Aphrodisiacs, anyone?

Priyadarshini Chatterjee | Updated on December 13, 2019

Food for the senses: The exploration of sensual food is not limited to the ancient age; medieval Indian texts and royal manuscripts, including those composed under Muslim rulers, also delve into the subject   -  ISTOCK.COM

A pop-up in Delhi reaffirms the intimate connection between food and sensual pleasures

It’s a chilly evening in Delhi and Tanushree Bhowmik is all set to turn up the heat with Aupamishadika, a table d’hôte pop-up at her residence. Named after a chapter in Vatsyayana’s Kama Sutra — perhaps the best-known ancient text on sexuality and erotica the world over — the pop-up is dedicated to “sensual food”, as recorded in ancient Indian texts, including the Vedas.

Along with generous helpings from Vatsyayana’s seminal work, food researcher and writer Bhowmik’s menu for the evening takes nuggets from Kokkoka’s Rati Rahasya, an ancient sex manual, Charaka Samhita, a compendium on Ayurveda, as well as academic papers.

The ancient concept of Purusartha Catustaya — “the object of human pursuit” — places kama or sensual or carnal pleasure on the same pedestal as dharma (virtue), artha (wealth) and moksha (liberation). Food is inextricably linked with kama. Love potions, tonics, herbs and spices that act as stimulants, natural aphrodisiacs or elaborate recipes that are sometimes bizarre — ancient Indian literature is strewn with references to food that improves one’s sex life..

The engagement with sexual connotations of food is also manifest in the strictures imposed on Hindu widows who were forced to live on a diet without fish, meat, garlic, onions and spices believed to trigger sexual energy.

“The idea of sensuality in the ancient Indian mind was not limited to instant sexual gratification, but all aspects of heightened pleasure experienced through all the five senses,” says Bhowmik as she places a blob of a grainy, paste-like concoction on the back of my fist. A blend of honey, long pepper and black pepper, mulethi (Indian liquorice), giloy (a herb) and nutmeg, the potion, says Bhowmik, is said to sweeten a man’s voice. “Lick it up,” she says. It is sweet at first, but soon, a peppery warmth spreads inside the mouth; it then slithers down the throat and culminates in a bitter-sweet aftertaste and a slight buzz.

The buzz could as well be from the tipple served earlier in the evening, made by steeping spices and herbs (black pepper, fresh ginger, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and saffron) in alcohol for three days. The alcoholic tincture from Charaka Samhita, when consumed before meals, is said to increase stamina.

“Sensual food in the Indian context is also linked to overall health and hygiene, which are important for a salubrious sexual life,” says Bhowmik, who is working on an academic paper on the subject. The Kama Sutra, for instance, mentions a nectar-like concoction of milk, the juice of fennel and ghee, honey, sugar and liquorice that not only increases sexual vigour but is also a “preservative of life”. Of course, there are more exotic recipes that involve eggs of sparrows and testicles of a ram.

There is none of that at Bhowmik’s table, though. We get recipes that are contemporary in form, but based on the knowledge in the ancient texts.

The meal starts with a recipe inspired by the tenets of Charaka Samhita, said to enhance strength and vitality: Fish fried in cow ghee, tossed with citron and methi leaves, and served on deep-fried wheat discs. A hearty meat broth comes on the heels of the ghee-rich dish.

Up next, chunks of lamb cooked with jamun molasses are served with satavari  (Indian asparagus), tossed with long pepper, on a bed of barley pilaf.

High point: Lamb cooked with jamun molasses and served with Indian asparagus on a bed of barley pilaf



 “Barley, one of the oldest grains, is said to increase vitality and virility,” says Bhowmik. She then brings to the table a subtly sweet dish of pork cooked with young ginger, nutmeg and honey. It is served with Shashtika, a variety of rice extolled in Ayurveda, which had been tossed with black gram and raisins. Both black gram and the deliciously nutty Shashtika appear numerous times in writings on Vajikarana, a branch of Ayurveda dedicated to the use of aphrodisiacs.

However, the exploration of sensual food is not limited to the ancient age; medieval Indian texts and royal manuscripts, including those composed under Muslim rulers, also delve into the subject. For instance, Ni’matnama, a cookbook put together by Ghiyath Shah, Sultan of Malwa, and his son Nasir Shah in the 15th century, lists numerous recipes for aphrodisiacs. Among them is a dish of fish baked with white onions in walnut oil, which is seasoned with salt and eaten with chapati and a dessert-like preparation of green chickpeas fried in cow ghee, mixed with pine kernels, walnuts and palm sugar.

At Bhowmik’s, the evening’s first dessert is a sesame kheer — sesame seeds stewed in milk, sweetened with honey, and spiked with ashwagandha (Indian ginseng). “This is an aphrodisiac for men,” says Bhowmik. According to Rati Rahasya, “even a hundred women cannot gratify the man” who consumes sesame seeds mixed with milk and slow-heated for hours.

But for Bhowmik’s guests — all women — it is perhaps the second dessert and the evening’s last offering that hits the right spot. It is a water chestnut pudding topped with a layer of rose jelly and flecks of gold leaf, served in a pool of blue pea flower jelly — which, wait for it, is an aphrodisiac for women.

Priyadarshini Chatterjee is a food writer based in Kolkata

Published on December 13, 2019

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