Pietro della Valle was a young Italian nobleman who set off from Venice in 1614 on an eleven year journey to the East. In 1615, in Turkey, he was most intrigued by a black beverage called cahue - which we now call coffee - at that time “unknown in my native country.” By 1623 he was in India. Few Europeans had visited India at that time, so his descriptions of the food there are particularly fascinating.
In December of that year he was in Mangalore, a port on the Arabian sea in the Tulu Nadu region. I have taken the following story from The Travels of Pietro della Valle in India: from the old English translation of 1664 (1892)
The Queen of Olala's Son, who, though he govern not, (for the Mother administers all alone, and will do so as long as she lives) yet for honor’s sake is styled King, … sent for the Brachman, my Interpreter, in the Morning, … bid him bring me to him when my convenience serv'd; for he was very desirous to see me and speak with me. This Message being related to me, I let pass the hour of dinner, (because, having no appetite, and finding my stomack heavy, I would not dine this day) and, when it seem'd a convenient time … He earnestly desir’d of me that I would stay awhile till some meat were prepar’d for me; for by all means he would have me eat something in his House …
…. The meat was not long in preparing, and, it being now in order, the King call’d for me again to enter into the room where it stood ready … where they had prepared a little square board of the bigness of an ordinary stool, which might serve for a single person, but raised no more than four fingers above the ground ; upon this I sat down, crossing my Legs one over the other; and that little elevation helped me to keep them out from under me, with such decency as I desired. Right before the seat, upon the bare floor, (the Indians not using any Tables) they had spread, instead of a dish, (as their custom is, especially with us Christians, with whom they will not defile their own vessels ; it not being lawful for them ever to eat again in those wherein we have eaten) a great Leaf of that Tree which the Arabians and Persians call Mouza [Musa: the plantain or banana] the Portugals in India Fichi d’India, Indian Fig-trees; and upon the said Leaf they had lay'd a good quantity of Rice, boyl'd, after their manner, onely with water and salt ; but for sauce to it there stood on one side a little vessel made of Palm- eaves, full of very good butter melted. There lay also upon another Leaf one of those Indian Figgs, clean and pared ; and hard by it a quantity of a certain red herb, commonly eaten in India, and call’d by the Portugals Brèdo, [perhaps the tomato?] (which yet is the general appellation of all sort of herbs). In another place lay several fruits us’d by them, and, amongst the rest, slices of the Bambù or great Indian Cane; all of them preserved in no bad manner, which they call Acciaò [Achar]besides one sort pickled with Vinegar, as our Olives are. Bread there was none, because they use none, but the Rice is instead of it; which was no great defect to me, because I am now accustom'd to do without it, and eat very little. The King very earnestly pray'd me to eat, excusing himself often that he gave me so small an entertainment on the sudden; for if he had known my coming beforehand he would have prepared many Carìls and divers other more pleasing meats.
Carìl is a name which in India they give to certain Broths made with Butter, the Pulp of Indian Nuts, [coconuts] instead of which in our Countries Almond Milk may be us'd, being equally good and of the same virtue) and all sorts of Spices, particularly Cardamoms and Ginger, (which we use but little) besides herbs, fruits and a thousand other condiments. The Christians, who eat everything, add Flesh, or Fish, of all sorts, especially Hens, or Chickens, cut in small pieces, sometimes Eggs, which, without doubt, make it more savory: with all which things is made a kind of Broth, like our Guazetti or Pottages, and it may be made in many several ways ; this Broth, with all the abovesaid ingredients, is afterwards poured in good quantity upon the boyled Rice, whereby is made a well-tasted mixture, of much substance and light digestion, as also with very little pains; for it is quickly boyled, and serves both for meat and bread together. I found it very good for me, and used it often, as also the Pilào elsewhere spoken of, and made of Rice and butter boyled with it and flesh fryed therein, besides a thousand other preparations of several sorts which are so common to everybody in Asia; and I account it one of the best and wholesomest meats that can be eaten in the world, without so many Artificial Inventions as our guttlings of Europe (withall procuring to themselves a thousand infirmities of Gouts, Catarrhs and other Maladies, little known to the Orientals) daily devise to the publick damage.
But to return to my Relation, the King told me he would have given me a better entertainment, but yet desired me to receive this small extemporary one, and eat without any respect, or shyness of those that were present; for thereby he should understand that I liked it. I answer'd that the Favour and Courtesie which his Highness shewed me was sufficient : but as for eating, the time being now past, I did it onely to obey him; and so, to comply with him, although I had little will to eat, I tasted lightly here and there of those fruits and herbs, wherewith my Hand was a little soiled, which upon occasion I wiped with my handkerchief, being they use no other Table-linnen, nor had any laid for me. The King, seeing that I touched not the Rice, spoke to me several times to eat of it, and to pour upon it some of that butter which stood by it prepared. I did not, because I would not grease myself, there being no Spoon; for the Indians eat every thing with the Hand alone and so do the Portugals …
As our recipe for the day I want to consider Achar. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Achar as “In South Asian cookery: a type of pickle or relish made from fruit or vegetables preserved in spiced oil or vinegar.” The word has been used in English since at least the late sixteenth century, and it covers a very wide range of pickles. I give you two recipes from A New System Of Domestic Cookery (1842) by Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell.
Half a large Spanish onion, four capsicums, as much salt and lemon-juice as may be agreeable to the palate, all pounded together in a mortar.
Boil a piece of salt fish, cut an onion and some capsicums in pieces, pound them well together, and add a little vinegar.