Legend has it that in 1757, following the victory of the British in the Battle of Plassey, the Debs of Kolkata’s Shovabazar, a powerful clan of moneylending princes, invited Lord Robert Clive for a celebration. A grand Durga Puja pandal was set up. Beef and alcohol, among other “blasphemous” items, were served even though the pundits conducting the puja rebelled. This version has been officially denied by the Deb family, but there is little doubt that the family patriarch Nabakrishna Deb’s friendly gesture to a small, powerful group of foreigners not only did wonders for his fortunes, but went a long way in influencing how Bengalis would celebrate Durga Puja in the years to come.
Cut to 2015. Three Indian states, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and the city of Bangalore have banned the slaughter of animals and sale of meat so as not to offend the Jains, a powerful, vegetarian minority, during Paryushan, their eight-day festival. The ban was also in place in Maharashtra, until Bombay High Court stayed it last week.
The politics of food runs deep. Delhi-based social activist Shabnam Hashmi says that in India, home to various religions and divergent cultures, it is believed that we are what we eat. “There has been a concerted attempt to project India as a vegetarian nation. The success can be attributed to the fact that the public space and popular culture have, for long, been dominated by Brahmins, a largely vegetarian community among the Hindu majority, and the culture they propagate,” she explains.
Consumption of non-vegetarian food, especially beef, has often been at the root of communal and caste politics and has been used to demonise the weaker sections of the society, such as Dalits and Muslims. In India, a rumour of cow slaughter is enough to trigger communal disturbance such as the Surat riots in 2007. “Many gau rakshak committees across India use this to extract money from butchers. Trucks carrying bovines, with legit paperwork, will be stopped and harassed and threatened till they grease palms,” says Hashmi.
Nativist and communal politics, however, would falter when confronted with the mindboggling variety of Indian cooking. Gitika Saikia, who organises food pop-ups under the name Gitika’s PakGhor in Mumbai to introduce the locals to the many culinary delights from the Northeast, says, “There are about 20 tribes in Assam and they all have distinct food habits. So those living near freshwater bodies will have fish, frog legs, mud eels and even water bugs. Larger protein sources include pork, goose, pigeon, duck and chicken. Some of these proteins are nothing more than side dishes or accompaniments, but others form a major part of the meal.” For instance, a particularly spicy preparation, which has red ant eggs, known as Amlori, as its principal ingredient, forms an essential part of Bihu celebrations in Upper Assam, which is where Saikia is from.
The way we eat has evolved due to geographical and climatic circumstances — fish and sea food are part of the daily diet of people living along India’s long coastline. Freshwater fish is eaten a lot more in the eastern and Northeastern stretch of India. Historically, people who live in northern and central India relied on vegetables and other agricultural produce. On the other hand, meat was eaten during the cold months in these areas as it was believed to induce heat.
Maharashtrians, including certain Bramhin communities, thus, are largely non-vegetarians. Even Shivaji, the cultural symbol of the community, or the Peshwas, were not vegetarians. “For instance, Konkani brahmins view fish as a vegetable from the sea and it forms an integral part of their diet,” says Dr Suhas Awchat, who co-owns Diva Maharashtracha, a popular Maharashtrian cuisine restaurant in Mumbai, along with his wife Deepa, a Konkani brahmin. The best-selling items at the restaurant are bharlela khekhra, which is crab stuffed with a mix of besan, spices and desiccated coconut, a speciality from the Konkan region, and Saoji chicken, a spicy chicken preparation, a Nagpur speciality. The famous Malwani or Gomantak cuisine, which uses a mix of dry and fresh desiccated coconut, uses a lot of Bombay duck and pomfret.
Food show host Kunal Vijaykar, a Maharashtrian from the Pathare Prabhu community, says mutton, a part of the food of his childhood, can be found across traditional Maharashtrian cuisines. “There are, after all, only so many Brahmins,” he says. He grew up relishing sookha mutton (an onion-tomato stir fry sans coconut) and the uncommon tazlyatya mutton (wok-fried mutton with full Madras onions, asafoetida and a hint of vinegar) and mutton paffat (mutton masala served with diced and sauteed French beans, carrots and potatoes), a dish they have in common with the Parsis. “On long drives to Pune, mom would pack the sookha and tazlyatya mutton. Wherever we would find a nice, shaded tree, we’d park the car, bring out the picnic basket and dig in,” he recalls.
Cuisines have, since time immemorial, been also influenced by a confluence of cultures. Potatoes, tomatoes and green chillies, today integral to Indian cooking, were introduced by the Portuguese. Another example is the cuisine from the Malwa Plateau. Mumbai-based home cook Anuradha Joshi Medhora runs Charoli, which organises pop-up meals based on recipes from the royal cuisines of central India. She grew up in Indore, a microcosm of the various culinary traditions that flowered in Malwa, particularly in the various thikanas or feudal estates that once dotted the region. The Malwa region was controlled by the Mughals, Rajputs and the Marathas at various points, in history. The royal kitchens in the dozens of small holdings — Indore, Gwalior, Ratlam, Sailana, among others — all developed their own style of cooking. “Red chillies are used liberally, especially a spicy regional variety called the nemadi lal mirch. This gives off a lot of heat as well as a vibrant red colour, which is enhanced by the use of oil,” she says. As befits food from the royal kitchens, ingredients like saffron, nuts and dry fruits are also used, although these Afghani influences get stronger the closer one gets to Bhopal. Shikar was a major activity and game was abundant, so besides mutton, jangli maas like deer, rabbit and peacock were also consumed. These were cooked simply with three basic ingredients — ghee, salt and whole red chilli. “It was nonetheless delicious because over the centuries the technique had been perfected,” she says.
No Indian state is entirely vegetarian, not even Gujarat, although the annual ban has been in place in the state for years now. By 8 pm, Ahmedabad’s oldest and most popular street for non-vegetarian food, Bhatiyargali, is bustling with activity. Giant tawas flank both sides of the lane, red-hot chicken churn in the tandoors and rows of tables and chairs are haphazardly organised along the sidewalk. On offer are paya mutton, mutton chop fry, chicken achari and other mouthwatering delicacies. Situated in a Muslim-dominated locality and surrounded by Teen Darwaja, Relief Road, Gandhi Road and Bhadra fort, the tiny street is a popular destination for students for its affordable pricing. The month of “Shravan” and the Paryushan festival have always meant that business dips at this time of the year, but the restaurant owners take it in their stride. “The meat ban affects those who offer beef. We only have goat meat, chicken and fish on our menu,” says 36-year-old Mohammad Zuber Shaikh, who runs Akbari hotel in the Bhatiyargali.
The forced abstinence as a mark of respect to Paryushan was implemented in Maharashtra in 1994, under Congress leadership four years ago. But the meat ban took off after the local Mira-Bhayandar municipal body announced an eight-day prohibition on animal slaughter. Similar bans in other BJP-governed states Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Congress-led Bangalore were announced. These were soon followed by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court order prohibiting cow slaughter in Muslim-dominated Jammu and Kashmir, supported by the region’s Kashmiri Pandits.
Traditionally, Kashmiris prefer mutton over beef, especially in the urban centres. But with soaring prices of mutton in the Valley, which makes it unaffordable for many families, the trend is slowly changing. A kilogram is sold at Rs 400 as against Rs 200 of beef.
When Srinagar-based Riyaz Ahmad Sheikh’s sister was getting married in 2007, his father threatened to break off the engagement if beef could not be served at the celebration. “The groom’s family from the Habakadal area of the old city didn’t eat beef but they had to relent,” says Sheikh, who lives in Humhuma, a city suburb. In his family, beef is a staple, be it at weddings, Eid or other celebrations. The High Court’s direction asking the government to strictly implement the ban on sale of beef in the state directly hits people like Riyaz. “It is not only an attack on our right to choose our cuisine but also an interference in our religion,” says Ajaz Ahmad, a businessman, from Solina, Srinagar. “Why should courts decide what we eat and what we shouldn’t?”
Social scientists point out that at its core, the politics of food deals with the more complex issue of “purity’, that is at the heart of the caste system. Pune-based Deepa Tak closely studied the correlation between food and caste while co-writing late academic Sharmila Rege’s Isn’t This Plate Indian? Dalit Histories and Memories of Food, along with Sangita Thosar and Tina Aranha. She cites the example of baluta in Maharashtra, the Dalits’ share in village produce in exchange for their services. “The Dalits and Valmikis are relegated to dealing with manual scavenging and carcasses of animals. Therefore, consumption of the flesh of the dead cow (beef) or the ‘unhygienic’ pig (pork) was forced upon them as were the goat innards. This impurity, in turn, added to their ‘untouchability’,” says Tak, adding that today, these meats are part of their cultural practices. Likewise, onion and garlic are considered aphrodisiacs and hence, their consumption is considered improper. The Jain diet, similarly, prohibits consumption of vegetable produce that grows below the earth, including potatoes.
In metros, however, meat has found a following among the well-travelled. A swish Mumbai restaurant, Bombay Canteen, is hosting a special food festival to mark Bakr-Eid where it will serve “delicacies” from every part of the goat, “from the nose to the tail”.
Elsewhere, meat plays an important role in caste assertion. “Serving beef has emerged as a mark of protest in Tamil Nadu, a state where the popular culture has been dominated by the upper caste Iyers and Iyengars,” says freelance journalist Kavitha Muralidharan, whose 2002 report on a Kanchipuram math with separate dining spaces for Brahmin and non-Brahmin students brought caste discrimination in urban spaces into sharp focus. While Tamil Nadu is chiefly perceived as a vegetarian state, in truth, this dietary preference is limited to the Brahmin population of the state. Home to the Dravidian movement which used non-vegetarian food as a counter-argument against the Brahmin discourse of “purity”, the state is famous for its Chettinad preparations of chicken, mutton and beef. Beef is also consumed as a stir fry with desiccated coconut (Hindus), tikka and kebabs (Muslims) and red chilli roast (Christians).
A few months ago, at one of the country’s premier educational institutions, IIT Madras, the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC), an independent student body, was briefly derecognised by the dean following complaints regarding their “political activities”. Among other things, this included circulars opposing the shutting down of the non-vegetarian mess on campus. “IIT Madras served only vegetarian food at its main mess since it began. This changed after a lot of struggle two years ago, but the rule was reinstated earlier this year. The institute is home to students from all parts of India and many consume non-vegetarian food,” says Akhil Bharathan, a member of APSC.
As dhoklas replace samosas in central government canteens, Madhya Pradesh leaves out eggs from midday meals of poor tribal children, the debate over food politics is only going to intensify.
In the latest, amidst all the anti-meat sentiment, a Hindu outfit has demanded a meat ban in West Bengal for the duration of the Durga Puja next month. The move, however, has united Bengalis across religions and caste, to protest the call for ban. Food forms an important part of the Durga Puja celebrations. At the community pandals, friends and families get together to savour street food such as rolls, cutlets, biryanis among other items. While the food consumed on Ashtami is vegetarian, mutton is considered a must on Navami. The most common preparation is kosha mutton, a spicy mutton curry best had with steamed rice. “We forge a bond with and through food,” says 32-year-old Sudeep Chakravarty, a Mumbai-based banker. “During Durga Puja, most Bengalis like to return home and food is the centrepiece of the celebrations, especially the non-vegetarian dishes,” he says.
If the legend about the Durga Puja is true, Nabakrishna Deb must be chuckling.
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