Level of Authenticity
I made a tasty thing! More seriously, I think this particular project is simply too speculative to do well in an Arts & Sciences competition.
Special Research Note:
I used Wikipedia a lot here. Like Pinterest, doing some initial investigations on Wikipedia isn’t a complete no-no. If you want to do any serious research and/or enter a competition, instead of just playing around like I did here, you’re much better to treat Wikipedia and Pinterest as places to track down more definitive or scholarly sources of the information you’re trying to rely on.
This project is based on archaeological evidence from a culture that modern historians and archaeologists usually call “Indus Valley” or “Harappan” civilization, located in parts of modern Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Northwestern India. We don’t know what this people called themselves, or what language they spoke, since their script is undeciphered, but Sumerian records referring to a frequent Sumerian trading partner Meluhha are thought to refer to this civilization. The article that gave me the idea for this dish says it’s from “4,000 years ago”; Wikipedia dates the culture to between 3300 – 1300 BCE with the height of trading between Sumeria and Meluhha occurring during the Middle Bronze Age from about 2100 – 1550 BCE.
The BBC calls this “the world’s oldest curry“. At first I wanted to come up with a name for it that simply describes the ingredients in the dish, like “aloo gobi” or “chana masala”, which is how it seems that modern people with North Indian heritage describe the dishes they make. I didn’t want to use a North Indian language though because they are part of the Indo-European language branch, which was almost definitely not the language used by the inhabitants of Meluhha. I had this idea that they probably spoke a language from the Dravidian group, and I did some poking around on Wikipedia to find out that the most widespread modern Dravidian language is Tamil. I even went so far as to ask around in my network if anybody could put me in touch with a speaker of Tamil, at which point I learned that an eggplant dish might be called “baingan bharta”.
Then I realized I was being silly and unrealistic, because Tamil likely bears no greater resemblance to a 4000-year-old Dravidian language than English or Hindi bears to a 4000-year-old Indo-European language. So I’m just going to call this dish “Meluhha-style eggplant”.
As for why Meluhhans were eating this, they obviously had to eat something. The article I referred to doesn’t give enough further context to guess whether this was an elite dish or a dish for ordinary people; or whether this was an everyday dish or one for feast days or something.
As for why I made it, it’s because I am always interested in an obscure challenge, and this is one of the civilizations I most wish we knew more about.
The article I read attributes the research to archaeologists Arunima Kashyap and Steve Webber of Washington State University. They used methods of starch analysis on various artifacts from an excavation near modern-day Delhi to see what foodstuffs were being used. One potsherd they analyzed showed traces of eggplant, turmeric, ginger, and salt.
The BBC article gives a recipe that expands slightly on the ingredients found together in the potsherd but I didn’t want to get too creative, so I kept mine scaled back to the basics. This meant I didn’t really have a recipe per se so much as I had a list of ingredients I could combine into a dish that was hopefully tasty.
I used one of the really large eggplants you can normally find in most grocery stores around town, and I diced it into 1.5″ cubes (approximately). The BBC’s recipe calls for 6-7 “small aubergines”, split down the middle. Ideally, I would have wanted to find out what varietal and size of eggplant might have been available at the time in the Indus Valley region.
I used fresh turmeric, which comes in root form like ginger, and I used a chunk probably about 3″ long, which is considerably more than I might normally use in a modern recipe with more different ingredients in it. In doing this, I made an assumption that the Meluhha chefs would have used their turmeric fresh and not dried (as most modern Western recipes call for). Again, in an ideal world I would have wanted to find out what varietal of turmeric would have been available at the time. It would also have been helpful to find a source that gave information on the relative ratios of eggplant, turmeric, and ginger on the potsherd in order to determine how much of each to use.
Same comments as for turmeric.
The BBC article called for sesame oil. I solicited some very scholarly feedback from my culinary friends on Facebook to find out if anybody had any ideas what kind of oil might have been available in South Asia during the Bronze Age. Several people suggested olive oil, which is certainly a commodity the trade of which goes back a very long time, but I wasn’t 100% convinced it was making its way all the way to South Asia in the Bronze Age. I decided to see if I could find anything on Wikipedia about this question and I did find that sesame oil was listed as a product of South Asia in this time period. I did not, however, have normal sesame oil; I only had toasted sesame oil, and I don’t know how location and time-period appropriate that would be. Also, of course I expect my sesame oil was made using modern roller methods and not whatever oil-making methods were used at the time.
As a bonus, I just now looked up (on Wikipedia) what trade goods were on the Uluburun shipwreck, which is one of the more comprehensive sources we have for what trade goods were in circulation in the Bronze Age. Although olives make the cargo list, olive oil does not.
Tools and Processes
I used all modern tools and processes. I don’t get the impression that the research that inspired this project revealed anything about, say, what size the various pieces were chopped into, though it’s possible that the analysis was able to show how long it was cooked, or which ingredients were added in which order, or something like that. I’m guessing that if I looked at more excavation reports from Harappan sites I would be able to find information like what kinds of knives they might have had and what kinds of cooking methods were available. It is still a goal of mine to try more cooking with period heat sources, but I need a safe venue to try it. Here is what I did:
– Peel ginger and turmeric and mince very fine
– Cut eggplant into cubes, leaving skin on
– heat about a tablespoon of sesame oil in a large skillet
– saute ginger and turmeric until very fragrant
– add eggplant pieces and stir to coat
– add a little bit of water and simmer uncovered until eggplant pieces are cooked through but not mushy
– serve out and enjoy!
Various Wikipedia pages