Feasts in the East: Greeks on Indian Rice

In the Odyssey and in Greek culture in general we find an ethnography of eating habits, essentially, you are what you eat. In Homer, people eat cultivated food; monsters eat people. Even today we identify other cultures with what they eat. Most of our cultural awareness, for better or worse, derives from restaurant menus. Athenaeus provides a tour of the world, based on its peoples eating habits. His stop in South Asia rings true today.

Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 4, 153 (=Megasthenes fr. 38)


“In his second book of Indika, Megasthenes says that during dinnertime among the Indians each person receives a table of his own that is most like a tripod. On this is placed a golden serving-bowl into which thy first place rice, cooked the way someone might boil barley, and to which they add many delicacies prepared in Indian fashion.”

Μεγασθένης ἐν τῇ δευτέρᾳ τῶν ᾿Ινδικῶν τοῖς ᾿Ινδοῖς φησιν ἐν τῷ δείπνῳ παρατίθεσθαι ἑκάστῳ τράπεζαν, ταύτην δ’ εἶναι ὁμοίαν ταῖς ἐγγυθήκαις· καὶ ἐπιτίθεσθαι ἐπ’ αὐτῇ τρυβλίον χρυσοῦν, εἰς ὃ ἐμβαλεῖν αὐτοὺς πρῶτον μὲν τὴν ὄρυζαν ἑφθὴν, ὡς ἄν τις ἑψήσειε χόνδρον, ἔπειτα ὄψα πολλὰ κεχειρουργημένα ταῖς ᾿Ινδικαῖς σκευασίαις.


Rice is a relatively late arrival in the Greek lexicon. It often appears in conjunction with the east (as is the case with Diodorus Siculus, 2.3-4; and Strabo, especially Book XV C690). Aelian connects it with India too in Animalia 16.10

“People claim that among the Prasii in India there is a race of monkeys with human understanding. They look about as large as Hyrcanian hounds and they appear to have a natural front lock of hair. People who don’t know what they are talking about say these are artificial. They have beards like satyrs; and their tail is the length of lions’. They are white in the rest of their body except for their heads and the end of he tail where they are red.

These primates are prudent and naturally tame. They are forest dwellers and they eat the plants that grow wild. They frequent the villages around the city of Latege in large groups and eat the boiled rice which is set out by the king for them. This meal is prepared well for them every day. After they are full they return to their forest homes in an orderly fashion and they don’t ruin anything with their feet.”

10. Ἐν Πρασίοις δὲ τοῖς Ἰνδικοῖς εἶναι γένος πιθήκων φασὶν ἀνθρωπόνουν, ἰδεῖν δέ εἰσι κατὰ τοὺς Ὑρκανοὺς κύνας τὸ μέγεθος, προκομία τε αὐτῶν ὁρᾶται συμφυής· εἴποι δ᾿ ἂν ὁ μὴ τὸ ἀληθὲς εἰδὼς ἀσκητὰς εἶναι αὐτάς. γένειον δὲ αὐτοῖς ὑποπέφυκε σατυρῶδες, ἡ δὲ οὐρὰ κατὰ τὴν τῶν λεόντων ἀλκαίαν ἐστί. καὶ τὸ μὲν ἄλλο πᾶν σῶμα πεφύκασι λευκοί, τὴν δὲ κεφαλὴν καὶ τὴν οὐρὰν ἄκραν εἰσὶ πυρροί.

σώφρονες δὲ καὶ φύσει τιθασοί· εἰσὶ δὲ ὑλαῖοι τὴν δίαιταν, καὶ σιτοῦνται τῶν ὡραίων τὰ ἄγρια. φοιτῶσι δὲ ἀθρόοι ἐς τὰ τῆς Λατάγης προάστεια (πόλις δέ ἐστιν Ἰνδῶν ἡ Λατάγη), καὶ τὴν προτεθειμένην αὐτοῖς ἐκ βασιλέως ἑφθὴν ὄρυζαν σιτοῦνται· ἀνὰ πᾶσαν δὲ ἡμέραν ἥδε ἡ δαὶς αὐτοῖς εὐτρεπὴς πρόκειται. ἐμφορηθέντας δὲ ἄρα αὐτοὺς ἀναχωρεῖν αὖθις ἐς <τὰ> ἤθη τὰ ὑλαῖά φασι σὺν κόσμῳ, καὶ σίνεσθαι τῶν ἐν ποσὶν οὐδὲ ἕν.


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