What’s cooking in India?
My earliest childhood memory has to do with food. It is fitting that this flashback, which I can recreate as if it happened yesterday, has nothing to do with flavors, textures, smells – the usual associations with food. I have a deeply political moment. I am five years old, probably six, and am in Calcutta (Kolkata) to visit my cousins. This is in the early 1970s, a time of enormous upheaval in West Bengal. The Congress government in the state is battling Naxalite violence and the rise of Jyoti Basu, then a Young Turk of the communist party. It was a time of great financial stress and food shortages; the scars of the Bengal famine of the late 1960s and the 1971 war with Pakistan were yet to heal.
After a sumptuous meal – made even more memorable by the first-ever taste of frog’s legs – came the command: all the food on one’s plate had to be finished. All. Even a grain of rice could not be wasted, you see, as Bengal’s poor children did not have enough to eat. There was an incentive to sweeten the deal: the child with the cleanest plate would get an extra serving of rosogolla. And so, six children were frenetically speed-licking their plates for “inspection”. There’s so much I learnt that day: moderation, cleanliness, empathy…
Actually, the family – the smallest and most influential unit driving change in India today – is no stranger to the politics around food. It thrives on it. What should be eaten, who can cook it, what must always be served, what is forbidden – these decisions play out at dining tables across this country. In pre-liberalization India, the family had greater control over food choices. A generation ago, the biggest battles were over introducing food brought from outside the home, or, for vegetarians, bringing in the egg or chicken into the weekly meal plan, because it would “make the children smarter, stronger and taller”.
Emboldened by an anti-Muslim sentiment in many states, the BJP is allowing the situation to fester. Ultimately, the worse sufferers of cow vigilantism are Muslims and Dalits. As a HardNews reportage into what we have dubbed ‘political vegetarianism’ (an all-round targeting of non-vegetarian food by the state) shows, it serves a purpose: cowing down and subjugating communities that are dependent on meat for livelihood.
The change met with resistance: Remember the uproar when Maggi noodles were lapped up by eager Indian consumers in the 1980s? History will bear witness that the Indian mother has quietly and politically, one must stress, been the driver of change in kitchens. There are many such change agents – good, bad and ugly – in this HardNews special annual issue on food.
In fact, not too long ago, in 2000, The Cambridge World History of Food explained why India doesn’t have a tradition of eating out: “the quest for purity is too strong”. Today, from Ethiopian and Japanese to Italian and Arabic, our cities, large and small, have so much choice when it comes to food types. No ingredient is too hard to find, no cuisine too exotic to master, no street food that hasn’t been converted into fine dining. Like in the West, processed food has made a big entry into our lives, for good and bad.
A combination of convenience and upward mobility has driven this booming food industry. A younger population is seeking out diversity in regional cuisine. Funky domestic restaurant chains are serving up exciting versions of traditional Indian food, like Goan restaurants, which are sprouting all over. Or food from East Bengal – any visitor to New York knows instantly that the best cooks are from Bangladesh. But it is only recently that food from East Bengal has been given its due in India, writes food researcher Pritha Sen in a rare personal piece on partition and food. Many Indian food forms are being celebrated the world over – for instance, the latest rage in New York is in classic, south Indian food (for some broad direction, take a look at Ratna Raman’s tour de force on Appams and Paniyarams). Needless to say, this is a far cry from generic curry-vindaloo tag Indian food earned in the UK not so long ago.
This is not to say that India doesn’t retain traditional values when it comes to food. Many of these values are deeply ingrained in caste, hierarchy, and religion. Amongst the Hindus itself, food is much more than a means for survival – it is also essential for living, underlying the moral and the ritualistic. India has also been strongly influenced by the Islamic approach to food – they see food as a means to enjoyment, as it is a gift from the Gods, and for sharing within the community. It goes without saying that Indian food is celebrated for this diversity (fine pieces by Mehru Jaffer and Salma Husain examine Arabic, Turkish, Iranian influences on Indian food habits).
How then does one explain the alarming trend in recent times of restrictions and hatred around food choices? What began as a move to curtail the sale and consumption of beef has morphed into an overall attack on meat consumption in the country. With the central government – and some states -- turning a blind eye to the activities of anti-meat crusaders, a way of life is under attack. An easy explanation for “dietary fascism” (as Professor Krishnendu Ray of NYU puts it in an informative interview) is that it is a reaction to the enormous changes in food choices. But that doesn’t ring true – Indians have endorsed wholeheartedly embraced new forms of food. In any case, over two-thirds of Indians consume meats and egg – and these are not habits that can be changed or force-fed to hundreds of millions.
Or, has the Indian vegetarian become more intolerant? By its very nature, vegetarianism means abstinence from meat – however, some do harbour an aversion to meat eaters. Do note that this negative feeling only gets fuel in a supportive political environment. Ambivalence towards the anti-meat crusaders suits the political goals of the Narendra Modi-led BJP government – and ideological parent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, RSS – in the North and West India. Emboldened by an anti-Muslim sentiment in many states, the BJP is allowing the situation to fester. Ultimately, the worse sufferers of cow vigilantism are Muslims and Dalits. As a HardNews reportage into what we have dubbed ‘political vegetarianism’ (an all-round targeting of non-vegetarian food by the state) shows, it serves a purpose: cowing down and subjugating communities that are dependent on meat for livelihood.
There are limits to this strategy, as there are more meat eaters among Hindus than the other religions put together. What then explains the acceptance to these deep-rooted attacks on food choices? At a primal level, Indian consumers are taking note of the restrictions being sought on meat only because it is perceived that it has the backing of the powers that be. That explains the acceptance of food being removed from canteens and the restrictions on the supply and sale of meat. It helps that while India is largely non vegetarian, people eat relatively small amount of meat. Interestingly, as a HardNews report from coastal states and southern India reveals, there is the new phenomenon of the emergence of militant meat groups, promoting non-vegetarian consumption.
Food remains a sensitive and deeply personal matter. Sadly, some sense of that has been lost over the past few years. My maternal grand-parents had some form of meat every day, and my paternal grand-parents consumed chicken perhaps a couple of times a year. Both sets loved their food, followed their routines, and the family deftly navigated joint meals with respect to each other’s choices. Both sets lived long and healthy lives. That’s some food for thought.