying degrees of wheat sensitivity) going gluten-free to be healthier. And the food industry is responding. A dizzying selection of gluten-free products has popped up, seemingly overnight, to cater to this new “healthy” lifestyle choice.
The irony, however, is that most gluten-free versions of traditional wheat-based foods are actually junk food. Check the ingredients and you’ll likely see some combination of rice starch, cornstarch, tapioca starch, potato starch and guar gum as a substitute for white flour. These are the same kind of highly refined industrial starches that spike blood sugar as much—or even more than—white flour.
So don’t fall for gluten-free junk disguised as health food. For the vast majority of gluten-free eaters that are not celiac, we propose a return to honest to goodness old fashioned flour: organic heritage wheats, freshly stone ground.
So how do you get “healthy” flour?
Sadly, it’s not easy. The reality for the health-conscious consumer is that almost all supermarket flour is made from industrial modern wheat, and almost all of it is made with industrial processing.
Many people think “I just need to buy the healthy “whole wheat” flour. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. In Canada, “whole wheat" is nothing more than white flour with some bran added back in. It’s processed on the same mills, in the same way. And other than that extra bit of fibre, it’s the same barren industrial filler. There’s nothing “whole” about it.
You need to look for stone-ground “whole meal” flour, where the entire wheat kernel is ground and the germ is crushed into the flour. It’s hard to find because it doesn’t keep well—delicate fatty acids start to degrade immediately. So if you do find the real stuff, it has likely been oxidizing for months in the distribution chain, turning stale and rancid. Of course you can taste this. It’s that bitter unpleasantness that we so often associate with whole grains. Which is yet another irony, because that flavour signifies that nutrients have been lost. No wonder so many people think they don’t like whole grains!
Pigs want it fresh and so should you
Modern people don’t think of flour as needing to be fresh—that’s because the industrial flour of the last few generations doesn’t need to be fresh. But when it comes to real stone-ground flour, we can’t emphasize it enough. Like any whole food, grain tastes best and is most nutritious when it is fresh. Animals know this. A farmer friend of ours told us: “Our pigs are grain-fed. We grind it for them fresh everyday. If it's not fresh, they don’t like it, and they don’t thrive.”
So, eating wheat in the traditional nourishing way is turning out to be quite a project. You need to buy freshly stone-ground “whole meal” flour made from an ancient variety like spelt or Kamut. Or a heritage variety like Red Fife. You’re not going to find this in the supermarket. You might find some at your local farmers’ market, or perhaps a really good natural food store. But even still, freshness is an issue.
Solution # 1: Mill your own
The best way to get fresh wholesome flour is to buy yourself a countertop grain mill, source organic heritage wheat, and mill it yourself, as you need it. The quality is amazing and you will be thrilled with the results.
The idea of home milling may seem outrageously labour-intensive, but there are modern home grain mills that are very fast and easy to use. And your baking will taste amazing. Watch the short video on our Home Milling Page to get an idea of how easy it is.
Solution # 2: Our Heritage Baking Mixes
If grinding your own doesn’t appeal, that’s where our fresh-ground organic baking mixes come in. You are limited to quick breads and cookies, but it’s super fast and easy and next best thing to home grinding. Learn more about GRAINSTORM Heritage Baking Mixes
Let’s get back to wheat as a nourishing staple
We are big believers in the Whole Food Philosophy, which simply says: mother nature knows best. After all, we are creatures genetically adapted over the eons to a certain diet. Yet, just in the last century, we have gotten away from traditional food. It seems self-evident that chronic health and obesity problems around the world are a result of this modern, dysfunctional new diet. It also seems clear that the closer we stay to a fresh, natural diet, the better. It's simply what our bodies expect, and need, to be healthy, vital and strong. Yet modern wheat, converted into industrial white flour, is about as far from this as can be imagined. No wonder our bodies are protesting en mass.
So let's reject the profound genetic changes in modern wheat, in favour of traditional species our bodies recognize. Let's reject the chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides of modern industrial farming in favour of organic farming and clean seed.
Let's reject industrial white flour, in all it’s phoney incarnations. Let's go back to simple stone-ground flour, milled FRESH with all the nourishment of the living seed intact. The way the pigs and the bugs like it.
WheatBecause of its early maturing quality, Saunders's Marquis Wheat greatly extended the area where wheat may be safely grown (photo courtesy Grace Taylor). Wheat is the most important cereal in the world (Corel Professional Photos).
Wheat is the common name for members of genus Triticum of the grass family (Gramineae) and for the cereal grains produced by these grasses. Wheat figures among the three most produced cereals in the world, along with corn and rice. Canada is the world's sixth-largest producer and one of the largest exporters of wheat, annually producing an average of over 25 million tonnes and exporting around 15 million tonnes.
Within Canada, wheat is the most important cultivated crop (grown on an average of over 10 million hectares), though canola is increasing in significance. Only one class of durum is grown, amber durum however, there are several classes of common wheat, based on factors including seed hardness and colour, sowing time (autumn or spring) and the region where the varieties are grown.
Wheat has several uses, including flour for baked goods and pasta, and feed for livestock. In addition, it is used to make beer, vodka and biofuel. Wheat contains gluten protein, which forms minute gas cells that hold carbon dioxide during fermentation, allowing dough to rise and resulting in light bread. Importers of Canadian wheat often blend it with weaker wheats before using it for bread. For this reason, much effort goes into maintaining the strength and mixing qualities of Canadian wheat. Maintenance involves controlling cultivars (i.e., cultivated species) grown and applying a comprehensive grading system.
Close to half of all Canadian wheat is grown in Saskatchewan, followed by Alberta and Manitoba.
Cultivated forms of wheat evolved from natural crossings of wild species, followed by domestication and selection by humans. Wheat was domesticated in Southwest Asia over thousands of years and spread across Asia, Africa and Europe. Introduction to North America took place in the late 15th century and the 16th century. The most important modern cultivars are common and durum wheats, which are usually given the binomial designations T. aestivum and T. turgidum var. durum respectively.
In Canada, wheat was probably first grown at Port-Royal in about 1605 the first exports were made in 1654. Although personnel at some Hudson’s Bay Company posts experimented with wheat, and the settlers at the Red River Colony had some success in 1815, the early years in Western Canada were precarious ones for wheat farmers. Many cultivars from Europe were tried: some were winter wheats that could not survive Canada's severe winters others were spring wheats that matured too late for the short growing season.
The cultivar Red Fife, developed in Ontario, became very popular because of its good yield and excellent milling and baking qualities. By about 1870, Red Fife was popular on the Prairies, but it, too, froze in the fields in years with early frosts. Later investigations have revealed that Red Fife is actually the central European cultivar Galician.
William Saunders, the first director of the Dominion Experimental Farms, was interested in plant breeding. His son, Sir Charles Saunders, took over the wheat-breeding work in 1903 and developed the cultivar Marquis from a cross, made some years earlier, between Hard Red Calcutta and Red Fife. He had a small increase plot (12 plants) of Marquis in 1904, but it took several years to verify that it matured earlier than Red Fife and had excellent yield and superior milling and baking qualities. It was distributed in the spring of 1909 and quickly became popular throughout Canada. Western wheat production was increasing rapidly at this time, from 2 million tonnes in 1904 to 3.7 million in 1906 and 7.7 million in 1913. Red Fife and Marquis made Canada famous for its high-quality hard red spring wheat. Marquis was later adopted as the statutory standard of quality for this class of wheat, a position it held until 1987.
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Wheat, any of several species of cereal grasses of the genus Triticum (family Poaceae) and their edible grains. Wheat is one of the oldest and most important of the cereal crops. Of the thousands of varieties known, the most important are common wheat (Triticum aestivum), used to make bread durum wheat (T. durum), used in making pasta (alimentary pastes) such as spaghetti and macaroni and club wheat (T. compactum), a softer type, used for cake, crackers, cookies, pastries, and flours. Additionally, some wheat is used by industry for the production of starch, paste, malt, dextrose, gluten, alcohol, and other products.
What is the nutritional composition of wheat?
The nutritional composition of the wheat grain varies with differences in climate and soil. On average, a kernel of wheat contains 12 percent water, 70 percent carbohydrates, 12 percent protein, 2 percent fat, 1.8 percent minerals, and 2.2 percent crude fibers. Thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and small amounts of vitamin A are also present.
What type of wheat is used to make bread?
Common wheat ( Triticum aestivum) is used in making bread.
What is white flour made from?
White flour is the flour recovered from milled wheat grains. White flour, which does not contain the germ, preserves longer.
What digestive disorder is associated with consuming wheat?
Celiac disease, also called nontropical sprue or celiac sprue, is an inherited autoimmune digestive disorder in which affected individuals cannot tolerate gluten, a protein constituent of wheat as well as barley, malt, and rye flours. Celiac disease is thought to be triggered by a combination of genetic and environmental factors when a genetically predisposed individual eats foods containing gluten.
For treatment of the cultivation of wheat, see cereal farming. For the processing of wheat grain, see cereal processing.
The wheat plant has long slender leaves and stems that are hollow in most varieties. The inflorescences are composed of varying numbers of minute flowers, ranging from 20 to 100. The flowers are borne in groups of two to six in structures known as spikelets, which later serve to house the subsequent two or three grains produced by the flowers. Though grown under a wide range of climates and soils, wheat is best adapted to temperate regions with rainfall between 30 and 90 cm (12 and 36 inches). Winter and spring wheat are the two major types of the crop, with the severity of the winter determining whether a winter or spring type is cultivated. Winter wheat is always sown in the fall spring wheat is generally sown in the spring but can be sown in the fall where winters are mild.
The nutritional composition of the wheat grain varies somewhat with differences in climate and soil. On an average, the kernel contains 12 percent water, 70 percent carbohydrates, 12 percent protein, 2 percent fat, 1.8 percent minerals, and 2.2 percent crude fibres. Thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and small amounts of vitamin A are present, but the milling processes removes most of those nutrients with the bran and germ.
Most wheat used for food requires processing. The grain is cleaned and then conditioned by the addition of water so that the kernel breaks up properly. In milling, the grain is cracked and then passed through a series of rollers. As the smaller particles are sifted out, the coarser particles pass to other rollers for further reduction. About 72 percent of the milled grain is recovered as white flour. Flour made from the whole kernel is called graham flour and becomes rancid with prolonged storage because of the germ-oil content retained. White flour, which does not contain the germ, preserves longer. Inferior and surplus wheats and various milling by-products are used for livestock feeds.
The greatest portion of the wheat flour produced is used for breadmaking. Wheats grown in dry climates are generally hard types, having protein content of 11–15 percent and strong gluten (elastic protein). The hard type produces flour best suited for breadmaking. The wheats of humid areas are softer, with protein content of about 8–10 percent and weak gluten. The softer type of wheat produces flour suitable for cakes, crackers, cookies, and pastries and household flours. Durum wheat semolina (from the endosperm) is used for making pastas, or alimentary pastes.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Augustyn, Managing Editor, Reference Content.
History of Agriculture to the Second World WarCamrose, Alberta, 1900 (courtesy PAA).
Canadian agriculture has experienced a markedly distinct evolution in each region of the country. A varied climate and geography have been largely responsible, but, in addition, each region was settled at a different period in Canada's economic and political development. The principal unifying factor has been the role of government: from the colonial era to present, agriculture has been largely state-directed and subordinate to other interests.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Aboriginal people of the lower Great Lakes and St Lawrence regions planted two types of maize, squash and beans, and practised seed selection. Long before the appearance of French traders, agricultural First Nations traded maize for skins and meat obtained by woodland hunters. After the advent of the fur trade, Algonquian middlemen traded maize with more distant bands for prime northern pelts, and traded furs, in turn, with the French. First Nations agriculture was important in provisioning the fur trade until the late 18th century.
18th century – mid-19th century
Maritime agriculture dates from the establishment of Port-Royal by the French in 1605. Acadian settlers diked the saltwater marshes in the Annapolis basin and used them for growing wheat, flax, vegetables and pasturage. After the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), France withdrew to Plaisance, Newfoundland Île Royale (Cape Breton Island) and Île St-Jean (PEI). They intended Île St-Jean to serve as a source of grain and livestock for their naval and fishing base on Cape Breton. Few Acadians moved from their homeland to Île St-Jean before the 1750s. By mid-century the predominantly fishing population in Île Royale was cultivating small clearings with wheat and vegetables and possessed a variety of livestock.
After acquiring Acadia in 1713, Britain promoted Maritime agriculture in pursuit of objectives of defence and mercantilism. Provisions were needed to support Nova Scotia's role as a strategic bulwark against the French. Britain also promoted agriculture to supply provisions for the West Indies trade, and hemp for its navy and merchant marine [EJ1] . Financial incentives were offered to Halifax settlers to clear and fence their land, but the lack of major markets kept the area in a state of self-sufficiency. The Acadians continued to supply produce to the French on Ile Royale, an act which contributed to their expulsion by the British in 1755. Some Acadians were later asked, however, to instruct the British in marshland farming. The influx of Loyalist settlers in the 1780s increased demand for marshland produce. Since the American states provided stiff competition in flour and grains, the Fundy marshlands were largely turned to pasture and hay for cattle production. On PEI the British government attempted to promote agricultural settlement by granting 66 lots of 8,094 ha to private individuals.
Between 1783 and 1850 agriculture was dominant in PEI, but subordinate to the cod fishery and the trade with the West Indies in Nova Scotia, and secondary to the timber trade and shipbuilding in New Brunswick. With British and Loyalist immigration, the area of agricultural settlement in the Maritimes expanded from the marshlands to include the shores of rivers, especially the Saint John. Although the new areas were suited to cereal production, settlers tended to engage in mixed farming for cultural, agricultural and marketing reasons. Most full-time farmers concentrated on livestock raising, which required less manpower than did cereal growing. Before 1850 both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick remained net importers of foodstuffs from the United States. PEI alone achieved an agricultural surplus, exporting wheat to England as early as 1831.
Agricultural development in the early 19th century was limited by the skills post-Loyalist immigrants possessed. Most of these settlers were Highland Scots who were ill-prepared for clearing virgin forest, and the standard of agricultural practice was low. In 1818, John Young, a Halifax merchant using the name "Agricola," began agitating for improved farming methods. As a result, agricultural societies were formed with a government-sponsored central organization in Halifax. Young's efforts had virtually no impact, however, since merchants were not involved in local farming. Hence there was little economic incentive for farmers to produce a surplus for sale. Nonetheless, agricultural lands and output grew gradually, and by mid-century the farming community was a political force, demanding transportation improvements and agricultural protection.
Mid-19th century – Early 20th century
After 1850 Maritime agriculture was affected by two principal developments: the transition throughout the capitalist world from general to specialized agricultural production and, especially after 1896, the integration of the Maritime economy into the Canadian economy. The last two decades of the 19th century witnessed an increase in the production of factory cheese and creamery butter and a rapid increase in the export of apples, especially to Britain (see Fruit and Vegetable Industry).
After 1896 the boom associated with Prairie settlement opened the Canadian market to fruit (especially apples) and potatoes. By the 1920s, the British market for Nova Scotia apples was threatened by American, Australian and British Columbian competition, notwithstanding improvements introduced by Nova Scotia producers to increase efficiency. The Canadian market for potatoes was supplemented by markets in Cuba and the US. Although Cuba moved to self-sufficiency after 1928, PEI retained some of the market by providing seed stock.
Those sectors of Maritime agriculture dependent on local markets began to suffer in the 1920s. Difficulties in the forest industries contributed to the disappearance of markets, and the introduction of the internal combustion engine diminished the demand for horses and hay. Meat from other parts of Canada supplanted local production. In the 1930s the potato export market suffered as American and Cuban markets became less accessible. These factors, coupled with problems in the silver fox industry (see Fur Farming), were catastrophic for PEI its agricultural income dropped from $9.8 million in 1927 to $2.3 million in 1932. Only the apple export market remained stable, a result of British preferential tariffs on apples from the empire. In response to various difficulties during the 1930s, many farmers turned to more diversified self-sufficient agriculture, a change reflected in increased dairy, poultry and egg production.
In Newfoundland agriculture was never more than marginally viable. Nonetheless, fishermen practised subsistence agriculture along the creeks and harbours of the East Coast, and commercial farming developed on the Avalon Peninsula and on parts of Bonavista, and Notre Dame and Trinity bays. Newfoundland's agricultural history really began with the food shortages associated with the American Revolution, when 3,100 ha were prepared for agriculture in the St John's, Harbour Grace and Carbonear areas. In the early 19th century a number of factors combined to give an impetus to agriculture: the arrival of Irish immigrants with agricultural skills, the growth of St John's as a market for vegetables, a road-building program, and in 1813 an authorization allowing the governor to issue title to land for commercial use.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries the government intensified its efforts to interest the people in agriculture. By 1900, 298 km 2 were under cultivation and there were some 120,000 horses, cattle and sheep in the colony. Through the Newfoundland Agricultural Board (formed 1907) the government established agricultural societies (91 in 1913) which provided assistance in such things as land clearing and the acquisition of seed and farm implements. In the 1920s, the government imported purebred animals to improve the native stock. In the 1930s, in order to mitigate the hardship of the economic depression, the government responded to the urgings of the Land Development association, a private group, by providing free seed potatoes in an effort to promote "garden" cultivation. Upon joining Confederation in 1949, Newfoundland took advantage of federal government funding to establish agricultural measures such as a loan program, a land-clearing program, and the stimulation of egg and hog production.
17th and 18th Centuries
In 1617, Louis Hébert began to raise cattle and to clear a small plot for cultivation. Small-scale clearing ensued as settlers planted cereal grains, peas and corn, but only six ha were under cultivation by 1625. Beginning in 1612 the French Crown granted fur monopolies to a succession of companies in exchange for commitments to establish settlers. The charter companies brought some settlers, who used oxen, asses and later horses to clear land, but agricultural self-sufficiency was realized only in the 1640s and marketing agricultural produce was always difficult during the French regime. In 1663, Louis XIV reasserted royal control and promoted settlement by families. Intendant Jean Talon reserved lots for agricultural experimentation and demonstration, introduced crops such as hops and hemp, raised several types of livestock and advised settlers on agricultural methods. By 1721 farmers in New France were producing 99,600 hectolitres (hL) of wheat and smaller amounts of other crops annually, and owned about 30,000 cattle, swine, sheep and horses (see Seigneurial System).
After 1763 and the arrival of British traders, new markets opened for Canadian farm produce within Britain's mercantile system. Francophone habitants predominated in the raising of crops, but they were joined by anglophone settlers. British subjects purchased some seigneuries, which they settled with Scottish, Irish and American immigrants. New Englanders also settled the Eastern Townships and other areas. Anglo-Canadians promoted some new techniques of wheat and potato culture via newspapers and in 1792 formed an agricultural society at Québec.
While the focus of the government's promotional activity was in Upper Canada (Ontario) and the Maritimes, Lower Canada (Québec) enjoyed a modest growth of wheat exports before 1800. Nevertheless, Lower Canadian wheat production lagged far behind that of Upper Canada in the first half of the 19th century. The failure of Lower Canadian agriculture has been blamed by some on the relative unsuitability of the region's climate and soils for growing wheat, the only crop with significant export potential soil exhaustion and the growth of the province's population at a faster rate than its agricultural production in this period. Because there was little surplus for reinvestment in capital stock, Lower Canada was slow to develop an inland road system, and transport costs remained relatively high.
Early 19th Century – Mid-20th Century
By the 1830s Lower Canada had ceased to be self-sufficient in wheat and flour, and increasingly began importing from Upper Canada. The mid-century gross agricultural production of Canada East (Québec) totalled $21 million — only about 60 per cent of Canada West's (Ontario's) production. Both modernizing and traditional farms contained more children than they could adequately support, and widespread poverty induced thousands of habitants to migrate to Québec's cities and New England (see Franco-Americans). As well, spurred by religious colonizers, settlement pushed north of Trois-Rivières, south of Lac Saint-Jean and south along the Chaudière River. However, little commercial agriculture was practised.
Later 19th-century Québec agriculture was marked by increases in cultivated area and productivity, and by a shift from wheat production to dairying and stock raising. From the 1860s government agents worked to educate farmers to the commercial possibilities of dairying, and agronomists such as Édouard Barnard organized an agricultural press and instituted government inspection of dairy products. Commercial dairies, cheese factories and butteries developed around the towns and railways, most notably in the Montréal plain and the Eastern Townships. By 1900, dairying was the leading agricultural sector in Québec. It was becoming mechanized in field and factory and increasingly male-oriented as processing shifted from the farm to factories. By the end of the century 3.6 million kg of Québec cheese were being produced, an 8-fold increase since 1851.
By the 1920s, however, agriculture accounted for only one-third of Québec's total economic output. The First World War had artificially stimulated production, and new mining, forestry and hydroelectric ventures opened up new markets but they also contributed to and symbolized the shift from agricultural to industrial enterprises in the Québec economy. By the 1920s Québec soil was again becoming exhausted due to a lack of fertilizer which stemmed from a lack of credit. Farmers' political organizations, such as the Union catholique des cultivateurs (founded 1924), addressed the problem of lack of credit and other issues.
Like their counterparts elsewhere in Canada, Québec farmers suffered during the 1930s. In areas removed from urban markets there was a return to non-commercial agriculture, with a consequent increase in the number of farms. During the decade farm income decreased more drastically than did urban wages. The Second World War marked a return to widespread commercial agriculture, and postwar trends included a decrease in the number of farm units and in farm population, and an increase in the average size of farm holdings.
Late 18th Century – Mid-19th Century
American independence in 1783 both created a potential security threat on British North America's southern border and cut off Britain's principal agricultural base in North America. The British channelled Loyalists into the lower Great Lakes region, where Governor Simcoe suggested settling soldiers along the waterfront for defence, with other settlers filling in the land behind. The authorities initially promoted hemp culture as an export staple to stimulate British manufacturing and contribute to defence. However, scarcity of labour in relation to land inhibited its production. Between 1783 and 1815 settlement filled in along the lake shores and the St Lawrence, where some cereal grains and vegetables were grown, chiefly for subsistence.
Agriculture in what is now Ontario was dominated from 1800-60 by wheat production. Wheat was the crop most easily grown and marketed and was an important source of cash for settlers. Apart from limited internal demand from such sources as British garrisons, canal construction crews and lumber camps, the principal markets were Britain and Lower Canada. Between 1817 and 1825 Upper Canadian farmers shipped an average of 57,800 (hectolitres) hL to Montréal.
Dependence on wheat culture was reflected in a boom-and-bust economy. The application of the Corn Law restrictions in 1820 effectively shut BNA wheat out of British markets, causing a disastrous drop in wheat prices and land values. With the fixing of preferential duties for BNA wheat in 1825, prices and export volumes rallied, but the market collapsed in 1834-35. Crop failures in the late 1830s resulted in near starvation in many newly settled areas.
Mid-19th Century – Early 20th Century
Despite the American tariff, similar failures in the United States created a temporary market for surplus Upper Canadian wheat. Meanwhile, transportation improvements facilitated shipments out of the region. As a result of these improvements, favourable climate conditions and growth in markets, wheat exports increased from 1 million hL in 1840 to 2.25 million in 1850.
After 1850, Ontario’s agriculture became increasingly diversified. Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 removed the preferential status of BNA wheat and therefore promoted price instability, but higher American prices after the discovery of California gold helped producers overcome trade barriers to livestock, wool, butter and coarse grains. Favourable trading conditions continued with the Reciprocity Treaty, 1854-66. Moreover, a price depression in 1857 and crop destruction by the midge in 1858 hastened the switch to livestock. In 1864 factory cheese making was introduced, and by 1900 Canadian cheddar cheese, largely from Ontario, had captured 60 per cent of the English market. Two farmers’ organizations — the Grange (after 1872) and the Patrons of Industry (after 1889) — reflected a developing producer consciousness among Ontario farmers.
Technological developments assisted both the grain and livestock sectors in the 19th century. Field tillage was improved by the introduction of copies of American cast-iron plows after 1815. To control weeds biennial summer fallow (i.e. unsown land) was generally practised between about 1830 and 1850, when crop rotation became prevalent. Government authorities also promoted the British technology of covered drains to reclaim extensive tracts of swampy or bottom land, averting the use of furrow and ditch drainage that impeded mechanization. The reaper diffused rapidly in the 1860s, permitting increased grain production. Widespread use of the cream separator by 1900 promoted butter production, while refrigeration was a catalyst to the beef and pork industry.
Early – Mid-20th Century
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, urbanization expanded the demand for market gardening around cities and more specialized crops in different regions. These included orchard farming in Niagara Peninsula, Prince Edward and Elgin counties, and tobacco in Essex and Kent counties. Dairying developed on the fringes of cities and cash crop acreages declined in favour of feed grains and fodder, while beef producers were unable to meet the domestic demand. Throughout rural Ontario there were farm-initiated associations of stockbreeders, dairy farmers, grain growers, fruit growers, etc., as well as the government-initiated Farmers' Institutes and Women's Institutes. The associations reflected a faith in farm life in the face of rural depopulation and an industrializing society. Various farmer-initiated groups worked in the United Farmers of Ontario movement, which formed the provincial government in 1919 under E.C. Drury.
During the 1920s Ontario farmers experienced a taste of prosperity as prices increased on various agricultural commodities. One result of this prosperity was a decline in the drift to the cities. By 1931, however, Ontario farm receipts had decreased 50 per cent from 1926. Although Ontario escaped the drought conditions of the Prairies, farmers were unable to market much of their produce, and surplus meat, cheese, vegetables and apples were shipped west. The government responded to the crisis with regulation, with dairying being the most important example. The Ontario Marketing Board was formed in 1931 with a 5-year plan instituted in 1932. In return for government loans, producers improved their herds and modernized their barns. By the Second World War Ontario agriculture was diversified for an urban market, with both agricultural marketing boards and farmer-owned co-operatives playing important roles.
Early 19th Century – Early 20th Century
In western British North America, Scottish settlers practised river-lot agriculture at Red River Colony after their arrival in 1812. While the survey system was French Canadian, agricultural practices followed the Scottish pattern. Land adjacent to the river was cultivated in strips in the manner of the Scottish "infield," with pasturage reserved for the "outfield" behind. The Métis alternated agriculture with seasonal activities such as the Buffalo Hunt. The Red River Colony came to assume a role in provisioning the fur trade alongside Aboriginal and company agriculture.
Confederation was the spur to the agricultural development of the Prairie West. In the mid-19th century central Canadian businessmen were seeking investment opportunities to complement central Canada's industrial development. The prospect of agricultural expansion in the western interior was very appealing. Canada proceeded to purchase the Hudson's Bay Company's Rupert’s Land (1870), repress Métis resistance (1869-70 and 1885), displace the Aboriginal population, and survey the land for disposal to agricultural settlers (see Dominion Lands Policy). Wheat quickly established its economic importance. However, continuing low world prices, culminating in a worldwide depression in the early 1890s, halted development until 1900. Western Canada's dry climate and short growing season were the most serious stumbling blocks. Genetic experimentation, leading to the development of Marquis wheat in 1907, in combination with the Dominion government's promotion of summer-fallowing to conserve soil moisture and control weeds, helped remove the technical barriers to continued agricultural expansion.
Large-scale ranching on leased land began in what is now southern Alberta and Saskatchewan in the 1870s and 1880s. The area's dry climate was practically overcome by small-scale irrigation from the 1870s on and by the introduction of an irrigation policy in 1894. Western agriculture received the necessary economic stimulus from an overall decline in transportation costs (see Crow’s Nest Pass Agreement) and a relative rise in the price of wheat in the late 1890s.
Under Clifford Sifton’s immigration schemes, the Canadian government effectively completed the agricultural settlement of the Prairies. Mechanization of the wheat economy with steam, gas tractors, gang plows and threshing machines contributed to huge production surpluses. An unprecedented boom in wheat prices during the First World War promoted cultivation of new lands. Price depressions in 1913 and after the war precipitated many bankruptcies by overcapitalized farmers. Nevertheless, between 1901 and 1931 the amount of land under field crop on the Prairies jumped from 1.5 to 16.4 million ha.
Early 20th Century – Mid - 20th Century
The collapse of wheat prices after First World War had serious consequences for Prairie farmers. Many operators who had purchased implements and more land at high prices during the war defaulted and lost their farms. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s operators of farms on poorer soils consistently lost money, as did farmers in the dry belt of southwestern Saskatchewan and southeastern Alberta. Drought, grasshoppers and crop disease further worsened conditions for farmers in the 1930s the government responded with the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration. Technological advances such as the development of the combine harvester resulted in both more efficient agriculture and the forcing off the land of farmers lacking sufficient capital to purchase the new technology. The mechanization process in Prairie agriculture as a whole was essentially halted during the 1930s, to be dramatically resumed after the Second World War.
From the early settlement era western farmers depended on central Canadian business to provide their production inputs and to finance, purchase and transport their grain. In order to gain some control over the economic forces which controlled them, organizations were formed to advance their interests. Early agrarian movements in Manitoba and the Northwest Territories espoused the virtues of co-operation and criticized the Canadian government’s tariff policy, freight rates and federal disallowance of railway charters to the Canadian Pacific Railway's rivals. After forcing the government in 1899 to ensure better service from the railways, farmers formed Grain Growers’ Associations in the Territories in 1901-02 and in Manitoba in 1903. These organizations carried on educational work among farmers, promoted provincial ownership of inland elevators and, ultimately, campaigned for the co-operative marketing of grain. This latter objective was achieved in 1906 with the formation of the Grain Growers' Grain Company.
The Grain Growers' Grain Company is representative of the first phase of Prairie co-operative grain marketing. In the context of heightened farmer and worker consciousness after the First World War, it came under criticism for having become too business-oriented. A radical wing developed in the Prairie farm movement, led by H.W. Wood of the United Farmers of Alberta. In 1923-24 farmers organized compulsory pools ¾ a new form of co-operative marketing ¾ in the three Prairie provinces (e.g., see Saskatchewan Wheat Pool). Pools were successful throughout the 1920s, but collapsed after the Great Depression struck in 1929. Although the federal government moved to save the pools and stabilize the wheat market, it did so by appointing a manager from the private grain trade, undermining the pools’ original co-operative design.
As a further attempt to stabilize the market the government introduced the Canadian Wheat Board in 1935, which farmers had been demanding since their wheat board experience of 1919 – 20. Again, however, this board was dominated by the private grain trade and reflected its interests as much as those of farmers. In 1943, the wheat board was made compulsory for the marketing of western wheat, and in 1949 the board's authority was extended to western barley and oats . The CWB’s monopoly was terminated by the Federal Government in 2012, allowing farmers to market their grain to whichever company they wished. The agrarian movement in western Canada was more than an economic phenomenon. People in the pools, the grain growers' associations and farm political parties intervened and were influential in Prairie culture, society and politics, as well as in economics. Farm-movement women, for example, were active in the temperance crusade, the women’s suffrage movement, child welfare and rural education, as well as in the economic and political struggles they shared with farm men. Political protest movements which developed in the 1920s around the pooling crusade, such as the Farmers' Union of Canada, eventually entered the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation as an important component of the Canadian socialist tradition.
Agriculture in British Columbia was first developed to provision the fur trade. In 1811, Daniel Harmon of the North West Company started a garden at Stuart Lake, and later the Hudson Bay Company planted small gardens on Vancouver Island, at Fort St James, Fort Fraser and Fort George. The HBC also helped establish the Puget's Sound Agricultural Company. Commercial demand for agricultural products was spurred by gold rushes after 1858. However, while ranching was established in the interior along the Thompson and Nicola valleys and some farming settlement occurred, newcomers were more attracted to the lure of gold than to agricultural opportunities. Production lagged far behind demand.
Railway production camps in the early 1880s provided a domestic market for agricultural products, but the establishment of Canadian rail linkages destroyed the early wheat industry, which could not compete with Prairie wheat, either in quality or in price. In the 1890s the establishment of the Boundary and Kootenay mining industries created new markets. Lumbering and fish-packing industries also stimulated agriculture although producers dependent on local industry suffered when lumber camps moved on or mines or canneries closed. Large-scale farming continued in districts such as the Cariboo and Similkameen, while smaller-scale specialized agriculture developed in the Okanagan and Fraser valleys. By the 1880s the Okanagan Valley had developed a specialized fruit industry while market gardening and dairying flourished in the lower Fraser Valley as urban markets increased.
Early 20th Century
The British Columbia Fruit-Growers' Association, founded 1889, was the first formal organization of producers in the province. Its objectives were to investigate potential markets on the Prairies and methods of controlling fruit marketing. In 1913 economic difficulties obliged Okanagan fruit growers to set up a co-operative marketing and distribution agency, financed largely by the provincial government. The agency helped eliminate eastern Canadian and American competition on the Prairies. The depression of 1921 – 22, however, signalled the beginning of an 18-year search for more permanent stability. A 1923 plan called on fruit growers to agree to sell for a 5-year period through a central agency. Eighty per cent of producers supported the plan and competition among shippers kept prices low. Various government and private schemes were tried without success between 1927 and 1937.
In 1938 the provincial government established the Tree Fruit Board to be the sole agency for apple marketing. The following year producers set up Tree Fruits Ltd as a producer-owned central selling agency. In 1939 – 40 farmers' co-operatives in BC (of which Tree Fruits Ltd was the most important) did a combined business of nearly $11 million. Although there were some difficulties for BC agriculture in the Second World War , with the export market being cut, a combination of government assistance and improved purchasing power on the Prairies contributed to the creation of a seller's market by 1944.
Agriculture north of 60° N lat began with European contact, since the region was beyond the range of Aboriginal cultivation techniques. Following Peter Pond’s 1778 experiment in gardening near Lake Athabasca, the Hudson Bay Company established crops and livestock along the Mackenzie River at Fort Simpson, Fort Norman (now Tulita), Fort Good Hope, and at Fort Selkirk at the junction of the Pelly and Yukon rivers. Missionaries developed livestock, gardens and crops at a number of missions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During the Klondike Gold Rush, some miners grew their own vegetables in the relatively fertile Dawson City soil, but most supplies were imported. The pattern that emerged from the gold rush period and came to characterize northern agriculture in the 20th century was one of small market gardens and part-time farming, subordinate to mining. In the Yukon, ranches developed on the Pelly River and along the Whitehorse-Dawson trail. The mining area around Mayo provided a demand for market gardening. In Mackenzie District, significant agricultural activity was undertaken by Oblate missionaries at Fort Smith, Fort Resolution and Fort Providence.
During the 20th century the federal government studied the agricultural potential of the North through co-operative experimental work with selected farmers (such as the Oblate missionaries) and, after the Second World War, in their own substations. The consensus that developed was that agriculture was not commercially viable. Transportation improvements have allowed southern produce to undercut potential northern production and climate has been a continuing impediment.
Our Food Their Food: A Historical Overview of the Bengali Platter
Bengal has been famous for its food and cuisine ever since the establishment of civilization in the landscape of gluttons, made up of the sovereign state of Bangladesh (earlier East Bengal or East Pakistan) and the Indian state of West Bengal, with a total area of more than 228,000 square kilometers (Banerji 2005:xx). This landscape constitutes more than 222 million people of which Bangladesh has 141 million and West Bengal 81 million, which helped the Bengali ‘nation’ to become larger than many sovereign countries (Banerji 2005).
Traditionally, Bengal has been renowned for its extraordinarily fertile agricultural land and production of paddy. At the same time, the rivers of Bengal are an apparently inexhaustible resource of different varieties of fish. That is why, from the ancient times, rice and fish emerged as the staple food for the Bengalis. Apart from fish and rice, Bengal has had a rich tradition of many vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, and most of these, such as dal (lentil soup), posto (vegetables made with poppy seeds), fish curry, and mutton curry, are consumed with rice.
Nearly 5,000 years ago, paddy cultivation came to Bengal from Southeast Asia and rice became a major calorie resource of Bengali daily life (Murshid 2008:483). Paddy cultivation is practised in Bengal three times a year. Among them aman cultivation is important, when paddy is planted during monsoon and harvested in the late autumn. The next most important plantation is aush, which is planted around May-June and harvested during August-September. The boro plantation is a relatively new practice, and has been popularized with the emergence of new irrigation techniques among the Bengali farmers. This cultivation takes place during the winter and the crop is harvested in early summer.
There are ample references scattered across Bengali texts describing rice as the primary food item in Bengali diet. A government report of the 1940s shows that in order to survive, 3600 calories were required daily, and a large section of Bengali population received 3500 calories from rice itself (Banerji 2005). Besides boiled rice, different kinds of puffed rice such as muri, khoi, and flattened rice also fulfilled the daily needs of the common Bengalis. Dal has been another source of calories among the Bengali population surprisingly it was missing in the pages of the early Bengali texts. The first Bengali texts of the 11th century, the Charyapadas, describe fishing and hunting, and mention many kinds of food crop including rice and sugarcane, but there is no reference to any kind of dal. It is only in 15 th -century texts, such as the Mangalkavyas, that different kinds of dal and the process of cooking are mentioned. In respect of Bengal, Chitrita Banerji (2005) notices that it had many commonalities with other Southeast Asian countries and China, where lentils and pulses were possibly unknown except soybeans (source of tofu). Even now, a major supply of lentils comes from outside the state. She also argued that the supply of fish made dal unnecessary as a source of protein. The shift occurred with the emergence of the Vaishnava Bhakti cult whose followers were vegetarian. As a result, a substitute for fish and meat had to be discovered, which is what helped to popularize dal among Bengalis (Banerji 2005: xxviii-xxix). Khichudi, a preparation of rice and dal and some spices, often offered to the deities as bhog, is also a significant dish in Bengal, which determines the importance of rice and dal in Bengali daily life.
Journey through an Assimilated Taste: Food culture in Pre-Colonial Bengal
The culinary culture of pre-colonial Bengal contained many features distinguishing it from other parts of the country. Conventionally, Bengali dishes are divided into four types, such as charbya (food which is to be chewed, like rice, fish, etc.), choṣhya (food which is to be sucked, liquids like ambal, tak etc.) lehya (food which is to be licked, like chatni) and peya (drinks, like milk) (Ray 1987, Mukhopadhyay 2007:29). Even the sequence of eating foods is also prescribed in the sacred texts of Bengal, for example, in a verse of Halayudha’s Brahmansarvasva. The Vishnupurana, compiled in northern India prescribed the eating sequence as follows: meals should start with the sweet dish followed by salty dishes and end with spicy and bitter dishes. On the contrary, Brihaddharma Purana, compiled within the territory of Bengal, prescribed that boiled rice and ghee should be consumed first, followed by spinach and rest of the vegetables, and the meal should end with milk with boiled rice (Ray 1987:5).
The gourmets of Bengal were so enthusiastic about eating that they not only prescribed the sequence of eating but they left behind plentiful texts where different Bengali food items and dishes were mentioned. A verse from the Prakritapaingala, composed approximately in the 13th century by anonymous authors, depicts the interesting eating culture of that time. The verse says:
oggarabhatta rambhaapatta, gaika ghitta dugdhasajutta |
mainimaccha ṇalichagaccha, dijjai kanta kha punabanta ||
[‘Fortunate is the man whose wife serves him on a banana leaf some hot rice with ghee, mourala fish, fried leaf of jute plant, and some hot milk’ (Banerji 2005:23).
Shriharsha’s Naishadhacharita, a Sanskrit mahakavya composed in the 12th century, provides the picture of the Bengali eating culture. In this text, Nala and Damayanti are the protagonists. At their wedding feast, different dishes are served, such as cooked vegetables, fish, mutton, deer meat, different varieties of pitha (a kind of sweet dish), flavoured drinks and tambul or pan. Bhavadeva Bhatta, in a text called Prayashcittaprakarana depicts some aspects of the Bengali cuisine. He describes how rice, fish, meat, different milk products, shak (varieties of spinach), vegetables, and fruits dominated Bengali eating culture at that time. According to him, there was no prohibition on the brahmins’ consumption of non-vegetarian food (Ray 1987:4–5). Jimutavahana, a 12th-century poet, in his Kalaviveka shows that the hilsa fish and its oil (in which the fish is fried) were popular in Bengal (Ray 1987:4). In Brihaddharmapurana, it is said that the brahmins widely consumed white-scaled fishes such as ruhi, punti and shakul etc. Sarvananda, in Tikasarvasva, shows the passion and love of east Bengalis for shutkimachh (dried fish) (Ray 1987:4). Among the spices, he said that marich (pepper), pippali, labanga (long or clove), jirak (jeera or cumin), ela, jafran (saffron), ada (adrak or ginger), karpur (camphor), jaifal (nutmeg), hing (asafoetida) were popular in Bengali cooking (Ray 1987:5).
Sukumar Sen (1943) provides detailed information regarding popular Bengali food culture. For example nādu (a kind of hard sweet, referred to in Sanskrit as ladduka), moya (a kind of soft sweet, in Sanskrit called modaka), khaja (a crunchy soft sweet), khar (sweet made of sugar), fani (sugar-made sweet), kadma (sweet made with sugar, which looks like a kadamba flower), pitha (in Sanskrit called pishtaka, a sweet cake made with rice powder, raw-sugar, ghee and oil), dudshakar (a porridge made with rice, sugar and milk), khirish (sweet prepared by kheer), shikharini (a dish prepared with ghee, curd, molasses and ginger) were very popular at that time. Apart from these, hadus, vadus or olava (prepared with roasted wheat, gram, barley flame), bharti (shikkabab, meat roasted on metalware) and orsia (chatni) were very popular.
Mukundaram Chakravarti, in Chandimangal (16th century), mentioned multiple vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes. Among those, shukto (a bitter dish), prepared with neem leaf, seem, Indian pumpkin (chalkumro) and brinjal, were significant. Apart from this, jute leaf fried in ghee, kusumbari (sundried cake made of lentils, mainly biulir dal, generally fried in oil), prawn, chital fish fried in mustard oil and hog-plum with palang (spinach), fig with prawn, chaltar jhol (kind of soup), puishak (bassela), fulbori (this is also a designed item prepared with lentil, consumed after frying it with oil) and kachur tarkari (preparation of an esculent edible root) were very popular at that time. Mukundaram Chakravarti compiled his collection of verses in the region of Medinipur. So, it is fair to assume that Mukundaram depicted in his verses the common food culture of that region.
In another episode of Mukumdaram’s Chandimangal, he provides detailed descriptions of Bengali dishes such as fulbori, small fish chachchari, fried saral puti and prawn, khoi (kind of puffed rice), sugar and curd made with buffalo milk, ripe chalta, amsi (dried green mango), kasundi (a sauce made with mustard powder), karanjar tak (sour soup), dishes made with thod, fig and prawn, bora (a kind of chop) made with prawn, burned fish with jamirer ros (lime juce), burned porcupine quill, mango with lentil, and other things like kheer, pitha made with coconut and til, which were general ceremonial food items at that time.
In a section of the Chandimangal, Mukundaram narrates a story where Phullara prepares some dishes for one of the main protagonists, Kalketu. They include boiled broken rice, lentil boiled in water with some spices and bottle gourd, burned native potato and ol (an Indian vegetable), kachu and amda, and ambal (sour soup). In the end, the protagonist took haritaki (black myrobalan). Another version of this text depicts other dishes in the same episode, including deer meat, burned mongoose and kachur ghanto with amra.
Other mangalkavyas such as Dharmamangal and Padmapuran also discussed the popular dishes in medieval Bengal. In Manik Gangopadhyay’s Dharmamangal, mutton, spinaches, shukta, luchi (cake made by frying wheat flour in oil) and nadu were mentioned as popular food items. Narayanadeva, in Padmapuran, mentions a list of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes at Behula’s wedding. For example, shukto prepared with boiled cane leaf, fried jute leaf, helencha (Indian spinach) fried in ghee, the upper end of the bottle-gourd plant, mung dal (kind of pigeon-pea) and muger bodi, tilbada and tilkumda, singari fried in ghee, mauya aloo, paltar shak and shuktoni with ginger savour, ambal made with ripe banana, chital peti (a part of the fish’s body) fried with byasan, morich diye magur machher jhal (a kind of fish preparation with pepper), fried koi fish with dust of cumin and mahasholer ambal (a sour preparation of a fish), prawn raslash, mashkalai pulse with rohu fish’s head, shuktoni made with pabda fish with ginger savour, boyal machher jhati, fried hilsa fish, shol fish, bhangan fish, ritha, putha, and large prawn fry, mutton, deer meat, pigeon, and turtle were very popular at that time. Among sweet dishes pitha made with kheer, chandrapuli, manohara, nalbora, chandrakanti, patpitha were very popular at that time (Narayana Deva 1942:56–57).
Even in the late 18th century the eating culture remained mostly unchanged. In a late 18th-century text titled Annadamangal authored by Bharatchandra Ray, a substantial description of medieval Bengali dishes is given by the poet. There is an episode where the deity Annapurna prepares certain dishes. Among them, 23 types of vegetarian dish are mentioned such as sarsadi, ghanta, different types of fried spinach, thick soup of gram pulse, arahad, mug, mas, barbati, batul, and matar dal, bada, badi, banana, radish, coconut fry, milk and dalna prepared with thod, shuktoni, jackfruit seeds with sugar, bottle-gourd with til and pithali, brinjal, and preparations of pumpkin. Among the non-vegetarian dishes were katla, fried chital fish, koi, magur and shol fish, boiled turtle egg (ganga fal) and the various meat preparations like shik pora (meat burnt in a spit, later known as kabab). Apart from these dishes there were some other unconventional dishes such as preparations with bamboo flower, and dalkachu and odkachu (Bose 2004:355–57).
The aforesaid texts were compiled between the 12th and 18th centuries. With the establishment of Islamic rule in Bengal the eating culture gradually took a different shape. Many new food items, such as watermelon, pomegranate, pulao, biriyani, kebab, kofta and kaliya were introduced by the Turks. There is confusion still existing regarding onion and garlic: whether these items were imported from the outside or these were indigenous to India. But it is clear that the use of these items in the daily cooking was introduced after the coming of Islam. However, the process of transformation in taste did not occur in a very linear way, especially in a society like Bengal, where inhaling the smell of prohibited food could lead to degradation in caste status or expulsion from the religious community. Therefore this process took a very slow path to unfold. According to Ghulam Murshid, it was the lower classes who initially adopted the new food culture brought by Islamic rulers. After that, through the high class converts to Islam, this culture spread among other classes of Bengal (Murshid 2008:491–92).
Taste in Transition: Food Culture During the Colonial Era
From the late 18th century, with the expansion of British paramountcy in Bengal, a transformation in the eating culture began, which reached its culmination during the early 20th century. That is why a broad idea of the traditional food can help us to identify the complex process of transformation within the Bengali culinary culture during the 19th century.
From the late 15th century European ships from various countries began to touch the shores of India in order to establish mercantile relations with Indians. The art of cartography and the voyages undertaken by the Iberians during the 15th century opened up new sea routes from the west to different corners of the globe. The Portuguese were the first to set their foot on the Indian subcontinent, gradually followed by the Dutch, French, Danes and the British. On the other hand, America and different parts of Africa also became colonies of these European powers, from where colonizers extracted various kinds of commodities. For instance, the bullion exported from the Americas was used to pay for the spice carried away from the east. Apart from these precious items, the Portuguese, who were the first Europeans to arrive, also brought along with them some new vegetables and food items such as potato, chili pepper, okra, tomato, cauliflower, cabbage, bread, cheese, jelly and biscuits (Habib 2014:54–60, Sen 1997). But notably, those new vegetables and food items were not so popular until the British became the administrators of Bengal and promoted those things for mass consumption (Ray 2009).
Collin Taylor Sen in an article entitled 'The Portuguese Influence on Bengali Cuisine' provides a table where she mentioned the names of different fruits and vegetables brought by the Portuguese and usages of these items in Bengali daily life.
Some Plants Introduced by the Portuguese in Bengal and their Use in Bengali Cuisine
English name (Botanical Name)
Use in Bengali cuisine
Hijli badam. Native of S.E. Brazil, introduced to the west coast of India to check soil erosion. Today India is the world leader in its production.
'Kaju' is Portuguese corruption of Brazilian 'acajau.' 'Hijli' is a coastal region in Bengal where the cashew is grown.
Introduced in Bengal in 1594 from Brazil.
Introduced from America, perhaps via Africa. The Bengali name means 'Chinese nut' which indicates that it could have arrived via Manila or China. However, 'Chinese' is also an adjective used by Bengalis to denote anything foreign.
Originated in Central America. Came to India via
Philippines (where the Spanish brought it)
Mangosteen (garcinia mangostana)
Mangustan was brought from Malacca
Sweet Potato (impoaoea batatas)
Introduced from Africa or Brazil. Bengali name means 'red potato'
Vegetable dishes, shrimp dishes
The Spanish brought the first potatoes to Europe in 1570. On the west coast of India, it is called batata (sweet potato). In 1780, a basket of potatoes was presented to Sir Warren Hastings in Calcutta. It was grown in the foothills of the Himalayas in the 1830s. By 1860, potatoes had become popular in Calcutta, although orthodox people avoided them until [the 20th] century.
Vegetable dishes, dried and with gravy in shukto, poshto. In curries with meat and seafood. Filling for samosas.
Originated in Mexico or Peru. Came via England in the late 18th century
The Bengali name indicates it may have come via Sri Lanka. Originated in Central America.
Spread rapidly in India as substitute for long or black pepper. By the mid-16th century, Europeans were calling it 'Calcutta pepper.'
Fresh, dried, and powdered. Used for flavouring and decoration.
Native to S. America, came to India from West Indies via the Cape of Good Hope or the Philippines.
Tobacco (nicotiana tabacum)
Introduced into South India by the Portuguese in the early 16th century.
May have originated in Peru. Known in Eastern India as early as 1550. Widely grown in Bengal.
Originated in Central America. Achaya notes temple carvings from 12th Century A.D. showing what he claims are corn cobs.
Roasted and eaten on the cob, usually purchased from street sellers.
The bark of the tree yields chicle used by Aztecs for chewing hence Bengali 'chiku'. Brought from Mozambique to Goa or Phillipines to Malaysia, and then to the east coast
Native to southern China. The Portuguese brought it to Bengal at end of the 19th century.
Eaten as fruit. Goans make litchi wine
Apart from these vegetables many other food items also came with the Europeans. In 1660, the famous French traveler Francois Bernier, describing his visit to Bengal, mentioned that in Bengal the supply of inexpensive biscuits to the crews of European ships was very common (Achaya 1991:193). This indicates that the small-scale production of biscuits had already started in Bengal during the 17th century. The industrial production of biscuits was a later phenomenon and initially the Europeans imported these from outside the colony. Even in the first half of the 19th century, the Calcutta Gazette, run by W.S. Setton-Karr, started to publish advertisements regarding the sale of these food items for the Europeans. Between 1802 and 1820, at least five advertisements were published by the European companies, regarding these new food items.
Alexander and Co. respectfully beg leave to acquaint the gentleman of the settlement who may be placed to honour them with their commands that they will supply them with bread of the same quality as is served at the college. Alexander and Co. also beg the favour of such gentleman who may wish to employ them, to acquaint them of the same one day previous, of the number of loaves, rolls, & c. they would require on the following day.
Biscuits, by wholesale and retail of any quantity and all orders in their lain will be punctually attended to, at their backing house.
Fronting the Apothecary’s shop, Old Fort.
The Officers of the Honble Companys ship Thomas Grenvill, beg leave to inform their friends and the Public in general, that their Hams and Cheese are now for sale, at No. 4 Olf Post Office Street, at One Rupee Eight Annas per pound, in the highest scale of preservation.
Soda Water, from Schweppe & Co.
Jos. Taylor and Co. have for sale a small quantity of soda water, in Stone Quarts and Pints, imported on the Lord Keith.
Delightfully fresh Italian Macaroni
Warranted the finest ever tasted in India.
Messrs. Tulloh and company beg respectfully to acquaint their friends that they have just received direct from Italy via Malta, a considerable supply of by far the finest real Italian pipe and ribbon Macaroni
Ever before brought to this country. It is positively a perfect treat, being of such superior flavour, and so beautifully white and plump when dressed
Price only 2 rupees 8 annas per pound.
Gradually, from the second half of the 19th century, Europeans, Muslims, and lower-caste Hindus also started to establish bakeries and manufacturing workshops in the colony. In 1841, at Old Court Street, Calcutta, a hotel-cum-bakery was established by David Wilson, named Auckland Hotel (Ray 2009:56), which later became known as the Wilsons Hotel. In 1881 another famous bakery was started, named Federico Peliti. In 1887, Grish Chandra Mondal set up a tandoor in Central Calcutta for making deshi biscuits. After five years he was joined by his neighbour, N.N. Gupta, and this firm was known as V.S. Brothers. After a few years the factory shifted to Dum Dum. In 1897, this factory came up with a new name, Gupta and Company, and a new brand, the Hindu Biscuits. The company primarily manufactured Western style biscuits, but because of the brand name, during the Swadeshi movement the company received considerable impetus. During World War I, it changed its name to Britannia Biscuits Co. (Achaya 1991:194). Till date it is one of the most dominant biscuit brands in India.
Furthermore, for the promotion of these bakeries, they published advertisements in several all-India English newspapers such as The Times of India. The state sometimes organized exhibitions to promote them. After winning four gold medals from such exhibitions, Federico Peliti issued an advertisement in The Times of India for promoting his bakery (Peliti 1888:7). On the other hand, several other companies based in Europe also published their advertisements in such newspapers. In 1888, a London-based company named Werner and Peleiderer advertised in The Times of India where they promoted their bread making machine by arguing that their machine '[i]s the best and most reliable, especially for colonial use.'
The introduction of these items in Bengali society was not going on in a smooth way. But in the case of popularization among the Bengali middle class it had to face much resistance from the rigid sections of the society. So to sideline the orthodox beliefs, the middle class sometime took innovative steps. For example, it was a tradition that Bengalis did not consume un-sacrificed or britha meat. So, when meat consumption increased, some butcher shop owners started to worship Kali idols in their shops to guarantee the sacrality of the meat (Nag 2012:80). These shops are still visible in different parts of Kolkata. To incorporate these items into the platter, sometimes the middle class changed the contents or consumed them in different ways. As Sukumar Sen has shown in his book, sometimes the French omelet became ‘mamlet’ with the touch of the Bengalis. Some food items retained the same name but took different shapes, for example, the chop. In the case of chaap, the large pieces of meat were replaced with small pieces. Sometimes even European food items were discovered in Calcutta, such as egg devil, where small pieces of meat were poured into the eggs (Sen 2013:69).
The responses from the middle class Bengalis towards these food items were even more interesting, because they help us to understand the contradiction between orthodox Bengali culture and the new western ideas. The educated, ‘enlightened’ Bengali middle class not only imbibed the new taste of these items but very often used these items as emblems of liberation and freedom from caste barriers and traditional taboos. To describe the reform activities of the Young Bengal group, The Oriental Magazine reported in 1843 that '[Young Bengal] cutting their way through ham and beef, and wading to liberalism through tumblers of beer' (Sarkar 1985:18).
Rajnarayan Basu’s (1826–1899) autobiography is an important text to understand the contradiction between the ‘western modern’ and the ‘alternative modern.’ Rajnarayan Basu, a famous Brahmo leader, in his autobiographical sketch, wrote that in his college days he often consumed brandy as an emblem of progress and civilization. Even when he became a Brahmo, he consumed biscuits and sherry as a protest against casteism, because at that time the industry of bread and biscuits was primarily run by lower castes or Muslims in Bengal. In his words:
Our house then was in Pataldanga. I used to drink at Goldighi with our neighbour Ishwar Chandra Ghoshal (he was Deputy Magistrate of Shantipur for a long time), Prasanna Kumar Sen, Nandalal Mitra and others. There were a few sheekh-kebab shops at the place where the Senate House has now been built. We used to jump over the fence at Goldighi (being in too much of a hurry to go through the gate) and go to the shops to buy kebabs which we afterwards ate. My friends and I used to take the consumption of meat and waterless brandy to be the greatest example of civilization and social reform. (Basu 2013:41-42)
Describing his brahmo oath taking ceremony, he narrates:
On the day when I signed the oath (in the beginning of 1846) and received Brahmoism, I was accompanied by a couple of other adults from my village. That day, we celebrated our new religion with biscuits and sherry. This was to show that we did not believe in distinctions of caste or creed. This tradition began with Rammohon Roy and continued till our time, but it was not everybody who became a Brahmo that followed this custom. (Basu 2013:44)
Rajnarayan Basu consciously used foreign food items such as biscuits and sherry as the emblem of progress and modernity to defy orthodox social norms and beliefs. By doing so he consumed Western modernity, as argued by Timothy Mitchell while talking about how the people of the non-West mimic western concept of modernity (Mitchell 2000:1–2). However, this same person in 1874 wrote an essay 'Se Kal ar e Kal' where he criticized the Bengali babus who blindly followed western etiquette and food habits. In this essay he depicted a story of two Bengali babus and their beef-eating episode in Wilsons Hotel. The story goes like this:
Two Bengali gentlemen were once dining at Wilson’s Hotel. One of them was especially addicted to beef. He asked the waiter, ‘Do you have veal?’ The waiter replied, ‘I’m afraid not, sir.’ The gentlemen asked again, ‘Do you have beef steak?’ The waiter replied, ‘Not that either, sir.’ The gentleman asked again, ‘Do you have ox tongue?’ The waiter replied, ‘Not that either, sir.’ The gentleman asked again, ‘Do you have calf’s foot jelly?’ The waiter replied, ‘Not that either, sir.’ The gentleman said, ‘Don’t you have anything from the cow?’ Hearing this, the second gentleman, who was not so partial to beef, said with some irritation, ‘Well, if you have nothing else from a cow, why not get him some dung?’ (Chatterjee 1997:8)
This story primarily criticized the practice of beef eating among Bengali babus. According to Basu, the over-consumption of beef was the primary reason behind the scarcity of milk and other milk products. He argued that beef produced excessive heat in the body and advised not imitating the British officers who consumed beef in excess. Basu not only criticized the imitation of beef eating but he also strongly criticized the imitation of western lifestyles. He argued that the imitation of western lifestyle destroyed the health of the Bengalis, and presented the traditional lifestyle as an alternative and ideal one which could improve their health (Basu 1956:139). Rajnarayan Basu’s attitude represents the process of the production of alternative modernity in the East by some colonial subjects, as Partha Chatterjee has argued in his famous article 'Our Modernity' (Chatterjee 1997). Although, it must be noted that between the 19th and 20th centuries only a small section of the middle class and individuals like Swami Vivekananda and Prafulla Chandra Roy represented their tradition as against the European modern. On the contrary, the other section of the middle class, including people such as Nabinchandra Sen and Bipin Chandra Pal, still imitated the Western concept of modernity in their lifestyle. So, from the 19th century onwards these two strands of modernity existed in parallel. Sometimes they clashed with each other, while at other times they were independent.
In his autobiography Amar Jiban, Nabinchandra Sen (1847–1909) narrates a similar kind of story. According to him the primary force which made him a Brahmo was none other than bread, because in Brahmoism there was no restriction on the consumption of bread. In his words:
But, Ananda babu made me realize that this great ‘poem’ has deep connotations. How can an idol, which human beings create with straw and clay, be God? This kind of image worship is ‘idolatry’—a superstition—neglect of God. He also made me realize that becoming a Brahmo gives an opportunity to eat … loaves of bread. There was no need of any more logic for a glutton like me to realize or digest the glory of Brahmaism and its truth. Since I came to the city from the village, I believe this great circular thing called bread as the sacred fruit of immortality in the Kali Age. Hara Chandra Ray, the leading zamindar of my native place, used to treat his friends every winter in a feast of bread made by the Brahmins. Fearing that the boys may renounce their religion after tasting this rare item, he did not allow us to join the feast. My father highly praised it. Harachandra Ray made the same mistake which the Biblical God made and the normative text writers made. Had god not prohibited the fruit of the Tree of wisdom, had the authors of the normative texts allowed the Hindus to eat bread and chicken, had Harachandra Ray let me taste that Brahmin made bread even once, then I would not have become a Brahma and fallen from the Hinduism of the Bangabasi just for the sake of bread. This is the misery of bad luck. I accepted to become a Brahma by succumbing to this great temptation. (Sen 1974: 188–89)
In 1860, Madhusudan Dutt (1824–1873), in his satirical play Ekei Ki Bale Sabhyata? illustrated the responses of the Bengali middle-class youth. In this work, a Vaishnava man follows some young people to learn about their activities. Among those young men was one named Kali, who suggested to his friends to feed that Vaishnava some fowl cutlet and mutton chop so that his life becomes meaningful (Dutt 1999:247). In the 19th century, Vaishnavas did not consume any kind of non-vegetarian dishes and specifically those items which were made by the lower caste Hindus and Muslims. The revival of Gaudiya Vaishnavism in late colonial Bengal strengthened this (Bhatia 2009).
In his autobiography Sattar Batsar, Bipin Chandra Pal (1857–1927) narrates a similar tale. In his childhood, when he was studying in school, a lemonade-producing factory was established in Sylhet. The lemonade was produced and sold by the Muslims. One day, his father got to know about this. He beat him up, because it could ruin his caste status. In another incident in Sylhet:
At this time, or a little earlier, there was a huge uproar within the Hindu society of nearby Cachar. Cachar is probably 70-75 miles from Sylhet. Still, people used to travel between the two towns, despite difficulties in communication. Almost all the servicemen of Cachar were originally from Sylhet. When the business in tea started, the people from Sylhet went to Cachar and became clerks in the tea gardens. Therefore, despite the distance, there was closeness among the Hindus of Sylhet and Cachar. When the new anglicized people of Cachar had British biscuits with tea in their fancy gatherings, it did not remain a secret in Cachar, and did not take much time to be well known in Sylhet. Both societies became furious about this unthinkable sacrilege. The sacrilegious rebels then avoided the severe punishment of expulsion from society by performing the usual penance of shaving their heads…. had it been known that the Hindu boys of Sylhet were drinking the soda-lemonade prepared by a Muslim, in large numbers, there would have been some chaos in Sylhet as well. (Pal 2013:69)
He narrates another incident. Once, when he fell seriously ill and the doctor suggested lemonade as medicine, his father did not hesitate in giving him the lemonade. He narrates:
My motions more or less stopped that time. But the thirst was very much there. The doctor suggested lemonade for quenching this thirst. The lemonade was brought from the market immediately. The same lemonade, touched by a Muslim, made by a Muslim, in the machine of a Muslim. My father, with his own hands, poured that lemonade in a glass and raised it to my lips. I still had not forgotten the beating I got for having the same lemonade. Now to have my revenge on my father, I turned my face and resolved amidst the room full of people not to have water touched by a Muslim. My father said that it was all right. There was no ritual restriction on medicine. In any condition medicine is as sacred as the offerings or bath water of Narayana. Medicine itself is Narayana. After a lot of pampering like this, making a lot of fuss, at last I had the Muslim made lemonade from my father’s own hand. (Pal 2013:72)
Pal gives a detailed account of the craze for bread and biscuit among themselves. He narrates two revealing stories which describe their enthusiasm. In the first story one of the main protagonists was Bipin Chandra himself, and this incident took place in Sylhet:
Already I have talked about my drinking of Muslim-made lemonade. I never had the slightest of hesitation to have that lemonade. Even the severe punishments given by my father could not create in my heart a little bit of distaste for the water touched by the Muslims. When I used to believe in deities like Durga, I wholeheartedly participated in the religious rituals of the Durga puja I made vows to Kali with my eyes closed, when I was in a crisis. Even then I never had even a little hesitation about eating prohibited food. In my childhood, there was only one shop selling bread and biscuits in Sylhet. The same shop had atta and mayda (wheat flour), too. At that time one of our distant cousins returned from Calcutta and settled in our house at Shylet. He was slightly older than me. Probably his relatives had some business in Calcutta. For that reason he went to Calcutta for some days. In Calcutta, he had consumed the bread and biscuits of the Muslims without restriction. He initiated me and the other boys of our house to this prohibited food. We needed some paste for binding our notebooks. On the pretence of buying flour for making this paste, we used to enter the shop selling bread in the town. Though we would come out of the shop after buying flour of one paisa and holding it in our hands to show to the people, we would bring hot bread and biscuits inside our shirt pockets or inside our dhotis, and at the night, after our guardians slept, we would bring these out and have those. In this way, even while staying at Sylhet, my binding considerations of religion and caste were internally totally broken. (Pal 2013:92–93)
In another story, he narrates the craze among the students who stayed in different messes in Calcutta. In his words:
The ties of Hindu-hood had been loosened already while staying at Sylhet, it was totally gone after coming to Calcutta. I used to have food prohibited for the Hindus in secret at Sylhet, I had openly renounced considerations about edible and non-edible food after coming to Calcutta. But some residents of our hostel were not ready to renounce Hindu-hood. Probably their guardians also tried to warn and discipline them always about this. In a few days two groups were created in our hostel. One group was not ready to accept any kind of binding the other group did not have the courage to commit any blasphemy in public in fear of society. In Sylhet, we used to eat the bread and biscuits of the Muslims secretly. Here also the ones busy to keep their shroud of Hindu-hood could not eat bread made by Brahmins in place of the bread of Mishriganj. Every afternoon the bread seller would keep the breads on the table or on the bed in every room, following prior arrangements. One afternoon a respectable Brahmin came from Sylhet to our mess to visit his relatives. There was fresh hot bread on the bed of that relative, too. Being unable to hide the bread in any other way, he sat on it. Such funny incidents would happen at times.
At that time, especially among the students from Eastern Bengal, there was an excessive love for truth. As a result there was a common perception that the anglicized babus never told lies. Many of the residents of our hostel would not want to speak a lie. Even those who did not eat the food prohibited to the Hindus were not judgmental about the difference between edible and non-edible food items. They did not have the slightest perception that one’s religion can be destroyed by eating what the Muslims ate. They did not have the courage to go against the society. They themselves frankly admitted this. On the other hand they did not want to resort to lies to save their religion. So apart from only the bread of the Muslims, they did not eat any other food prohibited to Hindus. They ate bread and biscuits because there was no chance of discussion on that in the society of Sylhet. (Pal 2013:117–18)
It is necessary to clarify that these students did not consume bread and biscuit for the sake of their health, but they had a certain kind of attraction towards these new food items.
In a different vein, Jogendrakumar Chattopadhyay (1867–1959), a renowned journalist, in his biographical sketch, narrates a story where the renowned social reformer Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar’s consumption of bread is justified as a diet prescribed by the doctor. In his words:
I remember, once he (Vidyasagar) was talking to a couple of gentlemen from the locality. The conversation was about what benefits we have garnered from the British, and how being in contact with them has harmed us. Some among the assembled listed benefits—the railways, the post and telegraph system etc and some pointed out the detriments—mentioning effects on quality of health and peace in general. At last, when his opinion was solicited, he said, 'I don’t ever study the pros and cons, but all in all, we have received three good things from the British.' When he was asked what these three were, he said, 'First, English literature. Their Shakespeare, Milton, Bacon, Sir Walter Scott and others that we have received, is no small gain. Secondly—ice. On a hot summer day, a pot of water with an ice cube cools one …. And thirdly—bread.' His audience laughed aloud at his listing together of literature, ice and bread. However, he said gravely, 'You might laugh! But tell me, was there anything in our country like this bread? A loaf of bread in a bowl of milk is not only filling, it also keeps diseases away. I think, among all the new food that they have taught us to eat, bread reigns supreme.' At that time as per the advice of his doctor, Vidyasagar used to have milk and bread every night. (Chattopadhyay 2009:26–27)
Sudakshina Sen (1859–1934), in her autobiography Jivansmriti, narrates her first experience of consuming bread. At first, she was put off by the smell but after a few times she was able to have bread without any trouble (Sen 2002:54). Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, not only autobiographies but also novels and stories used these new food items as an emblem of the newly emerging culture. These items acted as a carrier of the so-called modern culture. On the other hand, these became a marker of caste and religious degradation, because the consumption of these products was prohibited by the caste norms. As stated earlier, these items were primarily produced by the lower caste or Muslims. Therefore, as Hiteshranjan Sanyal shows, if a person from a higher caste consumed these items made by any person from the lower caste, then that former lost his place in the caste hierarchy (Sanyal 1971:318). Debganer Martye Agaman by Durgacharan Ray is one such travel story where the writer depicts the reaction of the orthodox Hindus towards the reforms in the culinary culture in the colony. The primary plot of this novel is that of four male deities of the Hindu pantheon—Brahma, Narayana, Indra and Varuna—who came to Earth in disguise of travelers visiting Calcutta. Before visiting Calcutta, they had visited other parts of North India, and this book is a narration of their journey. However, the most interesting part of this story lies in a conversation between Narayana and Narayani. Narayani expresses her fear to Narayana that if he visited Calcutta he might lose his caste identity by consuming breads and biscuits.
Narayani: Lord! Why do you torment me? If you do go there and return within 300 years, let alone three days—I can put it into writing. If you find an Armenian woman there, would you even like me anymore? Or would you even look back at heaven? Having mingled with them and having had wine, chicken, biscuits and bread you will probably give up on this life and the one after, and your caste. It will be impossible to be inducted back into our caste, and gradually you will lose what little property you have. You might even become a Brahmo and marry a widow. Maybe you will join a theater group and become a wastrel, whiling away your days and nights playing the flute. I hear, in Calcutta some family called Shil, or may be Nora, have bought some playhouse with 75,000 rupees and have wasted on it some two or three lacs. I too have decided to leave their household. However that may be, Lord! I will never give you leave while I am alive. (Ray 2001:13–14)
By the end of the 19th century, these new food items became an inseparable part of the culinary culture in colonial Bengal. Many health-related books discussed the nutritional value of bread. With the turn of the 20th century, authors like Chunilal Bose in 1910 prescribed bread as a very nutritious food. In 1899, Swami Vivekananda, wrote an essay entitled 'The East and The West'. In this essay he strongly condemned the consumption of bread. According to him, flour mixed with yeast became injurious to health. Therefore, ideally the consumption of bread should be given up. If the circumstances had been created where bread consumption had become a necessity, then toasted bread should be consumed. He wrote:
And as for fermented bread, it is also poison, don’t touch it at all! Flour mixed with yeast becomes injurious. Never take any fermented thing in this respect the prohibition in our shastras of partaking of any such article of food is a fact of great importance. Any sweet thing which has turned sour is called in the shastras ‘shukta' and that is prohibited to be taken, excepting curd, which is good and beneficial. If you have to take bread, toast it well over the fire. (Swami Vivekananda 1954: 390–91).
After Vivekananda’s warning to the people not to consume bread, in 1903 Rabindranath Tagore wrote one of his stories, Karmafal, criticizing the process of imitation of European etiquette and food items as an idiom of progress. In this story, the protagonist Satish blindly imitates European etiquette such as wearing a hat and coat, and consuming bread and biscuits, and he perceives that as becoming progressive. At the end of the story the protagonist loses all his money because of this.
In 1938, Prafulla Chandra Roy, a famous scientist and nationalist leader, wrote an essay called 'Chira, Muri, Khoi o Biscuit' in Bharatbarsha. In this essay Prafulla Chandra strongly argued that the Indian puffed rice and flattened rice are more nutritious and cheaper than biscuits. He even gave a table of nutritional value of these food items, where he showed that the vitamin contents are more in puffed rice and flattened rice than in biscuits in which the percentage of vitamin is very low (Roy 2012:279). He also upheld the virtues of coconut—yet another traditional food item. Thus he tried to construct a modern Indian food culture that would be nutritious but free of all western influences.
This debate went on till the middle of the 20th century, but simultaneously these new food items managed to secure their position within the Bengali fare. And in this process of incorporation the Bengali cookbooks played a crucial role. Around 1889, a famous cookbook writer Bipradas Mukhopadhyay prepared an ideal menu for Bengali platter where he mentioned many items which were primarily originated in West. According to the Bipradas’s menu the ideal food items for Bengali platter were:
Chhanar luchi (fried cake made with cheese), begun bhaja (fried brinjal), khastai kachuri, gulel kebab, fried vetki, choka, prawn cutlet, sweet omelet, mugger daler murighanta, fish polao, fish malaycurry, hajpaj mangser harikebab, matsamanjari, spicy papaya chatni, kashmiri sweet poolao, ras-mundir golapi chatni, polao dana mithai, sartoa, kalakand, talshans, sandesh, postor barfi, sweet curd, rabri or kheer. (Basu 2012:143)
Prajnasundari Debi also provided a similar kind of list of 68 food items in her cookbook Amish o Niramish Ahar which she entitled as kramani (Basu 2012:143). In 1908 Saratkumari Chaudhurani mentioned a detailed menu of a house during some festival in Maya Jaggi, where she mentioned items of similar kind (Nag 2012:89).
Therefore, the assimilative nature of Bengali consumption culture not only transformed it from time to time from within, but it also helped the Bengalis to cohabit with other cultures without any collision, though this process of incorporation did not always take the smoothest path. But throughout the process it always invited the fresh air of freedom and liberty within the culture which enabled some to break the shackles of caste practices and religious restrictions. In the 19th century this process of incorporation took a significant turn when new Western food items became an essential component of the idea of modernity that found a profound expression in the everyday diet of the Hindu middle class.
I am thankful to Mr. Kanad Sinha and Ms. Shatavisha Mustafi for their help and inspiration for this article.
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———. 1869. Selections from Calcutta Gazettes 1816–1823 (vol. 5). Calcutta: Office of the Superintendent of Government Printing.
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 Charyapadas are compilations of verses of mystic cults in Bengal. There is very little information available regarding these cults because these verses were written in a manner that was deliberately imprecise, in order to keep a distance from the common people.
 Jute leaf, locally known as nalicha shak or pat shak, is used for preparing dishes. Usually it is fried in oil or boiled in water with some spices.
 This text was written by Sriharsha who was the court poet of king Vijayachandra. His creations were influenced by the elite culture of the 12th and 13th centuries. It was said he was a Bengali (Ray 1987:4).
 Among the meats, rabbit, pigeon, mutton, lamb were important (Ray 1987:1–21).
 Sarisha (mustard leaf), kachu, batoshak, shunishannak, kalambika, hilmochika, haridra were popular (Ray 1987:1–21).
 Parbal, potato (mete aloo), radish, kakrol (a kind of cucurbitaceous vegetable), mashak (a kind of bean) were very popular (Ray 1987).
 Mango, jackfruit, coconut, banana, amla, watermelon, wood-apple, litchi, plum etc. were very popular (Ray 1987).
 Though this part of the story deals mainly with tribal society, the poet Mukundaram was not a part of that society. So he might have represented the society where he lived in.
 Bharat Chandra Ray’s Annadamangal makes no mention of those new foods and vegetables.
 The Times of India, January 7,1888, p. 8.
 For the process of the popularization of these new vegetables in Bengali Society see Ray 2015.
 See Khadya (3rd edition), Calcutta: Sri Jyotiprakash Basu. Chunilal Bose was a Professor of Chemistry in Calcutta Medical College, a Fellow in University of Calcutta, and chemical examiner of Government of Bengal.
 Partha Chatterjee has argued that colonial subjects sometimes became the producers of alternative modernity: there are also hints that consciously or unconsciously Prafulla Chandra Roy also produced the notion of alternative modernity through his essay.
 The first Bengali cookbook was published in 1831 and titled Pak-Rajeswara. In 1838, Byanjanratnakar
was published. But in 1889 was published the significant cookbook, Pak Pranali, written by Bipradas Mukhopadhyay. In 1907 the first female cookbook writer Prajnasundari Debi wrote, Amish o Niramish Ahar. After that a number of cookbooks were published in Bengal with different Bengali and non-Bengali recipes.
The creation of national dishes
ANZAC biscuits are perhaps one of our best-known national dishes.
With an increasingly reliable supply of eggs, butter, flour, sugar and the latest grocery items – from desiccated coconut in the 1890s to cornflakes in the 1930s – cookery books began to proliferate.Essentially rearrangements of Englishwoman Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families from half a century earlier, the books showed standard techniques for dealing with the empire’s ingredients.
Basic ways to treat the local specialty, cheap meat, included shepherd’s pie (mince covered in mashed potato) and Irish stew. The fanciest meal, reserved for midday on Sundays, was a baked dinner of lamb or beef and vegetables.
The books had lengthy sections on baking – often more than half of the recipes were puddings and cakes – which relied on the store cupboard’s flour, sugar, cocoa, desiccated coconut and flavouring and colouring essences. They were baked in iron
ranges, which used wood in rural areas and gas in large towns and cities.
An early craze for desiccated coconut showed up in lamingtons and other innovations around the year 1900. Other Antipodean classics, such as Anzac biscuits, pumpkin scones and Pavlova, came from this golden age of baking. In the 1930s came treats such as chocolate crackles and Yo Yos, reminiscent of Melting Moments but with custard powder.
I recently surveyed cookery competitions at local agricultural shows to see which of these classics are still popular. Show schedules accept many recipes from the United Kingdom, such as queen cakes, seed cake, Madeira, tennis cake, Swiss roll, and brandy snaps. Lamingtons are found at more than half the shows and Anzac biscuits at more than one show in three.
Jubilee cake remains a specialty of South Australia and Mildura, which is just up the Murray River in Victoria.
By the 1920s, each city had acquired its own cookbook bibles, containing much the same plain recipes and published, typically, by women’s groups connected with schools and churches. The books, and the cooking, didn’t change much until the late 1950s.
Books by Friends
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Of course, these documented mentions of noodles come later than when noodles first developed -- and unlike other inventions, like say, the telephone, it's rather difficult to pinpoint exactly when and where noodles came from given that they relied on the innovation of cooks in their homes. I got to see many of these cooks in action on the Silk Road, one of the great pleasures of writing this book.
I'm fascinated by your travels through Central and West Asia. What connections through food did you discover with Turkic and Persian cultures?
I learned through my travels that the word Turkic is much more encompassing that the nation of Turkey: there are ethnic Turkic groups that span from western China to Turkey itself. Linguistically and culturally, these groups are all linked. In Iran, there is an ethnic Turkic group called the Azeris. These Turkic groups share one really interesting dish -- dumplings. In the northwestern region of China and Central Asia, Uighurs and Uzbeks make a dish called manta, steamed dumplings filled with mutton and pumpkin and served with cream. In Turkey, the dish evolves into manti, tiny tortellini-like dumplings that are boiled and served with yogurt, mint-infused oil, paprika, and crushed walnuts. Some researchers have theorized that Genghis Kahn and his empire that spanned from east Asia to central Europe has something to do with the development of dumplings (in the form of pierogi) all along this path -- it was an easy food to make and boil while on the road and the filling could be easily varied.
That was one of the most fascinating experiences of my trip. In Iran, I had to travel with a tour guide who was essentially a government minder. I was able to get away from him when we came across a women's-only cooking school and the women operating the school invited me in to learn how to cook Persian dishes with them. The school was in a private home and women were free to dress how they wanted and were able to talk freely about the constraints that the Islamic government had put on their lives. Aside from learning amazing Persian rice dishes (and a couple of noodle dishes that didn't quite match up), I learned that many Iranian women are very strong and career-oriented, but yet have to deal with many day-to-day nuisances like wearing the hejab and not being able to freely socialize with men, even privately.
Who makes the best and most irresistible noodle cuisine?
It's a toss-up between Italy and China. But that is one of the most alluring things about noodles: how varied they are. In China, you have chefs that pull the thinnest of noodles called la mian and bath them in a long-simmering beef soup with chili, coriander, and crumbles of meat meanwhile in Italy, you have sfoglie (female pasta makers) rolling out delicate thin sheets of spinach noodles and baking them with bolognese and bechemel sauce. And both are noodles!
Any hope that noodles will become an American staple food in the future?
Pasta has become a staple food for many Americans, but the making of noodles and pasta at home is still fairly rare. I think that as the movement to make things from scratch continues among a set in the United States, noodle-making should catch on. And it's almost as easy as making piecrust or bread -- just a couple steps more.
Do you have a favorite recipe that you'd like to share?
Your question reminds me of something an Italian woman said when I asked her to name her favorite dish -- she protested and said, "That's like making me chose my favorite family member!"
So all I can say is that I narrowed my favorite recipes down to a couple dozen in my book -- I have dumpling and noodle dishes that span from China to Italy and some accompanying dishes like Turkish rose borek (phyllo dough stuffed with leeks, feta, and honey) and Persian braises like fesenjun (chicken simmered in walnut and pomegranate sauce). To narrow them down any further would be too torturous.
This post first appeared at The Asia Society, an Atlantic partner site.
Food culture: Culinary traditions recognised by UNESCO
Here are the 23 food and drink-related traditions currently recognised by UNESCO and its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
This list includes four new items inscribed at the end of 2020. As new culinary traditions are recognised each year, they’ll be added too.
Armenian lavash holds a special place in the country’s food culture and social life. The skill and coordination required to knead and cook lavash, as well as the social exchange that takes place among women when preparing it, prompted UNESCO to inscribe Armenian lavash in 2014.
Lavash dough is a simple mix of wheat flour and water. Once kneaded and rolled, the it’s pulled and stretched over a special cushion that’s stuffed with hay or wool. Still on the cushion, the bread is then transferred to a conical clay oven (called a tonir ) by ‘slapping’ it onto the side.
It only takes between 30 and 60 seconds for the delicate bread to bubble up and cook through. Finished lavash sheets have different colours and textures depending on the type of flour used and the duration of the bake.
Try it for yourself:Lavash plays an important ceremonial role in Armenian weddings, where sheets of the bread are draped over the bride and groom’s shoulders to signal future prosperity. It’s also eaten on a daily basis, often with cheese or meat, and can be found on restaurant menus around the country.
To see how lavash is prepared, head to the GUM Market in Yerevan, where vendors bake fresh sheets every morning.
Japanese food is so damn good that it was added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013. It was added as a way to preserve it, as traditional dietary habits are starting to die out across the country, but also because the food is fresh, simple and produced with such incredible attention to detail.
Japanese food is collectively referred to as Washoku. At its essence, it reflects a deep respect for nature, using natural, locally sourced ingredients such as rice, fish, vegetables and edible wild plants. Every little detail about Japanese food—from the way it’s prepared and presented to the way it’s eaten—stems from a historical cultural tradition that is passed down through the generations.
Washoku is traditionally comprised of four elements: Cooked rice (the staple dish), soups, side dishes that give flavour to the rice, and tsukemono (Japanese pickles).
Try it for yourself:The best way to get a feel for Washoku is to try out traditional Japanese dishes as a local would. For example, try okonomiyaki (Japanese omelette/pizza) in Hiroshima or Osaka, or fresh sushi at the world-famous Toyosu Fish Market in Tokyo (formally the Tsukiji).
By Stefan & Sebastien, Nomadic Boys
The Mediterranean Diet, Mediterranean Region
In 2013, the Mediterranean diet of Spain (and six other countries including Italy, Portugal, Morocco, Croatia, Cyprus, and Greece) was inscribed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage and Humanity. Though the Mediterranean diet has certainly become something of a fad in many countries, UNESCO has concentrated more on celebrating the rituals and processes that make this diet an important part of Spanish culture.
Some of the strongholds of the Mediterranean diet in Spain include using few ingredients to make flavourful dishes while eliminating food waste as much as possible eating many small dishes with an emphasis on sharing and viewing food and diet as a social ritual.
One of the greatest examples of food being used socially would be tapas culture. Throughout Spain, it is incredibly common to go out in the evenings with groups of friends, have a drink and share small plates of food.
Another major factor in this important facet of cultural identity is the role of markets. There are large, central markets in most Spanish cities, each featuring stalls with local vendors selling their family’s specialty. Many markets in Spain will also include a small cafe-bar where shoppers can enjoy a beverage and a snack while catching up with friends.
Try it for yourself:One of the best places to experience both the tapas and market culture aspects of Spain’s Mediterranean diet would be to spend a couple of days in Seville. The city is famous for its thriving restaurant and bar culture and has many historic, local markets that are very much worth exploring.
By Maggie, The World Was Here First
Other places you can experience the Mediterranean diet:
Hawker Food Culture, Singapore (inscribed in 2020!)
Nothing says Southeast Asia like a bustling food market. In 2020, UNESCO recognised the cultural importance of Singapore’s unique hawker food centres when it added them to the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Singapore is an extremely multicultural nation, and no where is that more obvious than at the city’s hawker markets. These large undercover centres house a range of small restaurants where chefs whip up a menu of diverse meals that showcase Malay, Nyonya, Indian and Chinese flavours. Many cooks specialise in just one or two dishes – over time, they’ve truly refined their craft.
Hawker culture dates back to the 1960s and although the centres have changed over time, becoming more regulated and organised, they’ve been a fixture of Singapore’s culinary landscape for generations.
Apart from being a great place to grab an affordable meal, hawker centres are ‘community dining rooms’ – spaces carved out of the city’s modern urban landscape where people from varied backgrounds come together to socialise. UNESCO recognises these markets as being critical to social cohesion.
Try it for yourself: Singapore’s hawker markets are the place to go for an immersive dining experience. They’re a window onto diverse Singaporean culture and offer an opportunity to try all the country’s specialty dishes under one roof (including famous chilli crab!).
Couscous, Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco & Tunisia (inscribed in 2020!)
I don’t know about you, but couscous has always been a bit of a mysterious food item in my mind. I’ve often peered into a bowl of couscous and thought to myself, what exactly is this!? How is it made!? And how are the grains so small!?
In the North African nations of Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia, people understand couscous better than most. The dish originated here, and in 2020, UNESCO recognised not only the dish itself, but also the knowledge associated with how couscous is produced.
Couscous is a cereal, thus the process starts with a seed. The semolina that’s grown and harvested is rolled by hand to form those tiny rounded balls. It’s then steamed and finally cooked. Each of the four countries listed has a slightly different way of preparing and eating couscous, but one thing they all have in common is the ceremonial nature of the processes involved, which are transmitted down from parents to their children through observation.
There are special tools involved with making couscous too, including clay and wooden instruments that are manufactured by specialised artisans. The final stage in the couscous lifecycle – eating! – is also linked to important social and cultural practices. Traditionally shared from a large pot between family members and friends, couscous is a symbol for togetherness.
Try it for yourself: It’s hard to avoid couscous when travelling through North Africa – it’s a staple dish on almost every restaurant menu. Tagines are a particularly popular dish containing couscous. For an up-close look at how couscous is prepared, try enrolling in a workshop at a culinary school. Marrakesh is a popular place to take a short cooking class and learn the intricacies of this beautiful dish.
Qvevri Wine-making, Georgia
Georgia is synonymous with wine – no surprise seeing as the Caucasus (Georgia and Armenia) are the global birthplace of viniculture. Grapes have been cultivated in Georgia’s fertile Alazani Valley in Kakheti region and beyond for eons (to be more precise, the first evidence of wine-making in Georgia dates back as far as the 6th millennium BC). In 2013 UNESCO recognised this incredible legacy by inscribing qvevri wine-making methods as part of the country’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Incredibly, many Georgian families, monks and nuns, and professional wine-makers alike still use the same methods of preparing wine today as their ancestors did thousands of years ago. Traditional Georgian wine making involves using a qvevri, a huge amphora-shaped clay urn that is buried beneath the ground to maintain a constant temperature.
Following the rtveli wine harvest, which happens annually in autumn, the grapes are fermented inside the qvevri. If the skins are left on, this produces skin-contact wine which Georgia has become famous for. After 5-6 of constant tending with a range of specialty tools, the wine is ready to drink.
Try it for yourself:Every restaurant in Tbilisi and cafe in Kutaisi serves local wine by the glass. Some of the best vinos are homemade. If you get a chance to stay at a guesthouse in Georgia, you’ll no doubt be plied with incredible wine in addition to home cooking! Specialty wine bars in Tbilisi are a great place to sample a variety of different drops, including qvevri and organic wines.
For an immersive wine experience, travel from Tbilisi to Sighnaghi, the heart of Georgia’s wine country. Here, you can find dozens if not hundreds of commercial cellar doors and family run wineries where you can tour the facilities and see ancient-looking qvevris up close before participating in a Georgian wine tasting or degustation.
Turkish Coffee, Turkey
Turkey has no fewer than three food-related listings on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Turkish coffee is perhaps its best-known and most recognisable.
Coffee was first introduced to the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. It was an instant hit. From that point on, the Ottomans controlled coffee trading routes and were responsible for spreading coffee throughout the Empire. This explains why countries and territories previously conquered by the Ottomans, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, have their own coffee traditions that are closely related to Turkish coffee.
To make Turkish coffee, roasted beans are ground to a super-fine power and brewed slowly with water and sugar until a foam forms on the top. Turkish coffee pots, or cezve , are integral to the ritual. Miniature bronze pots for one or larger cezve that hold enough coffee for a large group are presented to the drinker on an intricate coffee tray. Sugar cubes and a square of Turkish delight is usually served on the side.
Brewing and drinking Turkish coffee reflects the country’s communal culture and was recognised by UNESCO in 2013.
Try it for yourself:Traditionally prepared coffee is ubiquitous all over Turkey. The most authentic coffee-drinking experiences can be found at coffee houses (known as kaveh kanes) in Istanbul and beyond.
Turkish coffee is usually sipped slowly as an accompaniment to conversation. Since coffee is a symbol of hospitality and friendship, a Turkish coffee house is the perfect place to meet someone new over a brew.
Traditional Mexican Cuisine, Mexico
It’s not surprising that Mexican cuisine has attained UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity status. The country is so diverse from state to state and province to province—the result being a full spectrum of flavour, contrasts, and olfactory sensations.
One of the most interesting facts about Mexican food: The development of the national cuisine was driven by the interaction between Spanish conquistadors and Aztec culture. Most of the Mexican food we eat today is a delicious combination of ancient traditions, Aztec, Mayan and Spanish. The French also played their part in the story of Mexican cuisine, adding baked goods such as sweet breads and the bolillo to the mix.
Contemporary Mexican cuisine is more a mix of modern ingredients from European, North American and even Asian influences. Like anywhere else in the world, it’s hard to replicate true Mexican food outside of Mexico.
Food is one of the main ingredients of Mexican culture. Food is essential to every social gathering—one of the reasons why the food is so great!
Try it for yourself:If you want to taste authentic Mexican food, try chilaquiles for breakfast, tacos for lunch, elote for a street snack, and mole enchiladas for dinner, followed by a Mexican hot chocolate. If you’re brave enough, you should definitely try out the lime chilli fried crickets (chapulines). They’re actually quite good!
Dolma is one of the most popular menu items that you’ll find at restaurants in Baku and the rest of Azerbaijan. Delicious dolma is a pre-cooked grape leaf stuffed with minced meat, rice, onion, and sometimes other ingredients such as peas.
The word ‘dolma’ is of Turkic origin and technically is a shortened version of doldurma, which translates to ‘stuffed’. Recipes and methods of dolma-making are passed down from generation to generation.
One of the greatest things about dolma is that the food is used as a way to celebrate guests and mark special occasions. Azeri people are extremely hospitable and love teaching their traditions. Most are welcoming of foreigners to become a part of their society through learning the local traditions and ways of life, including making and eating dolma.
Try it for yourself:There are so many places you can find dolma in Azerbaijan, and the best will almost always be in the homes of Azeri people. You can also find some extremely tasty versions in Baku at the many traditional restaurants in and around the old town and even at on-site restaurants in hotels in Baku.
Head to Shirvanshah Museum Restaurant, the best place I ate dolma in the capital city, or to restaurant Dolma near Fountain Square, where you are sure to find some of the city’s tastiest food.
Neapolitan Pizzaiuolo, Italy
Through the centuries, the art of making Neapolitan pizza has been based on a few key elements—namely water, flour, salt and yeast. Traditionally, raw ingredients are produced in the Campania countryside. It’s in the hands, heart and soul of the pizzaiuolo (Pizza Chef) that the magic really happens! And that’s why UNESCO has declared the city of Naples‘ trademark technique of pizza making part of the world’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.
There are three primary categories of pizzaiuolo: The Master Pizzaiuolo, the Pizzaiuolo, and the baker. The knowledge and skills for making pizza is primarily transmitted in the bottega or in homes, where young apprentices observe masters at work.
The art of making a Neapolitan pizza is a culinary practice comprising four different phases: The shaping of dough balls (the so-called Staglio) spreading the dough (called ammaccatura), where the pizzaiuolo forms the famous raised rim called cornicione with a skillful motion known as schiaffo. Next, the dough is topped, starting from the centre and spiraling in a clockwise motion. Finally, the pizza is baked in a wood-oven with a rotating movement (‘half turn’).
Try it for yourself:We enjoyed the handiwork of pizzaiuolos during our stay in Sorrento on our Amalfi Coast drive. The best Neapolitan pizza is made from simple and fresh ingredients: A basic dough, raw tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cheese, fresh basil, and olive oil—no fancy toppings here.
More sauce than cheese, it’s quite soggy in the centre but yummy! Pizza is best enjoyed with some house wine and finished with Limoncello, a lemon-infused liquor that’s popular on the Amalfi Coast.
By Priya, Outside Suburbia
Nsima is a thick porridge made by mixing white cornmeal with water. This is an elaborate process that involves pulling the paste against the side of a pot with a wooden spoon as it simmers. Nsima is eaten in many parts of Africa, and goes by different names in other African countries.
In Malawi, it’s normally eaten with two accompaniments: A protein-heavy dish, and a vegetable dish. The protein dish can be meat, fish or beans, while the vegetable dish is usually a type of dark leafy green, such as mustard or pumpkin leaves.
Young children are taught to pound maize and sift flour to make nsima from an early age, and eating communal meals of nsima is an important way of strengthening family bonds. Nsima‘s cultural significance in Malawi is why UNESCO has listed it as a form of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Try it for yourself: Since nsima is the most common staple food in Malawi, it’s available all over the country— though it’s not always served in tourist restaurants. Thomas’s Restaurant, Grocery and Bar in Cape Maclear on Lake Malawi caters to a mix of tourists and locals and serves nsima with beans and salad.
By Wendy, The Nomadic Vegan
Flatbread, Iran, Azerbaijan, Central Asia & Turkey
The flatbread has a long history on the Eurasian continent and each region and country has its own variation. The making and sharing culture surrounding flatbread was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2015.
The humble flatbread is hugely important to Iranian, Azerbaijani, Turkish, Kazhakstani and Kyrgyzstani food culture. Flatbread, including lavash, katyrma, jupka and yufka are typically prepared by households and community members on a daily basis. Besides being eaten as a staple food, flatbread plays an important role in weddings, births, funerals and religious gatherings.
Depending on the region, flatbread is either cooked in a stone or earth-ground oven, on a metal plate, or in a cauldron. Flatbread dough is always prepared from simple ingredients: Wheat flour, water and salt.
Once mixed, flatbread dough is left to rest before it is rolled out and cooked/baked. Some villages still operate an oven for the whole community where each household can bring their bread to be baked.
Try it for yourself:You can watch locals make soft lavash flatbread in the main market in Baku—and since you’re there, how about a freshly prepared lavash kebab wrap. Or you can try to make a Turkish yufka at home using the flat sheets in a savory layered borek pie.
I love dipping my lavash in narsharab, a sweet and sour sauce made from pomegranate. I suggest you also check out other flatbread from the region, such as Lebanese manakish and Iranian sangak.
By Helene, Masala Herb
Il-Ftira, Malta (inscribed in 2020!)
Il-Ftira is a flattened sourdough bread that’s traditional to the island nation of Malta. It differs from the other flat breads listed by UNESCO and mentioned on this list – it’s more like a loaf with a thick crust and a light, fluffy inside.
The name ftira comes from the Arabic word for unleavened bread and the dish reflects the cultural exchange that has defined Malta’s history. This bread is hand-shaped – the process can’t be replicated by a machine – which makes it all the more special. Regional and seasonal ftira recipes use different ingredients to flavour the bread, such as olives or capers.
In Maltese schools, Ftira Days are held to teach students about healthy eating. A young person who wants to become a ftira baker when they grow up has to go through a long and complex apprentice process first.
Try it for yourself: The smell of fresh-baked ftira wafts through the streets of Valletta and every town and village around the country. Cafes and restaurants often serve it stuffed with fresh salad and tuna – sort of like a loaded bagel – for an affordable on-the-go meal.
Ceremonial Keşkek, Turkey
Made with meat or chicken, keşkek is a stew found in Turkish, Iranian and Greek cuisines. The dish is usually associated with a ceremonial or religious occasion and is cooked by groups of men and women together in the community. Keşkek was inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2011 because of its role as a Turkish ceremonial dish.
After the wheat or barley is washed and prayed over the previous day, music from both drums and pipes is played as the grains are poured into a large cauldron. The mix is then beaten with wooden hammers until a fine consistency is achieved. The dish is cooked outdoors over an open fire and, through the course of the night, the meat and spices are added and left to simmer.
From beating the ingredients to the music performance and the thickening and stirring of the dish, the local community all gather together to take part in keşkek preparation.
Try it for yourself:Keşkek is served at Turkish wedding ceremonies and circumcisions as well as on religious holidays. If you’re lucky enough to chance upon a local village in advance of these celebrations, you will likely see the dish being prepared and have the chance to taste it. Keşkek is also relatively easy to source in traditional restaurants in cities including Istanbul.
Kimjang, South Korea
Anyone who has ever tried Korean food has also sampled the famous pickled side dish called kimchi.
Basically, kimchi is some type of vegetable—most frequently napa cabbage—that has been fermented in a spicy red paste that may include red chilli powder, garlic, ginger, salt, sugar, fish sauce and green onions. People tend to have strong opinions about kimchi—they either love it or hate it. But there’s no denying that it’s a required part of any Korean meal.
In November each year, Korean families gather for gimjang (kimjang), the traditional process of making kimchi. Historically, it was done after the harvest and was a way to store enough kimchi to sustain a family through the winter season.
The finished product was stored in clay jars, or hangari, that were then buried in the ground. Written records show that kimchi has been around since the fourteenth century, but the tradition of gimjang was established during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897).
Try it for yourself:Participating in gimjang usually requires knowing a Korean family located in South Korea. If that’s not possible, a visit to the Museum Kimchikan in Seoul is a great alternative. This unique museum has exhibits about the history of kimchi, but also offers kimchi making demonstrations and cooking classes.
Kimchi, North Korea
Kimchi is the Korean name for preserved vegetables seasoned with spices and fermented seafood. It’s an important tradition on the Korean peninsula, where the recipe has been transmitted from mother to daughter for centuries.
In the old days, it was a collective practice. This is still the case if you visit North Korea. Here, collective farms still produce kimchi as Koreans would have centuries ago. Cabbage is harvested, fermented and salted, and chili and seafood is added. Once fermented, it can be kept for the full year after which the cycle starts over again. Late autumn is Kimjang season, when everyone shares the kimchi equally for the harsh winter.
Because it’s a unique dish, centuries old and with the unique kimjang sharing component, it’s listed by UNESCO as part of North Korea’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Try it for yourself:To really experience traditional kimchi, one had best visit North Korea on a pre-arranged tour. Depending on the season, you will visit collective farms and see how kimchi is made. During the trip, you’ll have plenty of time to taste North Korean kimchi as it’s served at breakfast, lunch, and dinner as a side dish. It’s delicious!
By Chris, CTB Global
Beer Culture, Belgium
Beer is big in Belgium and has been brewed in the country for centuries.
Containing water, barley, hops and yeast, beer was originally made by monks and nuns in the Middle Ages as a replacement for water. (Drinking water was often unclean and made people ill, so a brew of weak beer was preferable—even for children.)
The brewing process killed off any germs and the addition of hops acted as a preservative. Thus, a vital culinary part of the country’s history, culture and tradition was created. Today, there are over 1500 different types of Belgian beer with a variety of flavours, colours and alcohol percentages.
Belgian beer was inscribed by UNESCO in 2016 because it is part of the living heritage of many communities throughout Belgium. Today, beer plays a major role in daily life as well as festive occasions.
Try it for yourself:Although most restaurants, cafes and bars in Belgium serve beer, I’d recommend visiting a brewery to get a real taste for this Belgian tradition. You’ll learn about the brewing process and taste a variety of different beers before deciding on your favourite.
To see how beer is made in Bruges, visit the only active family brewery in the city, De Halve Maan (The Half Moon), where the Maes family has been brewing Belgian beer since 1856. There’s also a restaurant and outdoor seating overlooking the canals.
By Suzanne, The Travelbunny
Gastronomic Meal of the French, France
The gastronomic meal of the French isn’t a particular food but more of a culinary element of important family traditions. For big family celebrations such as a birthdays, weddings or anniversaries, a large meal is prepared to bring everyone together. Like everything in France, food is a central part of the experience.
Each meal differs from house to house, depending on the season, the traditional family recipes passed from generation to generation, and what region of France you’re in. For example, while in Normandy a dish may include incredible cheese and cider, in the Mediterranean, a family’s prized ratatouille recipe is more common. Dinner is very formal, often beginning with a cocktail or wine, and contains at least four decadent courses. The meal can last for hours.
Because it is so integral to maintaining the family fabric and the heart of French culture, the gastronomic meal of the French was designated part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010.
Try it for yourself:It’s not an easy tradition to experience as a tourist if you don’t know anyone in France. The best opportunity is to ask around through community boards such as Couchsurfing or companies such as Withlocals, which provide opportunities to connect with locals.
By Ayngelina, Bacon is Magic
Gingerbread Craft (Licitars), Northern Croatia
Gingerbread baked goods have become a symbol of Croatia. They were brought to the country by the church in the Middle Ages, but quickly became the work of local craftspeople. The tradition has been handed down through families of gingerbread makers, who developed their own decorating styles.
The heart, known as the Licitar Heart, is the most famous shape. These are given as gifts for special occasions, including birthdays, weddings and holidays. Licitar cookies are typically covered in red opaque icing with white icing designs, though the decorations can also used coloured icing. It’s popular for a mirror to be placed in the middle.
While the cookies are edible, remember to remove the mirrors before eating.
Try it for yourself:If you are hosted by anyone in Zagreb or stay with local friends, you may find they give you a small licitar as a welcome gift. Otherwise, you can find them all over the city. For a true local shopping experience, head to Dolac Market, where you can find licitar and other local Croatian souvenirs.
If you plan to buy some as a gift for someone back home, you can go the extra step of getting a custom design with their name on the cookie in icing.
By Stephanie & Allison, Sofia Adventures
It’s hard to experience Central Asia without coming across the traditional delicacy of plov (palov). In Uzbekistan, plov is served at any and all occasions and is available in every city and every tiny village. The dish consists of pilau rice with spices, vegetables, meat and sometimes raisins and berries cooked in a large pan, sometimes big enough to feed hundreds of people at weddings or funerals.
No two plovs are the same. The delicate mix of ingredients used is unique to each cook—although they can start to feel quite similar after plov for breakfast, lunch and dinner during your time in Uzbekistan! But this is how it was intended. The legend of plov says that Alexander the Great invented it himself as a way for his troops to cut back on meal times and eat the same thing three times a day!
Plov was given Heritage Status in 2016 when it was recognised for its significance to Uzbekistan culture. While it is specific to Uzbekistan, there are very similar variations available in neighbouring countries.
Try it for yourself:Undoubtedly the best place to experience plov is at the Plov Centre in Tashkent. The entrance to this large dining hall is flanked by huge pans. The quantity of plov is so vast, hundreds of people turn up every day to sit down for a meal or simply fill a pot to take home.
By Rohan & Max, Travels Of A Bookpacker
Oshi Palav, Tajikistan
Tajikistan’s oshi palav is closely related to Uzbekistan’s plov—in fact, both rice-based dishes were inscribed by UNESCO in the same year. In Tajikistan, oshi palav is known as a ‘dish of peace’ for the role it plays in bringing people from different backgrounds together.
Up to 200 varieties of oshi palav are thought to exist. The most basic rendition is made with lamb, rice, onions and carrots simmered in a broth. Prepared in vast quantities ahead of social gatherings, oshi palav is traditionally eaten at events that mark significant life milestones, such as weddings and funerals.
Whether it’s prepared in private homes or teahouses, cooking is usually accompanied by socialising and singing, which adds to the dish’s food culture. Eating oshi palav with one’s hands from a communal pot is similarly symbolic of kinship and community.
The techniques involved in making oshi palav are passed down through the generations. According to UNESCO, once an apprentice masters the art, he or she is given a special skimmer utensil, while the master who trained them is invited to don a ceremonial skullcap. Tajik oshi palav and Uzbek plov share common attributes with Indian pilau, Persian polow, and even Spanish paella.
Try it for yourself: Home-style oshi palav is available in restaurants in Danshube. If you want a large serving for a group, you might have to order in advance.
For a traditional version, try Restaurant Sim-Sim or Toqi Restaurant, where oshi palav is served alongside other Tajik specialities including mantu (dumplings) and qurutob (bread and onions served in a yogurt sauce).
Airag (also known as kumis) is a fermented dairy product made and consumed throughout the Central Asian steppes. In Mongolia, airag is made by churning fresh horse milk inside a khokhuur, a special vessel crafted from cowhide.
Besides serving as a critical source of nutrition for nomadic communities (it’s rich in vitamins and minerals, and has been shown to kill harmful bacteria and maintain gut health), airag is steeped in history and tradition. When UNESCO formally added it to the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2019, they also recognised the centuries-old knowledge that goes into preparing it correctly.
Making airag is a slow, energy intensive process that uses a range of tools, including a specially designed paddle known as a buluur. For it to work, the milk must be churned more than 500 times before yeast is added to kick-start the fermentation process.
The finished result is consumed as part of many families’ everyday diet. Airag is also used in religious rituals and cultural ceremonies, which further adds to its significance.
Try it for yourself: If you’re trekking in Mongolia or travelling overland and you wind up staying with local herders, there’s no doubt you’ll get a chance to try airag for yourself. You can sometimes find it for sale in ger (residential districts) as well, even in Ulaanbaatar.
Terere, Paraguay (inscribed in 2020!)
Terere is a special ancestral drink found in the South American nation of Paraguay. It’s closely related to yerba mate, a popular beverage all across the continent.
Terere is prepared using a special blend of Poha Nana (medicinal herbs) crushed and combined with cold water. Each herb has unique healing properties, and the way they’re combined to brew different drinks is part of every family’s tradition in Paraguay. UNESCO inscribed Terere in 2020 as a result, citing the knowledge about medicinal herbs that’s also shared through the process as particularly important.
Preparing Terere and drinking it through a special straw called a bombilla are Paraguayan traditions that have been part of the culture since at least the 16th century.
Try it for yourself: Sharing a glass of Terere with someone is seen as a sign of friendship, respect and solidarity. If you’re offered a try when travelling to Paraguay, you’d do well to accept! The drink is refreshing and delicious, so you’ll no doubt be seeking it out by the end of your stay.
Have you experienced any of the food culture rituals on this list? What are your favourite culinary traditions around the world?
Cambodian Food History: The Cambodian Diet
A rchaeological evidence reveals that around 200 BC, the inhabitants of this region had already settled into small communities and were growing rice and rearing animals. As early as the 100 BC, the communities along the Mekong River and Tonle Sap areas were cultivating rice and harvesting the abundant fish and other seafood from the river, lake and seas. Fish plays a pivotal role in Cambodian cuisine due to the 443 km of coastline, and is the most important protein source in the diet, with chicken, pork, beef, and seafood eaten as well. Pork and beef are expensive, and their affordability is limited to the middle and upper-class families in urban areas, so most family limit portion size for red meat. In many villages, the use of small quantities of finely chopped red meat for flavouring is common.
Meats unusual to North Americans, such as wild chicken, bird, dove, frog, organ meat, such as liver, kidney tongue, feet, and insects such as grasshoppers are also part of the Cambodian diet. Although tarantulas and large spiders are sold on street corners in many tourist areas, they are part of the Cambodian diet. Dried salted meats, fish, and seafood are consumed extensively as an accompaniment to main dishes.
Rice and products made from rice flour are common in Cambodian cuisine. Rice is eaten at least three times per day with meals. It is also used as a snack between meals. White rice is eaten most often with savoury meals, and sweet white rice, glutinous rice and black rice are used exclusively for desserts. Starchy vegetables, such as potato, cassava, and sweet potato are eaten often, either in somlar, or cooked fresh on an open fire. Fresh corn is eaten in season, but interestingly corn flour is uncommon. Most of the desserts are made from rice or rice flour. All purpose wheat flour is widely available in urban areas and used for making noodles and bread, however, whole wheat flour is not commonly used.
The Cambodian diet is high in leafy green vegetables. In rural regions, locally grown leafy vegetables or freshly foraged wild vegetables are used in soups, stir-fries, and salads. Pickled vegetables are also a part of the Cambodian diet, and is most commonly eaten as an accompaniment to meat. A large variety of tropical vegetables is available and consumed through the year. Common Cambodian vegetables are Chinese broccoli, cabbage, pumpkin leaves, watercress, long beans, potatoes, tomatoes, corn, Thai okra, eggplant, starchy vegetables such as taro, cassava, sweet potato, and various squashes such as bitter melon, summer squash, luffa, and winter squash. Many unripe fruits, such as green banana, papaya, and mango as also used as vegetables in dishes like dried fish mango salad (svay bok), and papaya salad (bok lahong).
Herbs and some leafy vegetables such as cabbages are always used fresh. The most common herbs are cilantro, Asian coriander, sweet Thai basil, garlic, shallots, turmeric, ginger, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, peppermint, cilantro, sdao, lemongrass, chives, scallions, and green onion. In most Cambodian homes, spices and herbs are freshly ground into paste every day using a mortar and pestle. Although Cambodians use chilli peppers, it is used sparingly in comparison to Thai cuisine. To add an extra layer of spice, Cambodians prefer the use of black peppers, especially Kampot organically grown black peppers. Freshly ground kroeung paste and sauces are added during cooking, along with soy sauce, oyster sauce and fish sauce.
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Quinceañera, (Spanish: “15 years [feminine form]”) also called quinceaños or quince años or simply quince, the celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday, marking her passage from girlhood to womanhood the term is also used for the celebrant herself. The quinceañera is both a religious and a social event that emphasizes the importance of family and society in the life of a young woman. It is celebrated in Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean, as well as in Latino communities in the United States and elsewhere.
The celebration begins with a mass attended by the girl and her family and godparents. Mass is followed by a reception, or party, to which friends and relatives are invited. The reception features food, music, and dancing, with the girl accompanied by her “court” of damas (“maids of honour”) and chambelánes (“chamberlains”). Symbolic actions may include the presentation of a doll to a younger sister, to show that the celebrant is giving up her childhood, and the placement of heeled shoes on her feet, to indicate that she is ready for womanhood. Traditionally, the dance portion of the quince includes a choreographed waltz-type dance that is prepared and is considered one of the main events of the evening. Toasts are often offered, and sometimes the cutting of a fancy cake is also involved. The celebration is generally as elaborate as the means of the family will allow. Although the quince observance originally signified that the girl was prepared for marriage, the modern celebration is more likely to signal the beginning of formal dating. Some girls choose a trip abroad rather than a party, and others now choose not to celebrate their 15th birthday in the traditional manner. Like many other rites and ceremonies, quinceañeras continue to evolve.
Because the Aztec and Maya also had such rite-of-passage customs, it is thought that the quinceañera may have originated in the admixture of Spanish culture (including Roman Catholicism) with that of the indigenous peoples the Spaniards colonized.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Augustyn, Managing Editor, Reference Content.