Decoding Desire and Dining in India: A Hidden History of Food Hierarchy
“Food in India is closely tied to the moral and social status of individuals and groups.
Food taboos and prescriptions divide men from women, gods from humans, upper
from lower castes, one sect from another” (Appadurai, “How to make a National Cuisine”, 8).
The more we delve into the intricacies of any aspect of our being, the more we understand how inextricably linked caste is to us. It has consistently been the defining metric of every social, cultural, religious and gender-based phenomenon. In this article, we hope to explore food in India as another such caste based metric. In a country like India, with multifarious linguistic, religious and ethnic communities , food becomes a characteristic trait of every region.
It becomes a gateway to linking the individual with a larger idea of a collective; through social and cultural practices. Growing up, it becomes a way to express where one comes from and represent one’s community. It is futile to look at food as just something on a plate as it is an important marker of events, history, lifestyle and identities. The relationship between food and status is complex and multifaceted, varying across regions, communities, and individuals. India’s gastronomic landscape has been influenced by its myriad tribes, regions, religions and communities. However, beyond these complexities, lie the structural hierarchies of food. In a consumerist world like ours, where hedonistic pleasure places food outside the realm of caste, should we think more critically about the origin of our food tastes? Considering food is one of the first things we desire, in a world of culinary appropriations, do these desires even have a place to exist? Or do we create a web of sanitised history around food?
Food, Identity and Status
Most meals in India have a powerful presence of a main starch item such as rice, sorghum or wheat, a repository of calories and proteins. Food is a symbol of hunger, want as well as fulfilment and fertility. However, to truly understand the nuances of food in India, one must understand the status that comes attached with the kind of food one consumes.
An Iyengar Brahmin from Tamil Nadu has a completely vegetarian diet, heeding to the Sattvic tradition whereas a Bengali Brahmin is known to be quite the meat enjoyer¹. Contrary to mainstream knowledge, one can infer that the term ‘Brahmin’ seems arbitrary when it comes to attitudes towards meat eating Due to the prevailing system of “purity and pollution” (Dumont 2), it was believed that the aim of a caste was to prevent contamination from polluting objects, namely individuals engaged in unclean occupations or belonging to the lowest castes. Consequently, food became the backbone of this system. Dalit individuals, as B.R Ambedkar stated, were forced by circumstance to eat food which tainted them as Untouchables (Ambedkar 1948). Dalit culinary traditions have evolved throughout the country as a means of survival, originating from economic necessity and the imperative to adapt. Pork and beef became integral to Dalit cuisine because they were readily available and unwanted by the upper castes. Caste-base restrictions, vegetarianism, regional identity and access to luxury foods were pivotal in influencing perceptions.
At a point in time, our human race evolved from a rudimentary need for food, which was necessary for survival, to a complex desire for certain ingredients. What constitutes this desire? And how did we evolve in this transition? As stated by Gopal Guru, from our experiences with cooked food in particular, we have come to value the human context that gets added to food. This is not just the love with which food is made by our mothers, (which is another comment on the gendered associations of cooked food), but it also includes experiences of humiliation, struggle and solidarity (Guru 3). We realise how Bhakri becomes not just food, but a symbol of sustenance, how Puran Poli transforms to a symbol of revolution as discussed by Babasaheb (Guru 6). Cooked food becomes qualitative from quantitative, when human touch is introduced. But this goes both ways, and the word Jhootan, as seen in its usage by Om Prakash Valmiki, has been used to create a sense of self esteem against a food metaphor that is usually equated with servility² (Ponnudurai, Guru 5).
These references suggest the Dalit comunity’s preference for their own food choices, hinting at their diet and distinct identity rather than conforming solely to societal norms. This prompts an important question: Were these food preferences a product of their own community, reflecting their agency, or were they shaped largely by external Savarna influences? We have seen food gain a status when human values are associated with it. In the case of the Dalits, it no longer remains a mere source of survival, but becomes a reflection of how upper castes mark their supposed ‘purity. A resistance against this ‘purity’ can also appear through food.
Pati bhar Laddu Kai kamache , wati bhar pahije Matan,
ani wati bhar matana sathi zurate man na ho;
Bajar chya divashi matan nasel tar kasa divas legato Bhanbhan
An wati bhar matana sathi zurate man na ho³.
The above Maharashtrian folk song and its interpretation by Guru, portrays the reclamation of the self where a Dalit woman is claiming the superiority of beef over that of ‘pure’ vegetarian food like sweet ghee laddoos which are normally associated with the upper castes. As Guru states, this is an attempt to politicise their own choices, their own desires (16-17) The Brahmins stopped consuming beef when their faith, their status was in danger (Ambedkar), and this food became a tool for othering, but it still serves as a way of Dalit emancipation as seen in the above mentioned folk song. This folk song then serves as a symbol of radicalism and a renouncement of oppressive Savarna practices.
Theorising the Food Ladder
This article grounds itself in the ‘Sanskritization’ theory. Srinivas (529) observes that many of the oppressed classes would eventually stop cooking the cuisine that was a symbol of their survival, to climb up the caste ladder. The higher one would go on this ladder, the more restrictions would be applied to food habits. Access to certain foods and consumption choices can reflect one’s social status and aspirations for upward mobility. Foods seminal to Dalit identity such as blood fry, lost its significance in the attempts of Dalits trying to climb the caste ladder. Mary Douglas builds on the significant role of food taboos in maintaining and reinforcing the boundaries between different caste groups. For instance, higher castes may have stricter dietary rules, and their members are often prohibited from consuming certain types of food or interacting with lower-caste individuals who might handle or prepare such food (Douglas 61-81). On the other hand, lower castes may have fewer restrictions on their diet, but they may still face limitations on their food choices. Indian sociologist, Dipankar Gupta further contributes to the scholarship of caste and food in India, by emphasising that food choices often mirror caste-based identities and social distinctions, transcending religious boundaries (Gupta 24). In the next section, we will trace the many hidden implications of Dalit food habits and how their kitchens have been invisibilized since time immemorial.
Dalit Kitchens Unveiled
Any talk of food is futile if we forget to mention nutrients. A post by Chef and Author Saee Koranne-Khandekar reveals her stance on the relationship between social status and diet- the higher you are placed in society’s eyes, the less varied your diet is. She states that, “Traditional diets were limited and severely lacking in the variety that the same geography would provide a less privileged group” (Khandekar). Undesirable food such as Purslane (4) or Chival/Chighal in Maharashtra is rarely seen in the diets of higher varnas as it is a weed and considered to be a “saag that poor people eat” (Vaagdhara). The point she makes is that the accessibility of food hampers not just the creative but nutrient boundaries of what is consumed.
Even beef, tough and fibre loaded, is considered to be nutritious as a part of the Dalit diet. Although beef, pork, and these weed vegetables were discarded, unwanted by the savarnas, most dalit diets maximised these ingredients to create nutrition and taste. Coagulated blood, as used in Rakti (5), and consumption of Dalit cuisine by “post-caste” citizens who historically ostracised Dalits is a sign of this cuisine taking up space and challenging social notions (Yengde). The idea of zero food wastage, was primary to the Dalit diet, the sugar cane as well as molasses, were used in sharbats in Dalit households. Beef, pork, offal, and intestines; usually discarded and considered “dirty” by upper castes take the status of delicacy when upper castes eat it now (Ganesh). As Deepa Tak puts it, the Savarnas made them eat what they did, but what was considered dirty and impure was the Dalit’s consumption of food, even though the upper castes themselves ate the same things (Rege et. al 63-68). The disgust upper castes hold for Dalit cuisine is not so much for the ingredients themselves (such as prawns or clams which were primarily Dalit ingredients but are now consumed at fine dining restaurants) but for the people consuming them. These fine dining ingredients are now losing their casteist origins as symbols of oppression. Dalit kitchens are a sign of survivability and of sustenance.The trauma that these dishes and ingredients, vegetables and pulses carry is irreplaceable, and cannot be washed over by savarna two-facedness.
Colonial to Contemporary: Tracing external influences on food and caste
Gastronomic taste and consumption have often been the markers of someone’s caste in India, but an interesting journey has been tracing the evolution of the caste-food relationship, from the advent of colonisation to the present day global economy. Gandhi believed that the British insistence on meat consumption was a symbol of their cultural domination and disrespect for Indian traditions. By promoting vegetarianism, Gandhi aimed to reclaim Indian cultural identity and resist the cultural imperialism imposed by the British (Roy 64) . As British influence grew, so did the complexity of the politics of identity in India. The emerging Bhadralok intelligentsia in the 19th century, composed of Bengali Brahmins were among the first to consume beef as a way to challenge social orthodoxy. Or, at least they portrayed it to be so. Behind their fight against food fascism in India, was a superficial way of showing solidarity with Western ideals. Derozio (6) and his Young Bengal associates were challenging the rituals of Brahmanical Hinduism but only because it showed their progressiveness to be one with the Western Society (Das 105).
A relaxed attitude toward the eating of meat, at least in specifically demarcated spaces, was a marker of belonging to a particular, higher stratum of the middle class. We see, mostly in urban spaces, this ‘Indianness’ being reimagined as a ‘global, cosmopolita’ sophistication.. However, meat invokes desire as much as disgust as shown through both the upper caste reluctance to bring ‘polluting meat’ home and through the reluctance of Dalits to celebrate it as a part of their identity. Oppressed classes simply do not have the safety to celebrate meat as a symbol of their survival lest it becomes a potential cause of offence to others’ cultural sensitivities. Do global food patterns transcend social barriers in India? For that, we must look at the influence of the global economy on Indian habits.
Arjun Appadurai introduced the idea of “commoditization of cuisine” (14). He explores food, as it moves from being a traditional and localised practice to a commodity in the global market. Food is affected by cultural processes and social hierarchies, including those based on caste (Appadurai ,The Social Life of Things, 14-17). This concept was put to test by Chandrabhan Prasad, a Dalit entrepreneur and adviser to the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He founded a business called, ‘Dalit Foods’ as a social experiment to understand India’s role of caste stigma in commerce and how far progress has been made. Though it did not make much of a dent in the market for there to be any conclusions, it showed the stoic resilience of Dalit individuals, unwilling to hide in the shadows anymore.
Additionally, we note that beyond the moral threshold of their homes, many Brahmin individuals partook in the cosmopolitan, transnational way of diet. However, even the hope for utopian India without caste barriers becomes nullified given the rise of right wing nationalism in India. This shift in the political spectrum roots itself in identities strongly related to caste pride and jingoism.
In conclusion, food in India is not merely a plate of sustenance but a profound reflection of social structures, cultural practices, and power dynamics shaped by the caste system. Food consists of our most basic desires, we dream of food and shape our lives around sustenance. We were colonised for spices and yet we wish for these marginal culinary histories to not come to the forefront but to be relegated to the background without context. Food has always been a political question, and with accounts like that of Om Prakash Valmiki, it is ignorant of us to relegate that to a personal choice. The origins of our privilege can be seen in the food we eat, and the way we eat it, we just need to open our eyes to unveil our gastronomic histories. The food that the lower castes consumed is currently being appropriated by the upper caste individuals who partook historically in caste oppression. With globalisation comes a desperate need for creativity, a thirst for keeping pace with information technology. These cuisines taken out from their social history is indicative of another wave of oppression, exclusion, and ignorance.
Despite the vicious cycle of exclusion in the history of food, there is a need for an active effort to make a dent in the prevailing rhetoric. There is a need for celebrating and preserving the rich culinary heritage of Dalit communities by embracing traditional recipes, cooking methods, and ingredients that have sustained these communities for generations. Additionally, promoting Dalit owned restaurant businesses as well as advocating for regulations that ensure fair representation and opportunities for Dalit individuals in the culinary sector, might be a step towards dismantling historical injustices.
¹ According to one Virtual Tamil Brahmin forum, Iyengar Brahmins abhor all meat, onion and garlic (Blog). They hold traditional Ayurvedic beliefs that look at foods like root vegetables to invoke emotions like anger and lust and meat is associated with carnal passion. Bengali Brahmins on the other hand were mostly maritime people and known to indulge in fish and meat (Blog).
² “Jhootan,” in the context of Dalit literature and activism, signifies leftover, degraded food historically given to Dalits by upper-caste households, symbolising their subjugation and dehumanisation. The term reflects caste-based discrimination prevalent in traditional Indian society. Dalit poet Om Prakash Valmiki employs “Jhootan ” metaphorically to evoke self-respect against servility. “Jhootan” represents a transition from quantitative to qualitative and underlines the Dalit community’s reclamation of identity and agency from historical oppression. (Guru 5-6).
³ This folk song has been translated and discussed by Gopal Guru in his essay ‘Food as a Metaphor for Cultural Hierarchies’. It is a dalit oral folk song hence an exact translation in text is not given by Guru. We are relying solely on his interpretation of the song. The song illustrates a cultural scenario where a clear division exists between contrasting food concepts. One perspective involves a Dalit woman asserting the superiority of non-vegetarian fare (beef) over the vegetarian option (sweet laddoos), which is often associated with upper-caste culinary traditions in India. This preference for beef over sweets holds significance due to the historical use of beef by the upper caste to marginalize Dalits. By emphasising the value of beef over sweets, the Dalit woman rejects the notion that a basket of laddoos can replace a mere quarter plate of beef in terms of cultural significance. This viewpoint aims to elevate Dalit food practices over those of the higher castes, attempting to reshape what is commonly denigrated or considered unclean. (Guru 16).
4 Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is a carpet-like, succulent plant with tender leaves that boast a tangy flavour and are rich in nutrients like omega-3s, vitamins (C, A, E), and minerals. This weed grows abundantly in hot climates and is found everywhere from sidewalk cracks to drains (Vaagdhara).
5 “Rakti” refers to a dish that utilises blood as a crucial ingredient in Dalit cuisine from Western India. The incorporation of blood in culinary practices is not uncommon in certain regional cuisines. For instance, the Goan specialty known as “Sorpotel” is a pork offal curry that includes heart and liver, along with a significant component – pig’s blood. The term “sarapatel” itself signifies “confusion,” reflecting the diverse mix of ingredients. (Homegrown)
6 Henry Louis Vivian Derozio was a forward-thinking intellectual, who stood out as a pioneer among Indian educators for propagating Western knowledge and scientific ideas among the youth of Bengal.
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From L to R (Shreya Ganguly and Gul Mathur): Shreya and Gul are final year Political Science students from Lady Shri Ram College for Women. Their friendship forms the basis of their exploration of the world around them, as they delve into the complexities of politics, society, and human interactions, challenging each other’s perspectives and creating a bond that transcends the classroom.