Kitchens of the Past
By Ama H.Vanniarachchy Ceylon Today Features
“Everything happens in the kitchen. Life happens in the kitchen.”
– Andrew Zimmern
Kitchens are an essential unit of a household. Kitchens are the place where all family members share a meal together, work together to cook and clean. No house is designed without a kitchen or a cooking area. Even in buildings designed for other purposes, an area or a unit is dedicated to cooking and dining. The kitchens we know today are comparatively small to the kitchens we have had in the past.
Architectural evidence suggests that in recent history, Sri Lankan kitchens were large open areas and, in many houses, there have been two kitchens; one a larger outdoor one and another small indoor one. Today, kitchens are small and are equipped with modern facilities.
They are located inside the house, and in modern designs, kitchens are attached with dining areas and adjoined to the sitting areas too. This is how kitchens have evolved. But kitchens were not always like this. They were very different in the past.
Have you ever wondered what kitchens must have looked like in the very distant past? How must our ancestors cooked, preserved, and stored food and water, and how did they serve cooked food? How did they store their utensils? Well, I often wonder what would have been kitchens of the past and how would I cook if I was living thousands of years ago. This thought provoked me to do a little research about the history of kitchens. Although the research was interesting and fun, little study is done about ancient kitchens. Today I decided to share them with you and together we shall journey back in time to understand the history of kitchens.
Evolution of the idea of kitchen
Kitchens were the space where people would prepare and cook food. Therefore, since the day our ancestors decided to eat, the birth of the kitchen happened. Now don’t get me wrong. These were not actual kitchens that you think from a modern sense.
These earliest or the first kitchens were the space where our human ancestors who were hunter-gatherers would keep their food and use fire to ‘cook’ them. This was an open space in their cave settlements and mostly the fireplaces were lit in the open. Cooking was just basic.
Food (meat, grains and potatoes) were burnt. Hearths were not in use and there were no utensils and furniture. Gradually as our ancestors learnt agriculture and animal domestication they settled in permanent settlements. Varieties of food grew in number and they experimented with more ways of preparing and cooking food. They also learnt to store and preserve cooked and uncooked food.
For these purposes a separate space was required. Storing jars, different types of utensils, and hearths were needed. Jars and space were needed to store water. These early jars and hearths were made of clay. Stone and wood was also used to make utensils, jars and other equipment. In later times, iron and metal were used to make more kitchen equipment and tools.
Containers and bags made of animal skins, dried parts of trees and plants were produced in historic times. As the populations grew, as the food needs of the families grew, the kitchen grew larger with more facilities. Fitting into these requirements kitchens evolved into more complex units.
Archaeological evidence of kitchens were discovered in the Indus valley civilization. Remains of ancient kitchens are also discovered in Egypt. These are small spaces within the household with a clay oven. The pharaohs and the elites had larger kitchens with many ovens. There have been a variety of utensils. In China archaeologists have discovered evidence of ancient kitchens.
The kitchens of the commoners were small and often located close to the pigsty. And, toilets were linked to pigsties to discard the feces as food to the pigs. It is believed that the Greeks first built kitchens away from the main house along with store rooms. Ovens were made of clay. A variety of utensils were used by the ancient Greeks.
Ancient Rome is home to more explicit evidence of ancient kitchens. Pompeii is a place where you can witness ancient kitchens. Their kitchens were separated from the house.
Storage rooms, number of ovens and the space depended on the wealth of the owner of the household. In ancient Sri Lanka, evidence of kitchens and dining halls for monks were discovered in ancient Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. Most of the kitchen spaces we know today are units of monasteries. Large stone boats were used to store rice, porridge and water. Drainage systems, wash basins and clay pipes were also discovered.
A variety of clay and ceramic jars and storage containers were discovered in many historic sites which were used to store food and water.
Why is studying about ancient kitchens important?
The early history of kitchens needed to be studied further. Kitchens are all about how our ancestors ate, prepared food and served them. The size and the facilities of the kitchens depended on the socioeconomic hierarchy. In Sri Lanka, although we have seen evidence of kitchens of the royals, monks and the elite, we need to discover and learn more about how the commoners and the peasants ate, and prepared their food.
We need to study and understand about the ancient lifestyles of the common people, as they were the majority of the society and the entire society’s economy depended on them. Kitchens of the commoners also reveal a lot about the society it belongs to.
It talks about what people ate on a daily basis, what technology they had, what equipment and tools they used based on their financial states, how hygienic they were, and what importance they gave to food. Based on these we can understand the technology, knowledge on food science and physical health they had.
Overall, a kitchen tells us about the economy of the household. This is a good indicator for us to understand the socio and economic conditions of past societies. Kitchens also reveal about foreign influences and about agriculture and ancient food production.
Kitchens also reveals to us about the ancient food culture of our people and through that we can understand the importance they gave for culture, aesthetics and arts (the utensils, how food are decorated and served, recipes and so on. are all about ancient societies’ belief systems and what importance they gave for culture and arts).
Also, most importantly, kitchens are the place where the women of the house spend most of their time. Especially mothers and wives played the lead role in kitchens during ancient times, when gender specific roles were given a priority.
Hence, studying about ancient kitchens of the commoners is important to know about the lives of ancient females. “The kitchen is the heart of every home, for the most part. It evokes memories of your family history.”
– Debi Mazar