Ancient Indian cuisine

As a lay person I really enjoy the process of cooking food. Across EBTs we find references to the sort of food the Buddha and his disciples were offered.

On that topic, does anyone know where one could find more information on the cuisine of Ancient India?

What kind of spices and recipes are mentioned in EBTs and how does that allow us to recreate some of the dishes the early Sangha would find in their bowls?



One dish seems to have been pork curry, which the Buddha ate according to the Mahaparinibbana sutta even though he knew it was going to kill him.

I think the question of cuisine is interesting; I also remember reading in an academic work that early monks were probably fed just leftovers (and wearing discarded rags). This would accord more with their position of mendicants. In contrast when I recently visited a Theravada monastery in the Uk, I realized that monks were being offered a banquet everyday, superior in quality (and certainly in quantity) to what most of us lay people ever have. That really surprised me.

So I am wondering whether that was already taking place at the time of the Buddha, or whether there has been a change throughout the history of Buddhism in how monks are fed. For example the idea that the food you offer a monk is the same food you’ll be offered when reborn (is it from the EBT or later?) would be a great motivation for lay followers to offer their best.

At the risk of being off topic… Btw, nice topic gnlaera :slight_smile:

… I don’t know what academic work it was that suggested monastics ate leftovers, because I distinctly recall the phrase, “choice curries” being used in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translations.

Again…I know this is sort off topic… But they didn’t have microwaves (which apparently do something to the dna in food!!) and fridges and freezers.

I imagine they would’ve cooked stuff fresh, daily.

Unless…going back on topic a bit…they used spices and so on to pickle stuff…

I can’t imagine that they’d want to make any being ill through eating spoilt food. This is an issue nowadays. Sure, you may see what looks like a banquet… But what you don’t know is how often the food has be re-heated, when it was prepared, how it has been stored… You take a risk when you put offered food into your mouth these days!! It’s always surprising to me the amount of ignorance there is about food and safety.

Recently, a monk was sent to hospital with food poisoning - so I was told. I imagine the lay people back in the old days wouldn’t have wanted to diminish their Sangha in this way, anymore than we do. Plus, I imagine they valued their monks and nuns and appreciated the enormity of their renunciation - thus, paradoxically, they probably did the best they could, which, I imagine, sometimes was humble fare. But cooked daily - I imagine it was in some ways, a lot healthier.

Perhaps, the food at the time depended on what was locally available. So perhaps more “water based” food nearer the river? My guess would be that the agriculture in those regions today, is probably not too dissimilar to what it might have been in ancient times - India’s famous for being like this, in some respects! Though I think some vegies were introduced - like cauliflower - I think!

EDIT: I think there were practises that allowed monastics to be “dumpster divers” though… :wink:

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yes, I will try to find it, but I read so much so quickly that it’s probably not going to be very easy. Concerning the question of ‘choice curries’, I guess academics like Schopen would probably question whether that went back to the Buddha…

This is going off topic from my part, so I won’t go much into it, except for noting that this argument is completely incomprehensible for me. Monks give up worldly things because they are said to be a distraction to reaching greater happiness (and perhaps insight). So their renunciation is just giving up something that is not valuable in their eyes, in exchange for their own happiness. That’s just a rational, smart, utilitarian choice on their part. When you speak of the ‘enormity of their renunciation’ you make it sound as if it were an immensely noble act; however insofar as they are just doing this for their own happiness, it should simply be seen as a smart, utilitarian act.

Perhaps it’s a matter of perception and perhaps also of experience.

I know the impact upon myself, my own mind and meditation practise when I give up in small ways or in medium sized ways even… In such circumstances, I’m not in control of aspects of my life.

Control, to us human beings, is a pretty big thing. It is about safety, survival. Knowing what folks you hang with, what and when you eat, whether your home is safe and welcoming, what you distract and heal yourself with. These are huge things.

In even limited ways, such as going on retreat, the restraint that ocurrs has the potential to magnify sila and thus the ability to let go mentally in meditation can be enhanced.

I know I like things to be cosy. Family, friends, Dhamma books, all the talks I want to listen to. Suttas on hand, sutta central handy. TV if I feel like it. Go for a walk where I want to, when I want. Go shopping for the best, healthiest food I can afford. To not be able to choose this stuff is a big deal. It can be very challenging.

It is an enormous renunciation. Monastics give up money, give up sex, give up so much…so much… They do this out of faith - at least to some extent because at the end of the day, there is no guarantee that there old worldly habits don’t come back to deeply challenge them. It’s hard sometimes. Real hard.

If you’ve experienced this even on a very small scale…then it’s possible to extrapolate using a little imagination what it must be like to give up big things…

Yes, I do see it as an immensely noble and inspiring act. I don’t think it ought to be undertaken lightly. I don’t think we should ever put pressure on monastics to be anything other than human. Yet, the choice they’ve made inspires me incredibly. If it’s done the way I’ve seen it done, it should be inspiring. It is also a smart and utilitarian act. I personally, don’t see any “either or”…it’s both noble and useful. It’s smart and useful because it gladdens, causes restraint, purifies sila and, in my limited experience, causes something rather magical to happen…well, it feels magical to me when things get still and peaceful.

I do apologise for now being completely off topic. I’m happy to delete this if required…


…missed this bit :slight_smile:

Yeah, respectfully, I heartily disagree.

They are giving up things they still value. Because they trust there is something to the path they’re choosing.

Just because you ordain, doesn’t mean you suddenly stop valuing somethings… If I ordained soon, I would still value my family, my partner, my little pets, my books, certain sequels to movies that I’ll miss, some of my stuff… Yet, if ordaining felt right, I would still give them up.

This is what a renunciant mendicant is supposed to be. It’s a giving up.

If you no longer value something…I don’t think you can call it “giving up”.

This is why the notion of Englightenment as a “thing” influences our Views and thus even how we approach Practise.
I view Awakening to be real and the 8 Fold Path as a process that will grow this gradually. Thus if I were to ordain, I would not suddenly be this Awakened person who no longer valued stuff that kept me cosy in lay life… I would still have my human desires…I’d just be choosing to give them up even though I still value them… It ain’t small.

I imagine Siddharta Gautama leaving home… His family, his wife, his little child. A being who had the potential for such compassion to flower; I imagine, must have valued and loved all these aspects of his life…yet he walked away from them. I doubt it was super easy. Thus, I perceive a nobility in the act.


ok thank you for your answer, I see your point :smiley: In your post you have focused on the things they give up; perhaps I am focusing too much on the things they instead acquire without working for them, which to me as new to EBT and Theravada Buddhism seems a lot, and quite strange (free food, health insurance, immense respect etc).

I guess a balanced view is probably somewhere in the middle. A friend of mine told me that he had a conversation with a monk who said, half jokingly: ‘when I think of lay life and relationships, I sometimes want to disrobe; so I think of lay life and having to work, and I don’t disrobe’ :wink:

There’s probably something to this, I mean there are both great advantages and disadvantages in being a monastic; anyway I apologize for going off track :pray: , I promise I will behave now :wink: and will let other participants get on with the original subject

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Yup! I can appreciate this :slight_smile:

But you’re asking questions, which I have the most enormous respect for… a lot of people walk into a new situation and just assume a bunch of stuff… You’re clearly questioning and investigating and trying to learn for yourself… I truly respect that. :anjal:

Yeah, a friend of mine once described it as “choosing your suffering”!!

And now I’m reminded of Ajahn Brahm talking to two sisters, one sad about being single, the other sad about her marriage… He described it as one person having “single person suffering” and the other having “married person suffering”!

But each context will develop some qualities, and in some ways, that the other won’t; though there will be some similarities, of course. You just have to decide what you want out of life. We’re swimming in a sea of “wanting” or “craving”…but I do think we bring out the best of our humanity when we choose what is both kind/good and true to our best interests and intentions.

Lol…me too. :slight_smile:

Actually, how about we split this thread?

@Aminah, @Nadine or @Viveka… could you do the honours? I can’t remember how to…and also might no longer be able to…


I am interested in finding out how much of the ancient Indian cuisine was preserved.

I am aware that most spices we find nowadays in Indian food was found back then with the exception of red chillies which I recently learned came from the Americas!

I wonder if anyone knows the recipe of the milk pudding the Bodhisatta was offered shortly after having given up the extreme austerities?


So no thread split?


There’s a description in the commentaries, but it doesn’t sound terribly probable. As I recall, you have to milk a thousand cows and then feed the milk to five hundred cows. Then you milk the five hundred cows and feed the milk to 250 cows. Etc., etc.


:slight_smile: Food anthropology is fascinating. Two appetizers for those interested:

I see three immediate ways this could be investigated:

  1. what is mentioned in the suttas, and how was this translated by different sources? (what might be translated as “curry” or “stew” might not match our differently conditioned ideas; and may also result from translators’ conditioning!)
  2. what does archaeology know from midden heaps, human remains, climatology & geology?
  3. what is known of human selective breeding of crops or animals used as food sources?
  4. how much farming, gathering & hunting, and trade existed in the region?

One can learn a great deal from studying food history, only some of it cultural; possibly, food is The Mother of Invention, for all engineering & crafts. Preservation, improved availability & selection, transportation & travel, chemistry, biology, architecture, etc… all may derive from the need to eat. Pottery, basket weaving, weaving, glass work, much of toolmaking, …

One more Warning has excellent sensory descriptions!!! from-india-to-north-korea-currys-great-transnational-journey/


interesting, that’s an exponential function :smiley:

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Yes, I imagine so as well. Nevertheless, you can eat same day leftovers, like eating the crust of a piece of pizza your friend was eating because they don’t like pizza crust. So mendicants would eat what is left over from a freshly prepared dish, either the scrapings at the bottom of the pot, or whatever was left on someone’s plate when they got full. And since mendicants were a regular feature in ancient Magadhan society, I imagine many times families would over prepare whatever dish they were making for themselves. So they wouldn’t make separate foods specifically for renunciants but would perhaps make a little extra of whatever they were eating themselves.

Sometimes though, monastics were invited to meals and things were specifically prepared for them, such as choice curries.


Here are a few online resources I found:

On a somewhat related note, I had lunch with some of the laypeople at my local Wat today following the monks’ midday meal. Among the items prepared by the lunch providers was fried crickets. Insects have been widely consumed around the world, the main exception being the European subcontinent in large part because of climate (not conducive to the propagation of comestible insects). Those wishing to reproduce the cuisine of the EBTs might find that insects are included in such a cuisine.


Apparently Ven Dhammika is working on a book on this very topic. So that’s a yummy treat to look forward to!


Once, the king offered alms to the Buddha and other bhikkhus on a grand scale. His subjects, in competition with him, organized another alms-giving ceremony on a grander scale than that of the king. Thus, the king and his subjects kept on competing in giving alms. Finally, Queen Mallika thought of a plan; to implement this plan, she asked the king to have a grand pavilion built. Next, she asked for five hundred white umbrellas and five hundred tame elephants; those five hundred elephants were to hold the five hundred white umbrellas over the five hundred bhikkhus. In the middle of the pavilion, they kept ten boats which were filled with perfumes and incense. There were also two hundred and fifty princesses, who kept fanning the five hundred bhikkhus. Since the subjects of the king had no princesses, nor white umbrellas, nor elephants, they could no longer compete with the king. When all preparations were made, alms-food was offered. After the meal, the king made an offering of all the things in the pavilion, which were worth fourteen crores.

Just imagine what sort of a meal it was!

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To be clear…

“Those, Vaccha, who say: ‘The ascetic Gotama says: “Alms should be given only to me … only what is given to my disciples is very fruitful, not what is given to the disciples of others,”’ do not state what has been said by me but misrepresent me with what is untrue and contrary to fact. AN 3.57: Vaccha (English) - Tika Nipāta - SuttaCentral

What’s better than giving-

"Once, householder, there was a brahman named Velāma. And this was the nature of the gift, the great gift, he gave: He gave 84,000 gold trays filled with silver, 84,000 silver trays filled with gold, 84,000 copper trays filled with gems. AN9.20 AN 9.20: About Velāma (English) - Navaka Nipāta - SuttaCentral

Then with the passing of that night, that cowherd, in his own residence, having had an abundance of rich milk-rice and fresh ghee made ready, announced the time to the Gracious One, saying: “It is time, reverend Sir, the meal is ready.”

Then the Gracious One, having dressed in the morning time, after picking up his bowl and robe, together with the Community of monks, went to that cowherd’s residence, and after going, he sat down on the prepared seat. Then that cowherd with his own hand, served and satisfied the Community of monks with the Buddha at its head with rich milk-rice and fresh ghee. Ud 4.3: The Discourse about the Cowherd (English) - Udāna - SuttaCentral

“With faith as seed and practice,
rain and learning as my yoke and plough;
my plough-pole, conscientiousness,
memory, goad and ploughshare both.

My body’s guarded, so is my speech,
Restrained is my belly’s food,
The act of Truth is my cutting-off,
Gentleness is my release.

My harnessed ox is energy—
draws safe for yoking’s end,
goes to where no sorrow is
and turns not back again.

In this way is my ploughing ploughed
towards the crop of Deathlessness—
who finishes this ploughing’s work
from all dukkha will be free.

Then Kasī-Bhāradvāja had a large bronze bowl filled with milk-rice and brought to the Radiant One. “May it please Master Gotama to eat the milk-rice, Master Gotama is a ploughman, since he does the ploughing that has the Deathless as its crop.”
Snp 1.4: The Farmer Bhāradvaja (English) - Sutta Nipāta - SuttaCentral


I look forward to it .
I checked Ven Dhammika’s blog and found a book’s chapter on medicinal plants of the EBTs:

It would be great to find a way to match the ancient Pali names as found in Vinaya to current scientific names!