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Food for Thought Curried Cultures

Understanding cultural paradoxes associated with Indian food in this age of globalisation

Written by Kaushik Dasgupta | Published: February 10, 2018 12:43 am
The essays in Krishnendu Ray and Tulasi Srinivas’s Curried Cultures try to understand such paradoxes associated with food in the “age of globalisation”.

Title: Curried Cultures: Indian Food in the Age of Globalisation
Edited by: Krishnendu Ray and Tulasi Srinivas
Publisher: Aleph Books
Pages: 328
Price: Rs 499

Food histories point to something deeply contradictory. Edibles have been part of long-distance human interactions centuries before the term globalisation acquired currency. Potatoes, tomatoes, and chillies travelled continents, tea and coffee were artefacts of thriving commerce and cultural efflorescence, and the spice trade is the well-known harbinger of the search for the new world.

But food has also been associated with the inward looking tendencies of humankind. Almost every society has rules of commensality. Eating and dining is known to cement social relationships but societies also set boundaries about sharing meals. Food is amongst the earliest gifts known to humankind. But it has also been cause of warfare. The flip side of the tea-induced change in the beverage culture in Britain was the barbaric opium trade, which decimated a generation of the Chinese and ruined cropping patterns and farmers in India. The spice trade was also the forebear of colonialism. Sugar plantations in the Carribean were amongst the earliest demonstrations of European power.

The essays in Krishnendu Ray and Tulasi Srinivas’s Curried Cultures try to understand such paradoxes associated with food in the “age of globalisation”. They focus on Indian food where globalisation often acquires a meaning somewhat different from its current usage, which confines the phenomena to the economic regimes of the past 25 years. Traversing national boundaries is the contingent definition of globalisation adopted by the writers in this volume. That, according to the editors, implies two things: “Globalisation becomes more visible after national boundaries crystallise and we witness the connections between various locales and the local and the supra-local”. Moreover, the connection of edibles with bodies make edibles “intensely local, in spite of their long history of distant circulation”.

The essays fill a breach. Works on South American, Chinese, Japanese, Mediterranean, American culinary cultures bear witness to the ways new nodes in global commerce joined previous networks of the capitalist economy. But there is very little on how South Asian cooking has become enmeshed in this process. While much has been made about the influences of films, literature and music, not enough attention has been given to how identities have been shaped by the movement of cuisines. Despite becoming part of urban cultures in different parts of the world, South Asian food remains wedded to the stereotype of “curried cultures”.

The title of Ray and Srinivas’s collection of essays is, therefore, an ironic but self-conscious play on the stereotype. It also emphasises the book’s focus on the sensory experience of food — and not on its association with nutrition. But this is not always about the pleasant aspects of food that is extolled in a lot of popular writings — the aromas and flavours. As Jayanta Sengupta’s essay in this volume shows, the Bengali Indian kitchen was excoriated in colonial discourse as a veritable purgatory. Sengupta also shows how this, in turn, led to a counter narrative which ridiculed colonial officials for their gluttony. Cuisine thus turned into a vibrant site on which the rhetorical struggle between colonialism and nationalism was played out.

All this inevitability leads to the tradition-modernity binary. Are South Asian culinary cultures a modern phenomenon or are they largely tradition? Stigt Toft Madsen and Geoffrey Gardella’s essay on Udupi hotels grapples with this question. Madsen and Gardella argue that the hotels have been instrumental in breaking down the caste barriers on inter-dining and in the unshackling of commensal orthodoxies. But they also complicate the picture by showing how Udupi entrepreneurs have fostered a religious revival by contributing to temple funds.

The restaurant as a site for culinary cultural interaction is another interesting trope explored in this collection of essays. In her essay on the Dum Pukht style of cooking, Holly Shafer explores how restaurants latched on to discourse replete with nostalgia for “lost” Muslim culture to transform historical cuisine into a commodity.

In his essay on “chaat cafes” in the US, Arijit Sen argues that these cafes are new “public spaces” that are products of a demographic restructuring of American cities. Sen contrasts these cafes to the Indian grocery stores in the US that appear regularly in the American media as symbols of exotic ethnic landscapes of expatriate Indians. Chaat cafes, in contrast, are places that accommodate practices of immigrants while also catering to the needs of the non-immigrant population.

The essays in this volume show how Indian food is negotiating the challenges of globalisation and is carving an identity that doesn’t always fit the traditional-modern (or Western) binary. In spite of the pioneering work of scholars like RS Khare in the 1970s, food studies are a recent addition to the oeuvre of Indian social sciences. The teething period must necessarily be short. For, food choices are increasingly becoming embattled and questions around what to eat and what not to eat have lost their innocence — if ever they had such a thing. The essays in Curried Cultures are a good beginning towards understanding this increasingly fraught aspect of Indian cultural discourse.

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