The second most populous country in the world after China and the seventh largest in area, India is unique among nations in its diversity of climates, languages, religions, tribes, customs and cuisines. Today, Indian food in its many incarnations has become a world cuisine. This reflects an increased awareness of the virtues of a traditional Indian diet, especially the centrality of fruits, vegetables and grains and the extensive use of spices, the benefits of which have been confirmed by modern science.
India has always been part of the global economy. For thousands of years, the subcontinent was the centre of a vast network of land and sea trade routes – conduits for plants, ingredients, dishes and cooking techniques to and from the rest of the world. Foreign visitors have long marvelled at India’s agricultural bounty, including its ancient indigenous plants, such as lentils, mangoes, turmeric and pepper, all of which have been central to the Indian diet for thousands of years.
Yet what is it that makes Indian food so recognizably Indian, and how did it get that way? Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India is an exploration of Indian cuisine in the context of the country’s religious, moral, social and philosophical development. It addresses topics such as dietary prescriptions and proscriptions, the origins of vegetarianism, culinary borrowings and innovations, the use of spices and the inseparable links between diet, health and medicine. It also looks at special foods for festivals, street foods and the splendour of Mughal feasts. This lavishly illustrated book gives a mouth-watering tour of India’s regional cuisines, containing numerous recipes to interest and excite readers.
‘An irresistible edition to your kitchen shelf, the history inside is richer than any Indian dish you’ve ever tasted.’ – Vogue
‘an ambitious tome which explores India's various dietary conventions and religions through the ages . . . The early history of natives, travellers and migrants and evolution of regional diets is erudite and fascinating.’ – The Independent
‘a comprehensive one-volume introduction to Indian food, embedded in a narrative that gains texture from history and cultural anthropology, and is attractive for the specialist and non-specialist alike. At a time when debates rage in India over the state’s interference in the food habits of the people, and in sporadic instances Muslims can be lynched by right-wing Hindu fundamentalists for eating beef, it is sobering to note Sen’s emphasis on the enormous diversity of food cultures in India, a diversity that has historically spawned grandeur as well as austerity, Epicureanism as well as minimalism, and sustained a culinary tradition that has borrowed food ingredients and cooking styles heavily and openly from around the world.’ – TLS
‘The latest in the Food and Nations book series, Colleen Taylor Sen’s interdisciplinary history of the culture surrounding India’s food is a comprehensive addition to any library. Not only does the book examine India's history and culinary developments from the prehistoric through present day eras, it also interweaves snippets of literary works and recipes that are now enjoyed worldwide. Sen follows various influences on modern Indian cuisine, including religion, climate, and colonialism, and concludes with a chapter on the assimilation of Indian influences in nations around the world, giving thorough insight into one of the world's most diverse cuisines.’ – Saveur
‘Feasts and Fasts is a richly detailed volume, with colorful historic images, some poetry (“Ode to Ghee”) and a few ancient recipes. It begins with the prehistoric era, moves on to religious influences, the arrival of Marco Polo in the 1292, the development of regional variations, the Partition of India in 1947 and the creation of tandoori chicken, a relative newcomer to the Indian table.’ – Chicago Tribune
‘Although a rich variety of Indian foods has been enjoyed over the ages by countless generations in India and later the rest of the world, there have been few historical, cultural, and scholarly studies on the subject. This book amply fills that void . . . The book offers readers an in-depth narrative at once interesting, informative, and insightful. Well researched with abundant notes and references, and interspersed with colorful pictures, this book will prove fascinating to Indian and non-Indian readers alike. Recommended.’ – Choice
‘In Feasts and Fasts, food historian Colleen Taylor Sen seeks to broaden our culinary horizons with an in-depth look at the subcontinent’s edible history through its complex web of religious, moral, social and philosophical inner workings. There’s plenty about the origins of India’s widespread vegetarian practices, as well as the evolution of spice use across both culinary and medicinal spheres. And yes, you’re going to want to eat samosas afterward.’ – Smithsonian Magazine
‘Colleen Taylor Sen’s new book is the most comprehensive and thorough on the subject so far . . . The book is beautifully designed as well. Its range, from prehistory to the food of the Indian diaspora, is impressive and she even includes clear, easy recipes so that we can taste the food mentioned . . . Feasts and Fasts is a fascinating book, packed with information and one that should stand as the definitive work for some time.’ – Petits Propos Culinaires
‘In-depth and interesting, Colleen Taylor Sen’s latest book Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India is a comprehensive attempt to chronicle India’s diverse cuisines in the context of the country’s religious, moral, social and philosophical development. Its timeline stretches from prehistoric India, when millets were the grains of choice, to new trends in Indian food. It also addresses topics such as the origins of vegetarianism, culinary borrowings and innovations and the use of spices. Sen sifted through texts that go as far back as the Vedic times for her research and besides the origins of Indian food, the book is also peppered with recipes.’ – Forbes India
‘The book is not merely a collection of recipes or listings of the country’s diverse cuisines, but delves much deeper into the supremely aromatic world of Indian food, right from the time of the Vedas and ancient empires to the 21st century. So what you have is an engaging book on the impact of history, trade and foreign influences on Indian food and its evolution in the social, moral, scientific and religious context . . . painstakingly researched.’ – Discover India Magazine
‘It’s a book for everybody – the lay reader, the serious student, the gourmet and the glutton. It may even encourage the anorexic to eat. I wouldn’t be surprised if Feasts and Fasts is hailed as the best book of the decade on culinary identity.’ – The Indian Express
‘This book is the ultimate source to understand the roots of our everyday food. A tantalising tale of culinary culture, this is one book you cannot ignore if you are a food connoisseur.’ – The Daily Pioneer, India
‘The book has a great timeline, reference, and bibliography section. The images, in color and in halftones, not only are of food, but of historical documents, manuscripts, different sites, and people in different stages of food preparations, from harvesting to serving. Sen’s volume is brilliant, concise, and well thought out. It would appeal to scholars, students, and food enthusiasts alike. It is a fantastic book to use as a reference, or even to retrieve classic Indian recipes from. The only warning to provide is to not read this book on an empty stomach. Sen’s book is a true delight!’ – NewBooksAsia
‘In a surprisingly handy, 350-page volume, Taylor Sen harmonizes the diverse voices, traditions, and techniques that underlie the track of India’s culinary heritage without obfuscating a single note. This balancing act, in fact, serves as the focus of her enquiry: how does one speak of an Indian cuisine in the face of the multiplicity of sources that went into its making? Is there in fact a gastronomic culture in common to all Indians, and how does one begin to plot its contours? The answer, and one of the book’s strengths, lies in rooting cultures of consumption within religious, philosophical, and socio-economic frameworks. Feasts and Fasts posits food not as fuel but as an active, ever-changing product of 5,000 years of political upheavals, migrations and conquests, revelries and lamentation . . . this is a book that charts the culinary map of India with passion and precision, and Taylor Sen offers a fine introduction to its historical antecedents.’ – Scroll.in
‘I could not but admire Colleen Taylor Sen's keen understanding of our food culture and how lightly she carries her knowledge. Only she could have written a book as conversationally written and loaded with delicious facts as Feasts and Fasts: A History of Food in India - the depth of her scholarship reveals her abiding interest in the subject . . . Feasts and Fasts benefits from her ability to collate information from a multitude of sources, from Manu and Charaka to the Chinese Buddhist monk and scholar, Hsuan Tsang, to Anglo-Indian cookbook writers and modern scholars, and present it in the most readable manner, breaking up her narrative to accommodate sidebars and recipes . . . The picture she draws is of a society that, contrary to the vision of those who view the past from the blinkers of contemporary politics, ate heartily (and a lot of what our ancestors ate was non-vegetarian) and drank merrily.’ – Daily O, India
Colleen Taylor Sen is an independent food historian and writer based in Chicago, specializing in the cuisine of the Indian subcontinent. Her previous publications include Curry: A Global History (Reaktion, 2009) and Street Food Around the World: An Encyclopedia of Food and Culture (co-editor, 2013).