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Wikipedia defines the word myth as a folklore genre consisting of narratives that play a fundamental role in society. Therefore, mythology refers to the collected myths of a group of people. These could be stories spoken in many ways across generations and civilizations and can also be depicted with symbols and rituals and spoken word.
Indian mythology is rife with stories that depict gods and goddesses in various forms in epics and ancient texts like the Mahabharata and Ramayana, which determine how society needs to function. Although some would argue that these epics are a part of history and not mythology because they believe that the events described in them did occur.
To the Western eye, these stories are not just fascinating but also unbelievable and sometimes shocking. However, mythology is deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche and defines how we live and function to a great extent, including what we eat and serve to our gods.
Food plays an integral part in Indian mythology, where a part of the ritual involves offering food to the one who is being revered and honoured. It could be a piece of fruit or dry fruits, Or it could be an elaborate feast cooked and offered to god as bhog (group observance) and then served as a prasad (a food offering) to the devotees. There are many ways and techniques to cook this food, with strict regulations on who can cook it. While the food cooked in most temples is vegetarian and satwik, where they don’t use onion or garlic. But India’s Eastern and North-East states cook meat as part of the prayers, where a goat or buffalo is sacrificed as an offering to the goddess Kali or Durga and is then cooked and served as an offering to the devotees.
And where there is mythology and food, there are many stories. One of my favourite stories is about an argument between Lord Shiva, the destroyer of the universe, and a part of Hinduism’s holy trinity (Trimurti) with his wife, Parvati, the mother goddess. Lord Shiva believes that everything in this world is an illusion or Maya, including the food consumed by human beings. To teach her husband the importance of food, the goddess disappears from the world. Since she is the goddess of fertility, nature and provides nourishment to all beings, her disappearance causes chaos in the world. There were no seasons, which meant that trees stopped bearing fruits, and no grains or plants grew from the earth, resulting in widespread hunger and famine. Lord Shiva realizes his mistake and understands that without ‘Prakriti’ – Nature, the whole world is incomplete, and he appears before his wife with a begging bowl in his hands, asking for food. Since Parvati cannot bear to see her children and husband suffer, she appears in the form of ‘Annapurna’ – the goddess of food and nourishment returns to the world. Artists have depicted her with a golden ladle in one hand and a jewelled bowl full of rice in another, representing abundance.
To me, this story symbolizes the balance between nature and the material world as they are incomplete without each other.
Another mythological story that I had heard as a child, which I love, is about the Elephant Headed God, Lord Ganesha, the son of Shiva and Parvati, who is known for his love of food.
Kubera, the god of wealth, builds a city of gold and to show off his wealth, he decides to have a grand ceremony where he would lay out a lavish feast for his guests. He invites Lord Shiva, who sent his son Ganesha instead, warning Kubera of his son’s voracious appetite. The ignorant Kubera gloated with pleasure because he thought that he would not eat a lot of food since Ganesha was just a child. Therefore, he was shocked when Ganesha ate everything, including his city of gold, and then threatened to eat him if he was not given more food. A scared Kubera ran to Lord Shiva, asking for forgiveness. He asked Kubera to offer Ganesha a small bowl of toasted rice with love to satiate his hunger, thus teaching him a lesson in humility.
There are so many stories that offer light-hearted fun but also give life lessons that are still relevant in today’s day and age. So, whatever your beliefs are, you can’t deny that mythology cannot be restricted by definitions or descriptions of right and wrong or truth and fables. Whether you believe in gods or demons, saints, or sinners, at the end of the day, these tales do enrich our lives to a great degree.
Bhavna Kalra is a passionate Indian cook based out of Sydney. She missed Indian food after moving to Australia over a decade ago and started to cook, write, and document the traditional recipes that she grew up eating back home. follow her on Instagram @themoderndesi.co
Ma ki is a creamy Punjabi dal made with black urid and chana daal with spices, coriander and a generous dollop of butter for extra goodness!
Kheer is a popular Indian milk pudding made from either rice, wheat, tapioca, vermicelli, or sweet corn and topped dried fruit and nuts. This is a vegan-friendly version.
“These are really delicious and one of India’s favourite little desserts. They are traditionally made with reduced milk but as that takes a lot of time and effort, many of us make them with dried milk powder instead. They are easy to make and the only two tricks to getting them right is a soft dough and frying them over a very low heat so they cook all the way to the centre. They are very moreish! Serve as they are or warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.” Anjum Anand, Anjum's Australian Spice Stories