A study conducted on the Japanese island of Koshima in the Fifties revealed a surprising outcome: monkeys, after being encouraged to eat sweet potatoes by humans, learned how to clean the sand off the skins and salt them to make the potatoes more appetizing. This knowledge was passed along from one monkey to another, until the seasoning of food eventually became a habit of the species as a whole. But monkeys aren’t the only members of the animal kingdom who practice something akin to the human way of “cooking”. And the image of animals using utensils or engaging in table time rituals isn’t merely the stuff that cartoons are made of.
The rodent hero of the film Ratatouille, with his chef’s nose, has companions with similar talents in real life. Take, for instance, animals who learned to perform “human” tasks: the octopus is so cunning that it knows how to unscrew a lid off a jar and devour its contents.
Some types of birds, like the common blackbird, are so attracted to shiny objects that—back when milk used to be delivered to homes in glass bottles—they learned to tear open the foil toppings and drink the layer of cream from the top. When the level of the liquid got too low, they would pick up small rocks with their beaks and drop them into the bottle.
In many scientific experiments, crows have proven themselves to be capable of using up to three different tools to perform different actions: opening a container, extracting its contents and eating them. Chimps, when hunting for termites, use sharpened sticks as if they were nature’s answer to toothpicks.
Adopting human habits isn’t always positive, however, and many get into trouble when their hunt for food brings them too close to civilization. There was the sad case of the Colorado bear, who, letting himself into a car where somebody had left peanut butter sandwiches, he somehow released the clutch and the car started rolling downhill.
But animals, of course are “driven” by their instinct for food, and there are some tastes for which certain animals would do anything: bears famously love honey, horses go mad for carob, mice—of course—can’t resist cheese. Wild boars love grapes, many zoos feed their animals frozen fruit popsicles during the summer months, and our ever-loyal dogs, like many of us, are helplessly addicted to chocolate—even though it has a toxic effect on canines.
Clever manufacturers of pet food, however, are beginning to create dog treats with just enough cocoa to get dogs drooling, but keep them healthy. But some of the most astounding culinary feats are those performed by the lowliest of insects.
A kind of ant known as the Leafcutter, actually grows its own food: the ants cut off leaves and places them on piles, then covers them with saliva and waits for mold to grow—with which they feed their babies. The male Casanova spider, when trying to attract a female, will capture an insect and then present it to her—a kind of romantic dinner to precede the mating process. The red squirrel, when short of nuts during the winter months, will poke holes in a maple tree and lick off the syrup; to preserve its food from spoiling, the burying beetle uses techniques quite similar to the ones our grandmothers used for canning tomatoes or jams.
Dal is one of those recipes that goes all the way back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. Unlike dishes such as biryani, brought to India by the Moghuls, it is one of those foods that has always been there. It is therefore a building block of Indian culture.