What did Gautam Buddha really eat?

From eating like a mountain ascetic to finding the Middle Path to enlightenment, a look at how food played a key role in Sakyamuni’s life as a monk.  

By Madhulika Dash; Picture Courtesy: Sriracha; Alka Jena  

2016: Chef Vikas Seth began working on the concept of Burrito Bowl. The idea initially, confesses the Mexican specialist, “was to find newer ways to give the iconic Mexican dish, relevance and the ‘cool’ factor. Little did he know that his zeal to re-present a traditional dish with contemporary variations of quinoa, barley millet and such, would take him into the much-speculated world of Gautam Buddha. Or as Chef Seth puts it, “the first person to make eating in a bowl, a tradition and classic trend.”

In his search to know more about the monk food habits, Chef Seth, like his peers, turned to what was that season’s high point: the buddha bowl – a concept that gained traction once again with Zen priest Dan Zigmond and wellness writer Tara Cottrell tome, Buddha’s Diet. His initial research recalls Chef Seth, “gave me an understanding that Buddha was primarily vegetarian, and plant produce was given more importance than meat and meaty-akin dishes. But that was not to be the case.”

The culinary specialist who know uses the Buddha principle of dividing the bowl as per the five food groups and six taste eventually found more clarity through the works of many historians working in the Buddhist places in India, especially the Diamond Triangle, and have found new evidence on how food habits evolved and changed with different schools of thoughts emerging over the years but also with researcher John Steven whose tome What Kind Of Food Did Buddha Eat? brings forth what Buddha ate post enlightenment. Steven write, and we quote: “ his food was divided into five formats of bhojana: Odana, essentially boiled rice prepared with ghee, meat, fruit, etc; Sattu, baked grain like barley, graham flour, wheat, or millet-taken in the form of small balls or as a porridge; Kummasa, kind of gruel of boiled mixture of barley (or rice) and pulse; macho (fish) and mansa (meat). But what the prince turned monk really valued more according to Vinaya- Pitaka was the yagu – which was a healthy porridge made of barley or rice and salt; or with sour-milk, curd, fish or/and meat which later was tweaked to add fruits and leaves too.”

A fact corroborated by Vinayapitaka and Buddhacharitra, two ancient accounts that have been compiled by his disciples at various points in time. In fact, Vinayapitaka that details Gautam Buddha’s food habits post nirvana talks about his fondness for not just madhuka (honey) and mantha (a kind of porridge made with parched barely, honey and curd) but also of panna (sherbet) made from seasonal fruits, especially Panasa (jackfruit), Tadgola (ice apple), breadfruit, jamun, banana and of course tala or palm fruit that grew with flourish across India. Story has it that post attaining nirvana, Buddha’s first meal was a bowlful of mantha that helped him gain his energies and create the idea of not just intermittent fasting based on the traditional practice of not eating after sunset, but also of moderation in diet.  

Buddha, who believe historian, took a keen liking to not just sattu but also pithas during his time in the Eastern province where he is said to have attained the great knowledge and also set up his first school of learning and Dharmashala, is said to have preferred the lightness of fruits, grains and vegetables to meat – but would often accept anything that was made for him.  

But that wasn’t the case when he began his life as a monk from that of a prince after a few episodes showcasing suffering and poverty played catalyst to the young Siddhattha Gotam mind who was brought in a bubble of abundance. It was one of the reasons that in his initial years, as repentance, when he took the name Sakyamuni, he followed the diet of mountain ascetics of roots, fruits and dry grain. Such was his resolve that in his initial years there came a time, as per Buddhacharitra , that he had nothing except one piece of ber, sesame seed and a handful of husked rice in the entire day. Weak and almost listless, Gautam Buddha soon realised that it wasn’t the way to attainment of his goal, and began his journey into understanding food, and how it attributes to life and its goal. For two years, say the accounts, “he ate whatever people would feed him and eventually revived over bowls of the quintessential payasa or kheer.  

Foodlorist talk about Sujata, a rich trader’s daughter, who offered Buddha a golden cup containing milky rice during the time. The small offering provided the ascetic Buddha-to-be Siddhattha with enough strength to meditate and eventually attain nirvana. Sujata eventually became the first bhikkhuni to join him, and was among the disciple who set the tone for the early monks. It was during this period that Sakyamuni established the rules of alms – his disciples could have anything that was given to them in form of alms, including meat, fish, and grains. The only exception to the rule was nothing in the alms would be specially done for the monks, and this included meat, along with a statutory list of not haves like meat of animals like lions, dogs, snake and ingredients like garlic and leek that is said to have ‘tamasic quality’ and could led to the rise of oogra swabhav of greed, anger, envy and such.  

Monks who joined Buddha in this journey followed what nutritional therapist like Shaveta Bhassin would call, “functional diet” or “eating as per the level of activity with a good dose of intermittent fasting woven into it.” According to documents, Buddha and his disciple’s morning began with the yagu that kept them going during a major part of the day when the travelled, roamed the village/town, spoke to people around advocating the learnings or spent in meditation. The lunch, much like the food habits of the time, was the main meal where the monks would cook depending on the alms a one or two pot meal that would be had in bowls made of dry coconut shells. In spite of the frugal way monks lived, taste of food was always given priority as it was considered, says Chef Seth, “an essential to moksh. Hence even back then they used spices like clove, mustard, cumin, turmeric, a variety of salts and of course ginger.”

Steven in his book even makes a mention of a paste that was very close to the Odia Besara to give their food that satiating taste.  

It was Buddha’s firm believe that a one’s meal is all that could fit into the palm of his hand. A thumb rule that, says Bhassin, “is also recommended for those who would like to shift from the old diet to one of moderation and balance.”  Each meal back then would have greens, legumes or lentils, grains and some form of fish, meat, vegetable, or fruit. Panna, which was ancient India’s term for beverages made from fruit pulp, was a favourite and often had for their digestive quality.  

This mostly marked the end of Buddha and his disciple meals unless there was a meal offering made to them that would be shared by all or a fruit or a spoon of phanita – molasses made from sugarcane in the evening. Given that the original Buddhism propagated nirvana through meditation, food was usually had for the brain, and just enough to enable the body’s wellbeing, hence the evening meal was completely omitted. It was believed that the longer the body is left to heal, the better it is for meditation.  

 Interestingly, the rule of eating whatever is offered lovingly made Buddha one of the earliest culinary connoisseurs who in his lifetime as a monk had not only eaten a wide variety of food across different regions but had gained immense insight into using dishes to cure maladies. A lot of the early Buddha period antidotes are around dishes that had immense power to heal– and became part of the later years’ medicine practice.  

It was his understanding of “food is the essence of life” that made his teaching easy to adopt and practice.  

Buddha in his later years while turned towards plant-based diet, he continued his practice of having anything that was offered to him. In fact, his final meal post which he took ill and passed away was one such offering called Sukura Maddava. Believed to be a dish made with young pork, mushroom, bamboo shoots or a rice broth that was prepared with the five products of the cow - milk, curd, dung, urine, and butter – the dish was so potent and unbearable in its taste and after-feel that Buddha after having a few spoons asked it to be buried and not shared with his brothers, and disciples. Years later researcher found it to be a dish made with wild mushroom that could have been lethal.  

And yet, much to the disaster, Buddha included kukurmutha as one of the food that heal with one cautionary line – to be understood and then foraged. So effective were Buddha’s diktat of food and meal habits that even today they are followed to the T, and has been termed as “intuitive eating” by many nutritional practitioners. His take on food is also, says Bhassin, “a testimony to how food was used for wellness and to remould once existence.”

A fact reiterated by Dalai Lama years later when at a sit down after being served vegetarian food for about two courses, someone asked him whether monks are supposed to be vegetarian, and ever-smiling Lama answered, “no. We have no such restrictions. We can anything that has been cooked by our host and is offered with happiness.” The next plate to arrive on his table was made of his favourites, rice, and meat.