An ode to those men and women of medicine whose expertise not only created the vast repository of knowledge about food that today we refer to as Ayurveda, but also were the trusty allies of the kitchen heads and their kings.

By Madhulika Dash; Picture courtesy: Wikipedia

Any writer who has perhaps tried to bridge the gap between a nutritionist wellness barometer and a chefs taste benchmark will often say this: “it is a tug of war. While one is into the duty of finding the right nutrition, the other is in the business of taste. And most of the times, the twain don’t really match – or even find a middle path.

And yet fascinatingly, when it comes to most ancient culinary cultures including ours, the foundation is that of a middle path. It is a system where both the doctors or our vaid and hakims have worked hand in glove with the culinary minds to create food that doesn’t only pass the muster of taste and wellness, but also creates a platform for similar format recipes to develop. A classic case of this fantastic collaboration is the kheer, khichdi, dal and even the rasam – a dish that most chefs and alternative experts today believe to be the original kashayam, a concoction developed to combat a certain illness while boosting the body’s immunity to fight against others. Another is the rice kheer. The simple, yet delicious pudding has been a dish that the modern-day nutritional anthropologist find the best form of spa for the mind. Likewise, was the case of sattu, which was a term used for any grain that was sand roasted and pounded into a flour that served as a ready to eat meal of the yore. Or for that matter, how the understanding of grain, science and the ingenuity of a cook was used to create not one but two version of paddy – the murmura and the lai (popped paddy) – that not only became a sustainable solution to windfall harvest but also led to the first infant formulae for babies (and the elderlies). Old scriptures talk about how mudhi/murmura and rice flakes were powdered and given to toddlers as their first solid food and to take care of a loose stomach.

Yet fascinatingly for much of our ancient history the dual role of the medicine mind and the culinary hands were played by one person who was lovingly called the Vaid in community – much like the good old Getafix in Asterix and Obelix series. S/he was often this one-person army who knew a lot about plants, weeds, spices and all things edible and poisonous around the settlement and how it would affect the health. It was under her supervision that a little garden would be built within the tribal walls and would take care of every ailment – from common cold and flu to fortified medicine for strength, vitality and fertility to potion that allowed for a peaceful passing away. In Meghalaya, one still finds such grand old ladies of wellness wisdom whose medicine – usually made in food style – could get rid of an ailment or two. With civilization the role of vaids shifted into the temple. As the knowledgeable ones they were given the responsibility of not only treating people but developing a system that could stave off a plague. By then the Vaids had a team to do the hand work of making medicine. However, it was the gurukul system that began with dynasties where the work of medicine was finally fused with food as well. These institutions became the school that taught the power of healing through food – and followed to a large extend a diet that was approved by the scriptures. There were however two parallel institutions that did a similar work for a larger population: first were the temples and then with the turn of history came the palaces.

Temples in fact were the first place where the pundits who were often part vaids sought the help of cooks who could take the instruction and create dishes that were soulful. Traditional wellness science of that time believed that food to heal needed to satisfy not just the stomach or the senses but the soul – only then can it do the work of healing, repairing and enabling one to live the life’s true purpose. The curation of each dish was to achieve a certain purpose, and its curation was done to get that effect right. The process of preparing a dish right down to the selection of the ingredients, the flavouring and the technique used in making while was done to enhance the taste factor also had to take care of the nutrient preservation. And to achieve that kind of perfection the need of two different skilled individuals were required. The temple cuisine was in fact one of the finest partnerships between the rasoiya and vaid that brought forth the concept of food that healed and made it popular among the commoners by associating it with a religious ritual. A perfect example of this has been all our medieval era temples including the iconic Jagannath Puri where the lord follows a Rajasi Bhojan Pratha that was the privy of a flourishing person of the time. While the food is a culinary showcase of the food tradition of Odisha, it has all the nuances of what made Indian food a repository of wellness food. The meals served here not only changes as per season and availability of ingredients, it is made for the purpose and often the technique used to prepare food here has been put together by ancient cooks who were experts in understanding how food yields to different processes of cooking. It is this knowledge and its sync with medicine that comes to the fore during the Anasara, where the Raj Vaidya along with the team makes special meals for the lord to recover from his ailment after Dev Snan Purnima. Soon the cooks will be called in to create dishes like panna to help the holy trinity regain the palate, strength, and the happy mood to travel to his aunt place. It is this partnership that has led to the making of our finest detox meals which is collectively called Vrat Ka Khana, and is designed not only for the kind of fasting one does but also for Ekadashi, which are days when the body goes through a process of purification thanks to the favourable position of the sun and moon.

And yet, what remains the most glorious chapter of the Vaidya and Rasayana Vidya expert Cooks’ association are the royal palaces. A place where away from the religious limitation, the pair were finally free to curate masterpieces using their respective expertise with one goal in mind: each dish produced would add not just pride to the culinary heritage of their kingdom, but to the kings’ life as well. Blessed with the trust, a wide playground that was designed with care and the supply of unlimited ingredients and influences trade, war and wedding alliances brought to the ground, the pair flourished, and thus created dishes that were not just made for wellness but also showcase that was worthy putting on paper. It was the ingenuity of these individuals and their shared passion that kings could follow a diet that allowed them to function efficiently, rulers and scions could have a table that was worthy of the likes of Ibn Battuta and Faxian to write home about; dishes that famous chef like William Harold came to imitate (and could not), and the final creation of cult classic that remained invincible creation in the history of food. Be it the famous galouti kebab that was invented to pander the whim and palate of a sultan that had no war to fight; the parinde main parinda to give the foreign dignitaries a taste of our culinary supremacy with the bonus of being delicious and in agreement to their delicate stomach; or the 100-day old Rampuri Pulav that brought the pilaf back in the fore of good food.

The role of the hakims, Tibbs and Vaids and Mir Bakwal wasn’t just limited to curating food for the royal palace and keeping the kings and his core team health in good shape, the interesting partnership also for understanding the nuances of different cultures and tradition and then adopt it in their method of working. Like for instance, the treatment followed for pregnant women and those with delicate stomach in Fatehpur Sikri was inspired both by the learnings of the Vaids of the south as well of the Unani. The Sikanji or Nimbu pani that became a mainstay as a summer coolant and for vrehydration was developed with the knowledge of the Unani use of sirca and the vedic style of creating these special spice mixes for modak. Likewise, was the use of rose water and syrup in food that was introduced by the Hakims, who later helped develop the concept of itar in food that lend dishes their mood changing capabilities.

In fact, such was the significance of this pair in the way the inside of an empire would run that often they were the ones that the king would absolutely trust with his life, even giving them to the right to decide what he could eat or not. The power of a Khansama to refuse an emperor or a sultan from eating a certain dish or even portioning it to a small katori came from his alliance with the Vaid and Hakims. It was their ingenuity that the varq was brought into the kitchen to help decipher a mishandling before it became a garnish. It is said that when the last Nawab was exiled and asked what he needed, instead of asking for his many begums, he requested the company of his favourite khansamas and his hakim. History also tells how Sultan Razia Sultan who was asked to take on red meat sought the help of her hakim, kuşçubaşlıs and her favorite rakhbadar to help her make the transition. Emperor Babar of course learnt the hard way of having his own pair after Dilawar Begum tried poisoning him.

The 1857 defeat not only spelled the end of Empire but put the final death nail to the partnership. While the newer dynasty did employ hakims and vaids to their kitchen retinue, few knew the magic the duo could lend the food. Those who did developed a culinary chapter that was great but not at the level of those before. As the world inched to the World War, the works of this famous collaboration that began in the beginning of civilisation and flourished in the medieval times now lived in pages of old books and food lores.