Setting the Table

KT Achaya’s pioneering scholarship on Indian food

COURTESY MOHAN BOPAIAH Achaya was a Coorg, from a community proud of its
martial prowess. The historian Ramachandra Guha, whom Achaya considered a godson, told me, “my godfather may have been the most untypical Kodava ever.”
COURTESY MOHAN BOPAIAH Achaya was a Coorg, from a community proud of its
martial prowess. The historian Ramachandra Guha, whom Achaya considered a godson, told me, “my godfather may have been the most untypical Kodava ever.”
01 June, 2018

WORLD IDLI DAY, on 30 March, was instituted by Eniyavan, an idli maker in Tamil Nadu, in 2015. And every year on that date, the same nugget of information circulates on social media as if it were breaking news: The idli is not originally Indian, according to the late KT Achaya. Who better than Achaya, the widely acknowledged guru of Indian food history, to serve as a lodestar on the story behind this now incontestably Indian snack?

In his Indian Food: A Historical Companion, published in 1994, Achaya explains that a food resembling the idli was first mentioned in Indian literature in the year 920, when a writer named Shivakotiacharya penned the Vaddaradhane. This is a collection of 19 tales, considered the earliest existing work of narrative prose in Kannada. Shivakotiacharya referred to a food called the iddalige, made from urad dal, which was one of 18 items served “when a lady offers refreshments to a brahmachari who visits her home.” In 1025, a poet named Chavundaraya, writing the Lokopakara, a Kannada guidebook that spans topics from cooking to medicine, described an analogous food in more detail, using the instructive language of a cookbook: To make the iddalige, you must soak urad dal in buttermilk, grind it to the consistency of a fine paste, mix it with the clear water of curd, spice it with cumin, coriander, pepper and asafoetida, and then shape it. This is where the instructions, cited by Achaya, end. The reader is not told what it is shaped into, nor whether it is then fried or steamed.

In Sanskrit, Achaya writes, the Manasollasa, a reference book of sorts for life in the Western Chalukya Kingdom, written in 1130 by the king Someshvara III, mentioned small, sculpted balls made from fine urad flour and spiced with pepper, cumin powder and asafoetida, and called iddarika. In 1235, the Kannada writer Kamalabhava, in his Shantiswara Purana, described a food that was “light, like coins of high value”—a description, Achaya claims, “which is not suggestive of a rice base.”

When combing through these texts, Achaya says in Indian Food, he detected a common thread in the early references to the idli. They were missing three elements crucial to the idli as we know it today. Where were the rice grits one mixes with the urad dal? Why did none of these texts mention the vital step of leaving the batter to ferment before cooking it? And where was the steaming of the batter, so cardinal to the idli achieving its featherlike quality?

Achaya puts forth a radical hypothesis: The modern-day idli really has its roots in Indonesia, a country whose culinary lifeblood is fermentation, of everything from groundnuts to fish. Instead of anything indigenously Indian, maybe the idli’s true ancestor was the Indonesian kedli. It could be, he speculates, that the cooks who accompanied “Hindu kings of Indonesia”—presumably the Cholas—on visits home between the eighth and twelfth centuries, brought fermentation techniques with them.

Judging by the shock that Achaya’s conjecture triggers annually (“Apparently, Idlis Do Not Have Indian Origins. My Whole Life Was A Lie!”one humorously dramatic headline reads), his work, though he has been dead for more than 15 years, continues to challenge long-held assumptions about the food Indians eat. His conclusions, in spite of the sometimes uncertain origins of the premises he bases them on, are largely accepted and passed down as fact.

Behind each element of the Indian diet, Achaya seemed to find a story. Some of these tales are as complex as the idli’s, others more mundane. The tamarind is native to the tropical savannas of Africa, but it has grown in India since prehistoric times, he informs us. The mango’s origin is mired in fiction and fantasy. “It is thought by some Hindus to be a transformation of Prajapathi himself,” he writes in A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, from 1998, referring to the Hindu deity. “Buddhists consider it sacred because the Buddha was accustomed to rest in a mango grove gifted to him by an admirer. On another occasion, the Buddha ate a mango fruit, planted the stone and washed his hands over it: a beautiful white mango tree sprang forth bearing florets and fruit.” After much fussing over these legends, he concludes, however, that the mango was most likely born in the hills of the Indian northeast, adjacent to what is now Myanmar. In A Historical Dictionary, structured as an A to Z guidebook that devotes entries to every conceivable food item from cinnamon to chikki, he traces mention of the cucumber to the Rigveda, which dates to around 1500 BCE; it is “undoubtedly of Indian origin,” Achaya writes, noting that it was called urvaruka in the ancient text. When it comes to the rasgulla, the sweet that last November sparked an interstate feud between West Bengal and Odisha over its rightful birthplace, he credits its creation to an enterprising 22-year-old Bengali named Nobin Chandra Das in 1868. “Behind any of the foods that we eat every day lies history and geography, botany and genetics, processing technology and high romance,” Achaya writes in the preface to 2000’s The Story of Our Food, a shortened version of Indian Food.

Achaya was a Coorg, from a community proud of its martial prowess. The historian Ramachandra Guha, whom Achaya considered a godson, told me, “my godfather may have been the most untypical Kodava ever.” COURTESY MOHAN BOPAIAH

In his eight books and countless lectures, papers and articles, Achaya obsessed over the provenance of certain foods, and channelled his curiosity into dispassionate, almost clinical prose. “He is not the most exciting of writers,” the journalist Rahul Singh wrote, quite accurately, in India Today in 1994, reviewing Indian Food, but he “manages to cover a great deal of ground in painstaking and often interesting, detail.” Achaya mined sources in a number of languages. According to the historian Ramachandra Guha, whom Achaya considered a godson, he was a polyglot who possessed native fluency in Tamil, Kannada, Kodava and English, probably knew some Telugu and Urdu, and could read Sanskrit decently well, too.

COURTESY MOHAN BOPAIAH Achaya was a Coorg, from a community proud of its martial prowess. The historian Ramachandra Guha, whom Achaya considered a godson, told me, “my godfather may have been the most untypical Kodava ever.”

Achaya’s first book, Indian Dairy Products, co-authored with KS Rangappa, was published in 1948. But it is his books produced relatively late in his life, devoted entirely to food history, for which he is best remembered, in India and even outside of it. “His encyclopedic Historical Companion to Indian Food was the first place I would look when investigating a foodstuff or food concept that was new to me,” the historian Lizzie Collingham, author of The Taste of Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World, wrote to me. “He was a pioneer in the field of food history. His work may not be as well known as it deserves to be, as he was writing on the history of food well before it became a fashionable topic.”

BORN THAMMU ACHAYA IN 1923, in the small town of Kollegal, in modern-day Karnataka, Achaya received his undergraduate degree in chemistry in 1943 from Presidency College, in what was then Madras. He spent the next three years at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, conducting the research, into oils and fats, that culminated in his first book. He then pursued his PhD in chemistry at the University of Liverpool, where he studied the component glycerides of cow and buffalo ghee.

After returning to India in 1950, he established a School of Fat Chemistry and Technology at Hyderabad’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, or CSIR—now known as the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology. Achaya spent over two decades there, his research and teaching focussed on cottonseed processing and castor-oil derivatives. In 1971, he moved to Mumbai and became the executive director of the Protein Foods and Nutrition Development Association of India; while there, in 1974, he authored Your Food and You, a book that synthesised research on human nutrition undertaken by Indian scientists earlier in the decade, focussing on topics ranging from digestion to food spoilage. In 1975, he co-authored Cottonseed Chemistry and Technology, which went deep into the cottonseed industry in India. Two years later, he began work at the Central Food Technological Research Institute in Mysore, serving as a consultant to the United Nations University Program for advanced training in food science and technology. He retired in 1983, and became an emeritus scientist back at CSIR. In 1984, he put out Everyday Indian Processed Foods, a book in which he examines such staples as milk and biscuits through the lens of chemistry and nutritional value.

Over the next decade, his interests shifted to examining food from less of a nutritional perspective and more of a rigorously historical one. He published Oilseeds and Oil Milling in India: A Cultural and Historical Survey in 1990, and Ghani: The Traditional Oil Mill of India in 1993. From there, he went on to produce his more popular histories, which were published by OUP.

Achaya was a Coorg, from a community proud of its martial prowess. The historian Ramachandra Guha, whom Achaya considered a godson, told me, “my godfather may have been the most untypical Kodava ever.” COURTESY MOHAN BOPAIAH

“While justly proud of the magnificent histories published by OUP, he was also very proud, perhaps prouder, of his much more technical history of the Ghani, and, before that, of his serious scientific research too,” Ramachandra Guha wrote to me. “Of course, he never bragged about this in any way.”

Achaya was a Coorg, Guha said, born into a community of hillmen that prides itself on its martial prowess, and has produced some of India’s finest army officers, hunters and hockey players. Achaya’s brother was a forest officer, while two of his sisters were married to army generals. Achaya was markedly different from the rest of his clan. “As a scholar, reader, music lover, my godfather may have been the most untypical Kodava ever,” Guha said.

Though the facts about his life are known, Achaya remains, essentially, an anonymous figure. He himself is absent from his texts. His curiosity is undeniable, but it is otherwise impossible, when reading his books, to detect what motivated him to tell stories of food with such obsessive diligence. However, speaking to those who worked closely with him, the spirit of a distinct man emerges: a man who enjoyed the pleasures of good food in the same way as he did those of fine arts, from photography to music.

“Doc A was a professional chemist, but his interests were very wide-ranging,” the publisher Rukun Advani wrote to me. Advani, as an editor at University Press, worked with Achaya on the first and the third of his food-history books—The Illustrated Foods of India and The Food Industries of British India. Among Achaya’s passions, Advani said, were “opera, wine, oil-pressing techniques and machinery—he had written a monograph on this subject—Carnatic music, food cultures around India.”

He remembered Achaya as someone who could speak charmingly and animatedly about all these subjects. The two met in Bangalore in 1991, introduced by Guha. After Achaya showed Advani some magazine articles he had written on Indian food history, the editor asked him for a book on the topic.

“I wasn’t aware of any other historical foray into Indian food,” Advani said. “At least not in English.” Oxford University Press had, by this point, published a plethora of titles in its Companion series, covering everything from politics to philosophy. The in-house joke at OUP’s Delhi office, according to Advani, was that the only thing left to do was a Companion to stitching and needlework. But there hadn’t been a Companion to food, and Achaya would be the one to write that volume. He insisted upon having illustrations with his work, and so it was to be, in this and all his later books.

Advani, when he wrote to me, described Achaya as “dapper, a bit like the actor David Niven.” In a profile he wrote of Achaya in The Hindu in 2001, Advani noted that, curiously, the food historian did not seem to eat much, judging by his slim frame. Achaya “does not seem to have overly partaken of the substances upon which he has glinted through his chemistry microscope,” he observed.

Drawings from the Bhimbetka caves in MP depicting women pounding, rolling, and grinding. ILLUSTRATIONS REPRODUCED WITH PERMISSION OF OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS INDIA @ OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS 1998

David Gitomer noticed this, too, in his interactions with Achaya. To Gitomer, a professor of pre-modern South Asian religions and literatures now teaching at DePaul University’s in Chicago, Achaya was a man with cropped hair more emblematic of 2018 than the 1970s. He clipped his mustache frequently, and dressed in a “vaguely military style.” He was a hail-fellow-well-met type, sometimes fussy, prone to addressing people as “dear chaps.”

The two men became friends in the late 1970s, when Gitomer, working on his PhD, was conducting research at the University of Mysore. Gitomer was then a young American still working off a hangover from disco; before Gitomer even met him, he’d heard stories about the scientist and his love of opera music. Achaya would hold monthly gatherings where enthusiasts like him sat dutifully and listened to records of Western classical singing. Gitomer visited on those nights, too. He would watch Achaya lower the needle and go into a trance as the opera greats of the 1940s and 1950s, from Kathleen Ferrier to Kirsten Flagstad, sang of longing and betrayal.

What Gitomer remembered most of his dinners with Achaya in his homes in Mysore and, later, Bangalore, is the steamed dish of ragi mudde along with pulses of every variety, often almost al dente rather than cooked to a mush. Achaya’s food, whether he cooked it himself or had his cooks do it for him, was traditional, spiced with restraint and elegance. Though he also knew how to cook European food, this was nowhere near as exciting to Gitomer as Achaya’s fresh takes on Indian regional cuisine. Achaya enjoyed occasional pegs of whiskey, too, and always offered Gitomer a drink from a decanter during his visits.

“He loved to assert that the Indian diet, if properly managed, could provide complete nutrition, even without meat,” Gitomer said. “I love to eat, and I love all kinds of Indian food, so invitations to dine at his home lit up my gastronomic fires. Achaya himself relished the variety of Indian flavors and preparations, but always consumed food moderately.”

Gitomer observed that Achaya gave precious little of himself to the world, with few flashes of the interior life Gitomer saw firsthand. “In our private conversations, I saw a range of emotions I didn’t see when he interacted in public, playfulness and yearning among them,” he remembered.

Achaya died in 2002, aged 78, in a flat in Bangalore’s Indiranagar, where he lived alone. He never married. “It seems that he was ‘married’ to his work,” Mohan Bopiah, his nephew, wrote to me. “He worked very hard even close to the end of his life.”

THE LANDSCAPE OF WRITING on the history of Indian food has broadened considerably in Achaya’s wake. Scholars such as Lizzie Collingham, as well as Chitrita Banerji and Marryam H Reshii, have built on his work, combining in their books a similar curiosity and utter tenacity of research.

His intellectual offspring also include Colleen Taylor Sen, a Chicago-based scholar who has authored six books on food history in India. When she began writing the first of these, Food Culture in India, she read Achaya’s books with near-Biblical devotion, wondering what she could possibly add to his scholarship. In the book, published in 2004, Sen wrote that Achaya and the actress-turned-author Madhur Jaffrey were the only two writers she knew who even dared to thread together India’s intricate regional cuisines with any sense of historical rigour. Jaffrey’s works, however, have always been cookbooks, instructive manuals; only Achaya’s were works of recorded history.

As far as she knows, Sen wrote to me, until Achaya came along the only book that even attempted to bring together India’s regional food histories was a little-known, out-of-print 1972 volume called The Saga of Indian Food: A Historical and Cultural Survey, by a writer named Indira Chakrabarty. Sen dismissed it as being “not very helpful,” particularly compared to Achaya’s work.

“I’ve heard people who should know better knock KT Achaya and his legacy,” Sen said. “His work has its weaknesses, but he was a true pioneer.” Sen noted that his coverage of South Indian food, particularly that of his native Karnataka, along with Bengali cuisine, were particularly robust. “His knowledge of Sanskrit gave him access to ancient texts while his scientific background provided a firm grounding in reality,” she said.

Sen, too, sifts through old texts to understand which traditions of eating have persisted within India through the centuries. One of her great regrets in life, she said, is that she never met Achaya in person.

Curd Churner
Achaya insisted upon having illustrations in his first book for Oxford University Press, and all the rest would follow suit. ILLUSTRATIONS REPRODUCED WITH PERMISSION OF OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS INDIA @ OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS 1998

There are lacunae in Achaya’s work, though, Sen pointed out. “He overlooks the food of the Northeast and the Indian diaspora,” she said. “But no single person can cover the universe of Indian food and I hope there will be many more books to come.”

Sen is correct. In Indian Food, Achaya gives little space to the foods of the north-eastern states and Sikkim; in fact, he devotes only a joint passage to the foods of Assam and Odisha, which barely takes up half a page. But he acknowledged blind spots in his own work, hoping that others would build on the groundwork he was laying for the discipline.

Pounding, to dehusk paddy or to flatten rice.
Achaya insisted upon having illustrations in his first book for Oxford University Press, and all the rest would follow suit. ILLUSTRATIONS REPRODUCED WITH PERMISSION OF OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS INDIA @ OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS 1998

“A few regional cuisines have been considered, again within a historical context wherever possible,” he wrote in the preface to Indian Food. “There will still be room for exploration by scholars of local literatures and cultural mores.”

Reviewing Indian Food in the Los Angeles Times in 1994, the food historian Charles Perry found it fascinating, and understood from it that India’s cuisine was much richer and more complex than the average American might imagine. But he also took issue with Achaya’s sloppy scholarship: his citing only secondary sources without verifying the claims they put forth, therefore echoing untested knowledge uncritically rather than challenging it. This, Perry charged, was one of the book’s failings, though a minor one.

One can’t help but agree with Perry. Achaya sometimes wrote in the passive voice and could be frustratingly obscure about where he drew his conclusions from. This tendency is obvious even in his chronicling of the idli’s origin: Online searches for the kedli, which Achaya claims is the progenitor of the modern-day idli, don’t yield results that connect this dish to Indonesian cuisine at all, making it difficult to fully accept his argument. He simply asks you to trust him unconditionally. To say his work is beyond reproach would be to engage in irresponsible hagiography.

Achaya’s writing was guided by a rigorous preservationist impulse which was rare for his time. Following this instinct, he became intent on drilling into a food’s origins to show that what we ate was indelibly connected to the way we lived, and that this larger context could be the stuff of history and high romance in the same breath. There was in his work a strain more radical than a simple recording and preserving of food histories, though this is an aspect that his detached writing style can obscure.

Krishnendu Ray, who heads New York University’s department of food studies, wondered if Achaya’s style, so research-driven and scholarly in nature that it essentially rejected theory, has prevented a wider appreciation of his work. “Scholars have conceded the empirical domain to him without engaging his conception,” Ray wrote to me. “When you don’t theorize, it becomes difficult to argue with you. Theory is the currency of the realm in the humanistic social sciences. Achaya was content to barter in the dense thicket of local facts.”

Drinking couple, from a Chãlukyan temple.
Achaya insisted upon having illustrations in his first book for Oxford University Press, and all the rest would follow suit. ILLUSTRATIONS REPRODUCED WITH PERMISSION OF OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS INDIA @ OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS 1998

It’s true that Achaya’s writing offers little with which to engage and argue from a theoretical standpoint; he is a writer one consults for historical information, the way one would an encyclopaedia. He provides little room for critique in part because he writes with such confidence and seeming impartiality. Yet in this he was unprecedented: He dared to consider how the idli, the dosa, the papad, the gulab jamun landed on our plates, when so many had grown accustomed to gulping them down thoughtlessly.

“When I first began writing combative pieces in the press, and my middle-class, apolitical parents began to worry,” Ramachandra Guha told me, Achaya calmed Guha’s parents down and gave him two words of advice: “Be fearless.”

Mayukh Sen is a writer based in New York. He has won a James Beard Award for his food writing, and he teaches food journalism at New York University. His first book, on the immigrant women who shaped food in America, will be published in October 2021.