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Cast(e)ing Food: Interrogating Popular Media

Eating and food choices are political acts, and nothing proves this more than the recent instance of hate crime where Mohammad Akhlaq, a resident of Bisara village of Dadri in western Uttar Pradesh was lynched and his son Danish brutally assaulted by a mob of villagers over a rumour that they had slaughtered a calf and consumed its meat.[1] The subsequent government inaction, and statements that such clashes take place when people's sentiments are hurt’[2] firmly place beef eating as wrong and anti-Hindu. Yet according to scholars like Gopal Guru and D.N. Jha, in early times brahmins ate beef, and beef-eating finds mention even in the Mahabharata.[3]

Aggression over the food choices of others is related to the way food habits define identities. One man’s food may truly be another man's poison. If the consequences can be fatal when the food is deemed sacred, violence is also associated with perceptions of foods as polluting. This is why you may not have heard of this folk song:

 

Patibharladdukaykamache, watibharpahije Matan

Aniwatibharmatanasathizurate man na ho

Bajarchyadivashimatannaseltaskasa divas legato bhanbhan

An watibharmatanasathizurate man na ho

 

Sung by dalit women, this song claims the superiority of dalit food over ladoos, which are generally associated with upper-caste food practices in majority of India. This affirmation of beef over sweets became significant when the upper castes used beef to push the dalit beyond the place of ‘civilized society’. These songs are then to be regarded as an effort by dalits to politicize their own food practices as superior to those of the twice born (Guru 2009).

 

With food being a substance essential for the very survival of all humans, its denial, argues Guru, becomes a violation of human rights. This is why in the context of the recent beef ban in Maharashtra and vociferous debate on Paryushan (Jain tradition) in Mumbai (countered by arguments on the right to choice, livelihood issues, and how India leads in beef exports[4]), it is important to underline that in India one's food choices are not purely personal but are determined by one's caste and community location, which place one in hierarchy where certain foods are deemed polluting, inferior, and sometimes non-Indian.

 

Take the case of how Mahars got their caste name. With scholars using food as the marker of the socio-cultural identity of a particular group, mahars became mahars because they were mrutahari ('those who eat dead animals'). Scholars constructed a cultural identity for the Mahars just because they ate the meat of dead cattle. In addition, the upper castes also trace the Mahar identity to their food eating habits. According to this Mahars are those who are Maha-ahari (those who are 'mighty eaters'). Similarly in U.P. and Bihar, the Musahari ('rat eaters') are untouchable. This effectively demonstrates how food practices are invoked to freeze the identities of certain social groups into cultural categories associated with savagery (Guru 2009).

 

Popular discussions around food reflect the brahminical understanding of what constitutes good food/taste, as argued by experts like Veena Shatrugna who point out how the government-accepted Required Dietary Allowance (RDA) in India reflects an adherence to an "upper-caste nutritional regime" that maintains India is vegetarian. In states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, eggs are not served as part of mid-day meal schemes, on the plea of budgetary constraints. This too points to the institutionalisation of a vegetarian model as the state version of acceptable and adequate food requirements. This when only 31% of India is vegetarian (CSDS Hindu CNN-IBN State of the Nation survey,  2006), and when vegetarianism is often a result of inherited cultural practices rather than individual belief. Experts have pointed out how the generalisations that prevail about vegetarianism lead to Indians missing out on protein, and to stunting in children among other problems of malnutrition in India. 

 

Definitions of vegetarianism are fluid in India, with the eating of eggs and chicken being seen as acceptable, especially after the onset of fast food. This narrows the discussion to pork and beef as sites for contestation. Mukul Dube argues how ‘non-veg.’ as a term is used by Indians alone (others say 'meat-eaters'), and ‘non-’ carries a negative connotation so as to suggest that eating meat is a reprehensible act.[5] In Maharashtra, Anna Hazare’s Ralegan Siddhi is projected as a model village, even as Mukul Sharma indicts Hazare’s deeply brahminical approach of imposing vegetarianism and forcing dalit families to adopt such a diet.

                                                                              

Thus it is amply clear that caste system and its hierarchies are reproduced and reinforced on various sites of culture, and caste-based discrimination is foregrounded in the discussions on food. Hence an analysis of mainstream media connected to food - TV/magazines/books/food shows indicate replication of such cultural hierarchies. This is evident even in the globalised economy that saw both a claim to modernity with recipes of ‘international’ food as well as assertion of the traditional which figured only the dominant castes’ tradition. Take Masterchef, which is a popular global format for a cooking show on TV, and in its fourth-year run in India as of 2015. Masterchef India was all veg. Produced by Amul and Adani Wilmar, it promoted itself as celebrating the rich Indian heritage of vegetarian food, with its celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor claiming ‘We are primarily a vegetarian country.’ Executives from Star Plus claimed vegetarian menus would make the show more ‘inclusive’, even as the show had meat preparations in its earlier versions, its winners prepared meat dishes and 60% Indians eat meat.

                                                                                   

The other dominant response is to marvel and express wonder. Surabhi, one of the oldest programmes on DD National, was a show that sought to discover India and its diversity. DD as the sole state player in the TV business played a crucial role in understanding and presenting Indian culture. The section on recipes from tribal communities in the show depicted their food practices as exotic. In one of the episodes they talked about how some tribal communities ate mouse and ant chutney. While this meant their food practices were mentioned, this didn’t give them universal legitimacy. It was discussed in the framework of survival, and not in terms of meaningful survival. Even in formats like "Lost Recipes of India" whose anchors travel to far-flung places in search of dying food traditions, the village is seen as monolithic, and caste never figures in the discussion about eating practices. In fact, if the possibility were explored, this format could highlight dalit food practices significantly.

 

A cursory glance at cookbooks in bookstores indicates how cuisines are designed according to community (Parsi Food and CustomsAnglo Indian Food and CustomsSindhi Cookbook) or place (Calcutta Cookbook) or style (Continental CookingTasting India). Neither of these fealture dalit food even as discussions on Kayastha ood and Iyengar Brahmin food exists. A celebrated book like the Essential Marathi Cookbook which traces Marathi cooking and recipes has no mention of dalit food. Interestingly it claims, "With its lack of preoccupation with meat, it is ideal for vegetarians." Similarly cookbooks in Marathi like Tiffin Sathi Chavdar Padarth ("Tasty Food for Tiffin"), Panirche Padarth ("Paneer Recipes"), Urlelya Jevanache Padarth ("Leftover Food Recipes"), Ek So Ek Andeka Fanda ("101 Egg Fundas"), Batatyachya Vividh Pakkruti ("Different Recipes with Potatoes"), Assal Marathwada ("Real Marathwada") and Upavasache Padarth ("Recipes for Fasting") do not mention dalit food recipes. This is to underline how knowledge emerges from one’s caste location so that a particular community’s food is made invisible.

 

In the research for this paper, we have often been asked whether we wouldn’t be stigmatising it by calling it "dalit food"? This is an interesting response stemming from one’s sense of privilege, according to which calling something Marathi food or Sindhi food is fine, but the fact that it is essentially upper-caste food generalised for the entire community escapes attention. It’s the classic "those who speak of caste are casteist" response. So calling dalit food would be casteist even as upper-caste food is called Indian food.

 

While ignorance is often touted as one of the reasons this hasn’t come to the mainstream, often it is the larger agenda of refusing to foreground one’s privilege and caste location that makes this a site of contestation. Drawing from Kancha Ilaiah (2007), notions of disgust are ingrained from childhood and if pure veg. eaters can eat non veg. outside or later in life, it only goes to show the power dynamics in relegating certain foods to inferior status. So much so that the "Chicken Song" from the popular Salman Khan film Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) has the lines:

 

Thodi biryani bukari,
Thodi phir nalli nihari,
Le aao aaj dharam bhrasht jo jaye…
Laao kofta, laao korma,
Laao shorba, laao sorma,
Saarey upvaas bhaley nasht ho jaye

 

Interestingly the song refers to chicken and mutton as non veg. and as bhrasht ('corrupting') agents, clearly invisibilising pork and beef.

 

The context of Maharashtra's agrarian crisis with its crop failures, recurring debt, farmer suicides, starvation and malnutrition has meant that its people are constantly battling for resources to ensure a decent meal a day. Vidarbha's late farmer poet Shreekrishna Kalamb's moving lines in Vasare throws light on the same:

 

We are calves, dumb hungry calves
we tend to the cows, thieves walk away with milk and cream
we sweat and sweat on the fields
we cultivate pearls, but out children remain hungry[6]

 

This magnifies with caste oppression as hunger plays an important role in Dalit writing in Marathi, especially autobiographies, and poets spew heart-wrenching details of yearning for food. Waman Nimbalkar's Mother holds these poignant lines: ...In our nostrils, the smell of food/In our stomachs, darkness...[7]

Similarly Namdeo Dhasal's "Hunger" avows:

Hunger, tell us your game, your strategy
If we can muster guts enough
We’ll fight you to the finish
Can’t crawl and grovel on our stomachs
Too long with you...[8]

 

This is why discussions on dalit food have to highlight their resourcefulness and ingenuity in cultivating cuisines and tastes from the resources available to them, an exercise to which they are forced by discrimination, but one that is marked by creativity rather than passive submission.

 

Assertion of food as a right is evident in the numerous beef festivals hosted by various bodies across the country to protest against the ban on beef in Maharashtra. During the beef ban recently passed in Maharashtra, it is interesting to note that even as Hyderabad, Kerala and Delhi saw beef festivals hosted by students on campus,[9] the response in Maharashtra was different. The 2014 demand for a ban on beef and pork in the TISS canteen in Mumbai met with resistance, but beef and pork were eventually banned on campus. Interestingly this saw Caste on the Menu Card (2014), a documentary made by the School of Media and Culture Studies students of TISS which explores how beef is seen as ‘filth’ by upper castes and how exclusion operates on the site of food.

 

Similarly, various dalit autobiographies assert the significance of food and the fight for survival. When dalit writing, especially in Maharashtra, started to be seen as literature, it gave recognition to dalit life narratives, and people started to see these as important accounts of dalit life. Through their narration, dalit writers discussed issues like caste-based discrimination and cultural practices, with food finding its way into every narrative. Autobiographies like Daya Pawar's Baluta (Marathi, 1978), Omprakash Valmiki’s Jhoothan (Hindi, 1997), Urmila Pawar's Aaydan (Marathi, 2003)[10] emphasised that food was not just seen as a necessity for human survival but was used to create cultural hierarchies.

 

A first and important contribution towards recognition of dalit food culture is Isn’t this Plate Indian? Dalit Histories and Memories of Food (2009).[11] It is an important exercise because it does not just document recipes and practices but is also an endeavour to record how resourceful Dalits were in making delicious food out of the resources available. It is their ingenuity and their skill that is accorded recognition along with recognising their knowledge and them as knowledge makers. Because just as commemorative practices indicate assertion and/or erasure of collective memories, so also documentation indicates recognising the contribution and skill of dalits. Another recent book on similar lines is Ann He Apurnbrahm by Shahu Patole.[12]

 

Similarly Navayana, an independent, anti-caste Indian publishing house,[13] has published books like The Myth of the Holy Cow (2009) by D.N. Jha that reveals historical evidence that India was always a meat-eating country. Jha has also written Holy Cow: Beef in Indian Dietary Traditions (2002) that pointed out that early Hindus ate beef. It has also published the Tamil poet N.D. Rajkumar, Give Us This Day a Feast of Flesh, where the title poem speaks not just of feasts of flesh but of its medicinal virtues: how eating frogs calms wheezing breath, and pork fat cures piles and "we keep the spine from collapsing with cow’s chopped tail”.[14] Individual efforts like those of Rev. Chandra Prasad who published a booklet Recipes in Resilience: 50 recipes with a Beef Menu in 2010 to protest against the beef ban in Karnataka[15] also asserted the right to one’s choice of food.

 

Moreover the role of language is crucial both to recognise dalit food as knowledge and as part of the Marathi asmita (identity). This is evident in the absence of culinary terms from dalit cuisine in the mainstream. While mainstream cookbooks, assuming a global audience, provide a glossary of ‘Indian terms’ like aamchur, it is crucial to ensure that terms used in dalit food recipes like wajadi (intestine), rakti (blood) and chanya (dried meat) find recognition as part of larger parlance.

 

Most dalit households strive to make the most of available resources, and we see this in the way ingredients are combined to make a tasty meal. Be it the use of water, or drying meat for later use, or reliance on jaggery (less expensive than refined sugar) or the masala, one sees the skill and rebellion against a system that relegates them to the bottom. Memories of food by dalit men and women[16] speak of dhapate (spicy bhakari) made for Dasera and preparations like sakrana for dessert. While beef is the most popular food, rakti is a delicacy made of animal blood that often figures in dalit memories about food. It is often recounted that rakti is obtained free because no one else uses it. Moreover dalit food recipes are full of items made of goat intestine, head and brain as favourites even as these are rejected by upper-caste eaters. Moreover dalit food sees use of vegetables like ghole and tarauda which can be grown anywhere and hence are easily available. Recipes see ingredients like dagdiphul and kali velchi as also barbara. Mouth-watering recipes of sukhat (dry fish), kudith, shengole and maande (thin chapatis made on overturned earthen pots)[17] add to the diversity on the plate. Preparations of mutton liver sees use of jowar with masala while karela (bitter gourd) is stuffed with mutton kheema (minced meat). Pork figures significantly in several memories with chunchuni (pig-skin preparation) and various styles of cooking pig meat. In fact items like malida use oil extracted from pork fat. A new mother is given chauni, a preparation made of jaggery, ghee, ajwain and water or harira to strengthen her. Items like chanya (dried meat) and churma (bajri bhakri preparation) can be stored longer and hence provide food reserves. It has been pointed out how a stigma was attached to the distinctive odour given out by chanya stored in dalit homes, even as within the dalit community, it was preferred to marry girls into homes that had sufficient reserves of chanya, as an abundance of dried meat was a mark of affluence (Guru 2009). Ingenuity in reusing food led to recipes using stale bhakris, and to practices like grinding watermelon seeds to thicken the gravy and give a distinct flavour. to mutton dishes, instead of throwing the seeds away.

 

Thus it is clear that the understanding of dalit food has to go beyond the framework of survival and locate it in the context of food as marker of cultural hierarchy. While the dalit movement and its literature have led to the growth of academic discussions on dalit food and culinary practices, the mainstream media does not discuss dalit food as knowledge. It often figures in the discussion in the context of beef bans, but never as a cultural practice. The mainstream either invisibilises this culture, or treats it as exotic, leaving no room for critical engagement. A diverse and ingenious food practice is hence lost to the Indian palette!

Recipes (courtesy Isn’t This Plate Indian?)

1. Rakti

Ingredients: Oil, Goat Blood, Onion, Red Chilli Powder, Salt

Process: Clean the blood well. Heat oil in a pan. Add onion and roast it till it turns brown. Add rakti until it is cooked. Add chilli powder and salt and fry.

 

2. Maande

Ingredients: Wheat Flour (2 cups), Curd (2 tsp), Salt to taste, Water (1/2 cup)

Process: Take wheat flour and add salt, curd and water. Knead it into dough. Divide the dough into small balls. Roll out these small balls into thin rotis. Roast them one at a time on a pan. Earlier roasted on hearth, this can be made both as salty or sweet versions.

 

3. Malida

Ingredients: Pork fat extracted oil, wheat roti and jaggery

Process: Take oil extracted from pork fat. With it, prepare thick wheat rotis. Then mix jaggery into crushed pieces of the wheat roti. This mixture is now ready to eat.

 

4. Chanya

Ingredients: Beef flesh, Salt

Process: Beef flesh is cut into long strips and dried under the sun for 2-3 days by hanging it on a rope. Once dry, it is cut into small pieces, roasted and eaten. Chanya can last anywhere between 8 to 15 days to few months.

  1. Kandawani

Ingredients: Onions (3-4 large ones), Salt, Oil (1 tbsp), Red Chilli Powder, Water

Process: Fry medium-sized onion pieces in oil in a pan. If there is no oil, simply roast in a pan. Add salt, red chilli powder and water. Bring to boil and serve.

 

 

 


[1] Saif Khalid, “Indian mob kills man over beef eating rumour,” Al-Jazeera, October 1, 2015. Online at http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/09/indian-mob-kills-man-cow-slaughter...

[2] Srichand Sharma, as quoted by Aditi Vatsa, "Dadri lynching: One BJP leader calls for a mahapanchayat, another blames victim, family”, Indian Express, October 2, 2015, online at http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/dadri-lynching-one-b..., accessed December 12, 2015; see also S.A. Aiyar, "A beef eating Hindu demands his right", Times of India, October 4, 2015, online at www.kractivist.org/a-beef-eating-hindu-demands-his-ight-beefkilling/

[3]  Nirad Chaudhuri’s ‘The Continent of Circe’ mentions the debate in the Vedas and how kings slaughtered 20,100 cows for his guests. Read Aiyar, "A beef eating Hindu demands his right”.

[4] Beef from buffaloes was the top agricultural export item in January 2015 according to Namrata Acharya in the Business Standard, January 15, 2015.

[6] Poetry used in P. Sainath’s documentary on farmer suicides in Maharashtra, Nero’s Guests (2009).

[7] "Mother" by Waman Nimbalkar, translated by Priya Adarkar, in No Entry for the New Sun: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Poetry (1992), ed. Arjun Dangle, Disha Books: Hyderabad, p. 36. Online at http://roundtableindia.co.in/lit-blogs/?tag=waman-nimbalkar

[8] "Hunger" by Namdeo Dhasal, translated by Shanta Gokhale in No Entry for the New Sun: Translations from Modern Marathi Dalit Poetry (1992), ed. Arjun Dangle, Disha Books: Hyderabad, p. 42. Also available at http://marathidalitpoetry.blogspot.in/2014/07/hungernamdeo-dhasal.html

[9] Groups like Ambedkar Students Association of University of Hyderabad hosted beef-eating festivals.

[10] Jhoothan (New Delhi: Radhakrishna, 1997), translated by Arun Prabha Mukherjee as Jhoothan: A Dalit's Life (Kolkata: Samya, 2003); Urmila Pawar, Aaydaan (Mumbai: Granthali Prakashan, 2003), translated by Maya Pandit as The Weave of My Life: A Dalit Woman's Memoirs (Kolkata: Samya, 2008); Daya Pawar, Balunt (Mumbai: Granthali Prakashan, 1978), translated by Jerry Pinto as Baluta (New Delhi: Speaking Tiger Books, 2015).

[11] Published by Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre, this was a Student-Centre partnership project that emerged out of the open course, "Caste and Gender in Modern Indian: History and Memory" floated in January-April 2009 by  Dr. Sharmila Rege as a part of the M.A. in "Gender, Culture and Development" at Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre, University of Pune. A bi-lingual collection (English and Marathi) of narratives documented by students of the course, this book was Dr. Sharmila Rege’s brainchild and the authors of this essay were part of the editorial team that recorded memories of food and recipes from dalit resource persons. This book is both a celebration of dalit food and its practices as well as a documentation of a history otherwise invisibilised. 

[12] Published by Janshakti Vachak Chalwal.

[16] Isn’t This Plate Indian?: Dalit  Histories and Memories of Food

[17] A dying tradition in the Mahar community, maande are eaten with spicy mutton or chicken gravy, and according to people's memories were eaten by Dr. Ambedkar when he went to Nagpur (Moon 2001). 

 

 

References

Guru, Gopal. 2009. Humiliation: Claims and Context. New Delhi. Oxford University Press.