How Indian are you if you eat poha? At an event in Indore last month, Kailash Vijayvargiya, general secretary of the BJP, spoke of the “suspicious” eating habits of some workers at his house. He said, “They were eating only poha (flattened rice dish)… I suspected these workers were residents of Bangladesh.” This observation befuddled many around India who eat poha in different ways — from the Gujarati jada poha chevdo and the Maharashtrian kanda pohe to the Bengali chire doi and the Malayali aval nanachathu. It spawned impassioned opinion pieces, as well as numerous jokes and memes, with Indians claiming the right to eat as much poha as they want.
Vijayvargiya’s statement would have been easy to dismiss if this hadn’t been a country where what you eat determines how you are perceived. Ishita Dey, food anthropologist and assistant professor of sociology at South Asian University, Delhi, recalls an interview with a migrant domestic worker from West Bengal. “Even in Delhi’s migrant population of workers, there is a constructed notion of ‘us’ and ‘them’ at work. Bengali-speaking, Nepali-speaking and Hindi-speaking workers may all be migrants, but there is always an ‘othering’. The Bengali-speakers eat fish and rice and when I was interviewing them for my project, they told me that they are often referred to as ‘Bangladeshi’ by other migrant workers. One of them told me, ‘When the police raid our shanties, we can hide the bottles of mustard oil, but we can’t do anything about the smell of fish which lingers in our small, poorly-ventilated homes’,” says Dey, who had interviewed domestic workers for a research project ‘Migrant in the City’, supported by Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group and a recently concluded collaborative art research project (with Dr Mohammed Sayeed of OP Jindal Global University) on smells of Delhi, supported by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Delhi.
This othering is universal. Food is one of the ways in which we express and communicate our identity, and some of humanity’s most ancient prejudices are linked to the food of “the other”. These days, the earliest manifestation of this prejudice is in the school-going child’s disdainful declaration — “your food smells weird” — and it is weaponised as name-calling (for example, the derogatory name kraut for Germans, drawn from sauerkraut), the denial of housing and other facilities (such as when Indians abroad are denied housing because curry “stinks”) and stereotyping (all Muslims eat biryani, for instance).
In India, most food-related prejudices have their roots in the caste system. Saumya Gupta, assistant professor of history at Delhi University’s Janki Devi Memorial College, says, “In the early Vedic age (1500-800 BC), there are references of meat consumption with the Brahmins also partaking of meat, especially that which was consecrated through ritual sacrifices. But from the later Vedic period (800-500 BC), as the Upanishadic tradition started questioning animal sacrifice and the doctrine of ahimsa propagated by Buddhism and Jainism gained ground, Hinduism itself underwent a metamorphosis. Among other things, food was central to that transformation.The denial of consumption, especially meat, became the standard set for the Brahmins. The caste gradation determined what you were allowed to eat. For example, Kshatriyas were not expected to be vegetarian, but they couldn’t eat beef. And for those who were shunned and fell outside the caste system, there were no strictures.” As BR Ambedkar noted in The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables (1948), “There is one taboo against meat-eating. It divides Hindus into vegetarians and flesh-eaters. There is another taboo which is against beef-eating. It divides Hindus into those who eat cow’s flesh and those who do not. From the point of view of untouchability, the first dividing line is of no importance. But the second is. For it completely marks off the touchables from the untouchables.”
Vegetarianism was not the norm even for those within the caste system, but over time, adopting it signalled upward mobility. “When the British first started taking a census of India, many castes adopted vegetarianism in order to be counted as forward castes. It became a Sanskritisation technique,” says Gupta. The connection between ancient caste-based food strictures and the debates over food and identity which continue to rage is clear. The taboo on beef consumption, for example, informs a certain idea of being “Indian” today. But as has been documented in works such as Shahu Patole’s Marathi Dalit cookbook Anna He Apoornabrahma (2015) and the Sharmila Rege-led book project Isn’t This Plate Indian: Dalit Histories and Memories of Food (2009), beef is an important part of many communities’ diets, including that of the Dalit communities.
But what happens when what is taboo for some people becomes illegal for everyone, as has happened with beef bans in many states? Apart from the loss of an important source of nutrition as well as livelihoods associated with the production of the food, a homogenous food culture is imposed.
Then there is shame, which makes its insidious effects felt even before food deemed taboo or disgusting by those with more social and economic cachet is made illegal. In a TEDx Talk last year, titled Food and Shame: Reclaiming Vanishing Diets, journalist-turned-wild food-advocate Aparna Pallavi talked about the shame felt by indigenous people about foods such as insect larvae, which have been eaten — and enjoyed — by them since time immemorial. “One upper-caste, vegetarian school master gets appointed in a school and within weeks, children are telling their parents that it’s yucky to eat crabs or sinful to eat meat.” Disgust or shock at what other people eat is a failure of the imagination. Writer and activist Urmila Pawar, who grew up in the Ambedkarite community in Phansavle, Maharashtra, says that most people growing up in Dalit communities are made to feel ashamed of how different their food is from the food of the upper castes. “But as you grow up, you begin to understand that Dalits ate what they did because, thanks to the society, they would otherwise starve. So now, we are no longer ashamed of the food we have traditionally eaten,” she says.
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