Skip to main content

Distributed for Reaktion Books

Feasts and Fasts

A History of Food in India

From dal to samosas, paneer to vindaloo, dosa to naan, Indian food is diverse and wide-ranging—unsurprising when you consider India’s incredible range of climates, languages, religions, tribes, and customs. Its cuisine differs from north to south, yet what is it that makes Indian food recognizably Indian, and how did it get that way? To answer those questions, Colleen Taylor Sen examines the diet of the Indian subcontinent for thousands of years, describing the country’s cuisine in the context of its religious, moral, social, and philosophical development.
Exploring the ancient indigenous plants such as lentils, eggplants, and peppers that are central to the Indian diet, Sen depicts the country’s agricultural bounty and the fascination it has long held for foreign visitors. She illuminates how India’s place at the center of a vast network of land and sea trade routes led it to become a conduit for plants, dishes, and cooking techniques to and from the rest of the world. She shows the influence of the British and Portuguese during the colonial period, and she addresses India’s dietary prescriptions and proscriptions, the origins of vegetarianism, its culinary borrowings and innovations, and the links between diet, health, and medicine. She also offers a taste of Indian cooking itself—especially its use of spices, from chili pepper, cardamom, and cumin to turmeric, ginger, and coriander—and outlines how the country’s cuisine varies throughout its many regions.
Lavishly illustrated with one hundred images, Feasts and Fasts is a mouthwatering tour of Indian food full of fascinating anecdotes and delicious recipes that will have readers devouring its pages.

336 pages | 50 color plates, 50 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2015

Foods and Nations

Food and Gastronomy

Reaktion Books image

View all books from Reaktion Books


“An irresistible edition to your kitchen shelf, the history inside is richer than any Indian dish you’ve ever tasted.”


“A comprehensive one-volume introduction to Indian food, embedded in a narrative that gains texture from history and cultural anthropology, and is attractive for the specialist and non-specialist alike. At a time when debates rage in India over the state’s interference in the food habits of the people, and in sporadic instances Muslims can be lynched by right-wing Hindu fundamentalists for eating beef, it is sobering to note Sen’s emphasis on the enormous diversity of food cultures in India, a diversity that has historically spawned grandeur as well as austerity, epicureanism as well as minimalism, and sustained a culinary tradition that has borrowed food ingredients and cooking styles heavily and openly from around the world.”

Times Literary Supplement

“Sen’s interdisciplinary history of the culture surrounding India’s food is a comprehensive addition to any library. Not only does the book examine India’s history and culinary developments from the prehistoric through present day eras, it also interweaves snippets of literary works and recipes that are now enjoyed worldwide. Sen follows various influences on modern Indian cuisine, including religion, climate, and colonialism, and concludes with a chapter on the assimilation of Indian influences in nations around the world, giving thorough insight into one of the world’s most diverse cuisines.”


“An ambitious tome which explores India’s various dietary conventions and religions through the ages.” 


“A richly detailed volume, with colorful historic images, some poetry ("Ode to Ghee") and a few ancient recipes. It begins with the prehistoric era, moves on to religious influences, the arrival of Marco Polo in the 1292, the development of regional variations, the Partition of India in 1947 and the creation of tandoori chicken, a relative newcomer to the Indian table.”

Chicago Tribune

“Although a rich variety of Indian foods has been enjoyed over the ages by countless generations in India and later the rest of the world, there have been few historical, cultural, and scholarly studies on the subject. This book amply fills that void. . . . The book offers readers an in-depth narrative at once interesting, informative, and insightful. Well researched with abundant notes and references, and interspersed with colorful pictures, this book will prove fascinating to Indian and non-Indian readers alike. Recommended.” 


“Sen’s volume is brilliant, concise, and well thought out. It would appeal to scholars, students, and food enthusiasts alike. It is a fantastic book to use as a reference, or even to retrieve classic Indian recipes from. The only warning to provide is to not read this book on an empty stomach. Sen’s book is a true delight!” 

New Asia Books

“In a surprisingly handy, 350-page volume, Taylor Sen harmonizes the diverse voices, traditions, and techniques that underlie the track of India’s culinary heritage without obfuscating a single note. This balancing act, in fact, serves as the focus of her enquiry: how does one speak of an Indian cuisine in the face of the multiplicity of sources that went into its making? Is there in fact a gastronomic culture in common to all Indians, and how does one begin to plot its contours? The answer, and one of the book’s strengths, lies in rooting cultures of consumption within religious, philosophical, and socio-economic frameworks. Feasts and Fasts posits food not as fuel but as an active, ever-changing product of 5,000 years of political upheavals, migrations and conquests, revelries and lamentation.”


“I wouldn’t be surprised if Feasts and Fasts is hailed as the best book of the decade on culinary identity.”

Indian Express

“India is home to some of the most colorful, varied and flavorful cuisines on the planet, so it’s a particular shame that Americans are familiar with a pitiful fraction of it. In Feasts and Fasts, food historian Colleen Taylor Sen seeks to broaden our culinary horizons with an in-depth look at the subcontinent’s edible history through its complex web of religious, moral, social and philosophical inner workings. There’s plenty about the origins of India’s widespread vegetarian practices, as well as the evolution of spice use across both culinary and medicinal spheres. And yes, you’re going to want to eat samosas afterward.”

Smithsonian, Best Books About Food 2016

Table of Contents


1. Climate, Crops and Prehistory

2. The Age of Ritual, 1700-1100 BCE

3. The Renunciant Tradition and Vegetarianism, 1000-300 BCE

4. Global India and the New Orthodoxy, 300 BCE-500 CE

5. New Religious Trends and Movements: Feasting and Fasting, 500-1000 CE

6. Food and Indian Doctors, 600 BCE-600 CE

7. The Middle Ages: The Manasolassa, Lokopakara, and Regional Cuisines, 600-1300 CE

8. The Dehli Sultanate: Ni’matnama, Supa Shastra and Ksemakutuhalam, 1300-1550

9. The Mughal Dynasty and its Successors, 1526-1857

10. The Europeans, the Princes and their Legacy, 1500-1947

11. An Overview of Indian Cuisine: The Meal, Cooking Techniques and Regional Variations

12. New Trends in Indian Food, 1947-Present

13. The Food of the Indian Diaspora



Select Bibliography


Photo Acknowledgements


Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press