Humans have the most diverse diet of any species on the planet – if anything can be made edible, we’ll eat it. Archeologist Kurush Dalal tells us how we got this way.
Crunchy on the outside, gooey on the inside, with the grainy texture of finely ground blanched almonds and the flavour of a low intensity fish paste – that’s the best way I can describe silkworm larvae stir-fried with turmeric and garlic. Eating what is a very exotic dish for a Mumbaikar, seated in the comfortable Juhu home of Axomiya Chef Gitika Saikia, I wondered about the sheer variety of foods that are consumed by us humans.
I asked myself a question which I have since realised has no definitive answer – how many different things do humans eat?
Researching this question led me down a rabbit hole. We eat fish, crustaceans, molluscs, gastropods, insects, avian embryos (eggs), birds, amphibians (mainly frogs), reptiles (monitor lizards and snakes), mammals of all kinds (herbivore, omnivore and even carnivore!). We eat plants as the mainstay of our food. Cereals make up the bulk of our meals. In the Indian mainland, perhaps a close second are dals or pulses. We also eat hundreds of fresh and dried vegetables, grasses, fruits, seeds, barks (cinnamon and cassia), flowers, roots, stems (banana stem), and leaves. When you start totalling up just the raw materials that go into the human diet, you are faced with a gargantuan task and an endless list of material.
Further reading told me that the human species eats the greatest variety of foods of any species on this planet. No other species goes out of its way to add to the variety of its diet the way we do. This action is part of what seems to be an inbuilt survival mechanism and is the greatest evidence of our adaptability.
Once I got started, I realised that there is much we have discarded from our past diets. The Upper Palaeolithic archaeological excavations carried out by the late MLK Murthy at Muchchatla Chintamani Gavi caves in Kurnool yielded remains of wild asses, rhinos, wild boar, and a number of monkey species. They also consumed the meat of hares, mongoose, large rats (bandicoots), nilgai, gazelle, antelope, crocodiles, monitor lizards and frogs. So, 50,000 years ago natives living in the forests of Andhra Pradesh ate a wide variety of animal meats, in some cases wider than those we consume today.
A lot of this variety surprisingly has to do with a particular facet of human behaviour known today as neophilia. Neophilia is the desire to seek out the new, and is a term whose popularity is attributed to the cult writer Robert Wilson who refers to it as a ‘strong affinity for novelty’. In turn, he took it from a book by Christopher Booker titled, ‘The Neophiliacs: A Study of the Revolution in English Life in the Fifties and Sixties’. Essentially, neophilia is a tendency to like and seek anything new, be it food or any other source of experience. Neophilia is rarely reckless, it’s usually a fine balance between pursuing novelty and voiding harm.
Relatively modern neophilia is found in India via the example of the humble potato, which only made its way to our country about 300 years ago. In the time since, every community has developed a fetish for potatoes – imagine Punjab without paratha, Kolkata without biryani, a Marathi wedding without vange batatachi lagnachi bhaji. There is no region in India that doesn’t grow potatoes today, we have hundreds of varieties. Potato leaves and flowers are poisonous, so growers have to keep their animals away from fields. Indians are willing to adapt to anything.
We are also very happy to get on trends. Quinoa, kale, and avocado became popular, so we started growing them. When basa became big after we started importing it from Vietnam, we started local basa farms. The tasteless, boneless, skinless fish is great for the first time seafood eater in India. For the neophyte, this is contemporary neophilia.
But neophilia comes with some dangers too. Trying out new experiences can result in some very tragic results.
Many plants are toxic to humans and our affinity to try out new things can often end in tragedy. We still persist.
The reason the poison cyanide smells like bitter almonds is that almonds (and apple pips) contain cyanide. Wild almonds are deadly poisonous and yet humans have cultivated them and they are now a major source of healthy fats, fibre, protein, magnesium and vitamin E. The mind boggles at the thought of the first humans who cultivated almonds and took the risks associated.
So many of our plant foods are actually alkaloid poisons. Perhaps the most poisonous food eaten by us in India is nutmeg. A whole nutmeg would kill a child and leave an adult horribly sick, yet in small quantities that same nutmeg is an absolute flavour bomb. No wonder the Maharashtrians claim that nutmeg sprinkled kharvas (colostrum) is a great sleep inducer.
The entire concept of negative flavour pairing that the West is thrilled about lately? India was doing before it was a concept. Every time a new flavour is available, we want to pair it. Who would think that spices that belong in garam masala would enhance a Parsi pudding? Grandmas have used salt in payasam for centuries. It’s only now that the West has realised that salt in chocolate makes chocolate taste better. In India, we don’t even need new ingredients, we simply make new combinations from old ingredients.
The answer or counter to neophilia is neophobia – the fear of trying out anything new. This is perhaps, on a species-wide level, a good thing to have. The neophobes are probably the last line of defence for the species and ensure that there will be a viable population in any human group if we all end up poisoning ourselves.
It can be frustrating to have a friend or family member who just will not try out anything new, but on the other hand it might just be an evolutionary failsafe. So next time you want the thrill of trying something new do not ‘diss’ your friend who abstains. Who knows, you might need that friend to save your life.