The poor man’s plate

India’s culinary diversity, ranging from vegetarianism to meat-inclusive diets, is overlooked by narratives that focus on upper-caste traditions.

Published : Jun 03, 2024 16:30 IST - 7 MINS READ

Do writers feel that the cuisine of a region is defined and limited by the food culture of the upper classes? 

Do writers feel that the cuisine of a region is defined and limited by the food culture of the upper classes?  | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ iStock

A landmark publication in Marathi, Shahu Patole’s book Anna He Apoorna Brahma was the first to document Dalit food history through the culinary practices of two Maharashtrian communities—Mahar and Mang. Fashioned as a memoir with recipes, it explores the politics of maintaining social divisions through food, along with a commentary on caste-based discrimination—what food is sattvic (pure) or rajasic (fit for a king), what is tamasic (sinful) and why.

Now translated as Dalit Kitchens of Marathwada, this book presents the poor man’s patchwork plate, one devoid of oil, ghee and milk, and comprising foods not known to Savarna dictionaries. It also examines Hindu scriptures that prescribed what each varna should eat—and questions the idea that one becomes what one eats. From humble fare to festive feasts, the recipes carefully woven into the narrative show you the transformative power of food in connecting communities and preserving cultural identity. An excerpt:

According to the food culture and dietary patterns, Marathwada society is divided into five categories:

a.      Special pure vegetarian (vishesh shuddha shakahari): Their daily diet does not use food items such as garlic, onions and ginger—these grow below the ground, and the plant is killed in the process of harvesting it, which is contrary to the dictum of non-violence. As an alternative to ginger, asafoetida from Afghanistan is used. This category observes Chaturmas (four months of abstinence with a special diet during this period). b. Vegetarian (shakahari): This category similarly abstains from food items like onions, garlic and brinjal during Chaturmas. But for the remaining eight months, they use these items in their diet. Asafoetida is also used in their diet.

b.      Mixed diet (mishrahari): This category is an exponent of vegetarianism. But they eat eggs and sometimes even meat stock. This category has always existed across all eras.

c.      Non-vegetarian (mansahari): This is a category in which some groups turn vegetarian during the entire Chaturmas while others do so only during the month of Shravana (an auspicious month per the Hindu calendar, which falls during the monsoon season, usually between July and August). Eating meat by this group is not looked down upon by the vegetarian community. Furthermore, the vegetarians have some knowledge of the kind of meat people in this category would mainly eat.

The people in this non-vegetarian group usually are the social elite or other upper-caste, upper-class Hindus— Kayastha, Rajput and other equivalent castes who belong to the Kshatriya varna, Vaishya or even some Brahmins such as Saraswat Brahmins, who are non-vegetarian. Their meat comes mainly from goat, lamb, chicken, peacock, wild boar, pigs, ducks, other wetland birds, fish, rabbits, turtles, deer and even, occasionally, monitor lizards; on some occasions they eat shrimp, crabs and the eggs of some birds. Additionally, this group abstains from eating meat on specific days of the week or month for religious observance or during a particular period as prescribed by religion.

d.      Culture-compliant non-vegetarian (sanskruti-palak mansahari): Although Hinduism accounts for only four categories of people, there is a fifth one: Shudratishudra, or lowest of the low. Hinduism divides diets into three types (sattvic, rajasic, tamasic), and in terms of assigned professions there are four. The fifth category was relegated outside formal Hindu society. So, although this category was a part of the Indian social structure, there were no dietary restrictions on its members. However, there were strict rules about their social behaviour. In addition to the above four types of fare, their diet consisted of beef and buff (buffalo meat, as it is commonly referred to in India). Consuming discarded dead animals, domesticated animals and birds was not a taboo either. No religious gurus ever cared if people of this category observed the sacred days of non-vegetarian abstinence. Their food customs were despised and looked down upon by all other categories. The upper classes had neither time nor interest to find out what this category ate.

“Even if you talk just about Maharashtra, it is the same. What is palatable to the mainstream, upper-caste circles gets popular coverage and becomes the identity of the region itself. ”

Those who own and influence the media, those who control the narrative and those who present food, largely belong to the first four categories. Through these platforms, they are constantly introducing India’s rich, nourishing and diverse food culture to the world. They don’t tire boasting about it. However, while beef and pork are talked about unabashedly, without any shame or disgust while introducing foreign delicacies, there is never an utterance about the consumption of similar meats by some of the groups in the Indian subcontinent, especially those who follow Hinduism. Bearing in mind the ancient history of this country, why don’t they include non-vegetarian food as part of our primitive, age-old traditions? This country also has similarities with the rich food culture of European and African nations. Why are these writers tight-lipped about it? Do they feel that the cuisine of a region is defined and limited by the food culture of the upper classes? Or do they pretend that they have no knowledge about the food history of this fifth category?

Cover of Dalit Kitchens of Marathwada 

Cover of Dalit Kitchens of Marathwada 

What did the people outside the elite sphere eat every day? What do they eat today? What are their nourishments, delicacies, snacks and desserts? What festivals do they celebrate? What are the special meals prepared for festivals? What do they serve their guests? Why don’t the writers, bloggers, columnists, filmmakers, etc., ever ask such simple questions?

Even if you talk just about Maharashtra, it is the same. What is palatable to the mainstream, upper-caste circles gets popular coverage and becomes the identity of the region itself. For example, the food culture of the Konkan region is narrowed down to rice, fish, crab, kulthache pithale (horse gram curry), fadfada (colocasia curry), rice bhakri (roti or flat bread made of rice), mutton-vade (mutton curry with mixed-grain puris or fried bread).

The identity of regions of Marathwada is equated to particular dishes, all belonging to the upper-class, mainstream food group. Ghati equates to pithala bhakri (gram-flour curry and sorghum roti), khandeshi equates to bharit (mashed eggplant curry) and mande (sweet roti), varhadi equates to thecha (coarsely ground chillies and garlic)! Do they only eat thecha? Kolhapur equates to misal (a spicy snack of mixed legumes), pandhara rassa (mutton curry with a white gravy), tambada rassa (curry with a red gravy), and Maharashtra as a whole is summed up into puran poli (sweet roti made from split chickpeas, jaggery, wheat flour and oil), kataachi amti (spicy curry made with boiled split chickpeas), kande pohe (snack from flattened rice) and zunka bhakar (gram-flour curry and sorghum roti); that’s all—the rest of the vast culinary landscape, including that of Dalit communities, is ignored.

Also Read | The invisibilising of queer Dalits in Yashica Dutt’s 2019 memoir

Even today, a large number of people in Maharashtra eat chutney–bhakar (chutney and bhakri) or kordyas–bhakar or kalvan–bhakar (kordyas is a dry curry and kalvan, one with gravy) every day; or, when they can afford it, they consume the so-called religiously proscribed meats. They are born Hindus. Why is no one interested to know about their culture and customs and publish them or show them as ‘special dishes’ on their channels? Why do they think that there is nothing special or novel about this novel food culture? They are probably sitting so far and so high behind their social and cultural facades that they cannot see much beyond themselves. One sees numerous animals and birds wandering around in the villages, streets, gullies and backyards. What is their use in this social structure? Why are they commonly sheltered as pets—just for their company? Or are they a part of the people’s diet? It would be rather naïve to assume that the woke writers and bloggers are oblivious to this system.

Excerpted with permission from Dalit Kitchens of Marathwada by Shahu Patole, translated by Bhushan Korgaonkar, HarperCollins India.

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