Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Bread for thought and thought for bread

Despite being a Bengali and way too fond of my rice and fish combo, I have a thing for wheat. Wheat in any form, baked into bread, leavened, unleavened, flat, loaves, fancy, whatever; non-bread as in pasta and noodles; stirred as thickening and taste-enhancer into sauces and gravies. Nothing like the smell of a freshly puffed phulka coming off the fire and on the plate, eaten plain or with a smear of ghee, dipped into daal or if you prefer, into honey. I can eat it straight without anything at all, standing right next to the hob, so hot that one has to move it from hand to hand, the morsel from left cheek to right, searing on the palate. Bread is the ultimate comfort food. Let the gods keep their ambrosia and amrit and whatever other godfood there is. 

The Longest Connection 

Wheat has the longest connection with humans.  It was among the first grains cultivated somewhere in the Levant around 10-15,000 years ago. The switch from nomadic hunter-gatherers to settled agriculture was made on the backs of wheat precursors. It started with gathering wild grass seeds for eating, and then someone, very likely a she, got fed up of all the trudging over rough terrain to find the next patch of einkorn, maybe also of the packing and unpacking of heavy stone tools, and the rounding up of screaming kids and looking for a cave dry enough and warm enough to sleep the babies already!  So she saved a handful to scatter on the soil next to the current camping grounds, and of course there was no moving out of that den till the seedlings came up and yielded their seed, and then she saved a handful of that yield to plant the next season.   

Meanwhile, the hunters found it more and more tedious to have to keep up with the herds of bisons or whatever, and bring back the kill over increasing distances to the same spot from which the women refused to move because some straggly new seedlings had come up.  So the men got hold of some wild animals, sheep and goat, and penned them in. They were fed the leftover grass stalks and they were happy and gave meat and milk, and the latter was curdled in the sun and the first yoghurt and cheeses were made. Presto, the Neolithic Revolution and settled agriculture!  And before those hapless humans knew it they had become settlers from nomads, producing insanely beautiful rock art to decorate their homes; comparing the merits of this patch of soil to another, and whipping up livestock races, for all we know.  Laying the foundation for suburban competitiveness and keeping up with the Joneses - "Arrey, uski gufa meri gufa se safed kaise?!" and leading to all manner of delicious and marvellous stuff such as sewage treatment systems and custard sauce.

Unleavened flat breads, to which category our chapati and phulka belong, have an even longer connection, because they were being baked much before we learnt to grow the grains. The first breads were being baked 30,000 years ago, from pastes of wild cereals, the foreparents of grains such as barley, rye, wheat and oats in Europe. Bread wasn't the staple it is now, obviously humans ate it as and when they found the wild grasses, and it formed only one of the food sources.   That changed with settled agriculture in the Levant, and grain based cultivation meant the wide and steady availability of bread, and so it gradually became a staple, eaten at every meal with varying accompaniments.  Initially, wheat bread was reserved for special occasions, and coarser grains were used for daily meals.  By 500 BCE, baking and retailing of bread had evolved into a specialised profession, people could buy breads and cakes from a baker's shop in Athens in Antiquity.

..and a powerful symbol

It is not clearly known what languages were spoken in the Stone Ages, but our languages today certainly celebrate the primordial connection we have with bread.  Bread remains a powerful symbol across the world, in religion, in politics, and in literature.  Our needs are summed up by "do waqt ki roti"; we "break bread" with someone close; we have one or more "bread-winners" in our families; we ask for our "daily bread" in our prayers. Unrest at increasing prices or shortage of food is labelled "bread riots".  In ancient Rome, rulers had a simple maxim of "the bread and circuses" - in other words, keep people fed and entertained for stability. Marie Antoinette's famous (but likely falsely attributed) statement "let them eat cake" (instead of bread) is supposed to have led to the French Revolution.  And don't even get me started on the symbolism of bread in literature - from Hansel and Gretel's breadcrumbs via Khayyam and Rumi's mystic poetry to Neruda's romantic verses, bread has symbolised guidance and abundance and life itself.  

"A loaf of bread," the Walrus said,
"Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed--...”  (Jabberwocky, Lewis Carroll)

I think I shall stop on that note, there really can't be anything more to add after that. 


  1. What is amazing Nila, is how many varieties of bread there are. It really is the 'staff of life'.

    1. I know! I tried counting, then gave up...what also intrigues me is that bread became a commercially produced item in Europe and places influenced by it such as North Africa pretty early, whereas it remains largely an individual household activity in my culture...made me wonder....is it because rice took over in the east,or we eat it unleavened mostly, or something else? .....thanks for clicking over here :)

  2. My favorite memories of childhood are the days mom baked bread, the smells were so warm and comforting, the cinnamon rolls that came out at the end, mouthwatering. But oh so fattening! LOL The 'stuff' of memories too!

    1. Oh, completely agree. Nothing like the smell of fresh baked mum's bread/cakes.