Of caste, class, politics, and…food: Part I

‘In India, caste system ensures you are what you eat’…

reads the headline of a rather engaging article I stumbled upon during my daily dosage of FaceBook scouring one of these days. The article is largely about a new trend in cookbooks, i.e. chronicling of traditional recipes according to caste rather than region. After giving a rather interesting insights into the whys and hows of kitchen traditions of Saraswat Brahmin (of Maharashtra) and Iyengar Brahmins (of Tamil Nadu) households, among others, the article concludes on an obvious note: “how celebrating food, like most other things, is the prerogative of the ‘upper-class Hindus” in India.

To my knowledge, there is no clear demarcation between ‘Upper Caste’ & ‘Dalit’ food in Bengal. However, Class can play a role in deciding daily food habits.

Bengal, in my opinion, does not have as much caste demarcation as compared to most other states in the country. Not at least when it comes to food. Yet, the article mentions that “Even books on regional cuisine, say, Bengali food, only feature high-caste recipes, never those of Bengali Dalits”. I am not sure how much difference there is between ‘high-caste’ and ‘Dalit’ recipes in Bengal. At least, from my daily experiences there seem to be none. Let me recount a story here.

There was once a princess and her maid who she treated more as a friend. The time came for the  princess to find a suitable life partner. She agreed to marry a prince her father chose. The princess’s maid was not too happy with the changes taking place but there was nothing she could do about it. So she played along. The princess insisted that her friend should accompany her to her new home. The maid obliged. Upon reaching the palace, the princess went to take a bath . The maid suddenly had an idea: what if she could steal the identity of the princess? As soon as the idea struck her, she dressed herself in the princess’s clothes.

The prince entered her wife’s chambers a while later and found two women claiming to be the wife. During the marriage ceremony, the princess had a veil over her face. Thus, the poor prince couldn’t tell one woman from the other. So he asked both of them to cook their favorite dishes for him. The woman laden with all the finery and jewels brought him labra, chanchra, and ghant while the woman in plain and simple clothes brought him pulao (flavoured rice), kheer, payesh and other sweet dishes. Thus the prince was able to identify the princess and banished the imposter forever.  

Labra, canchra, and ghant – although a part of daily meals in modern day Bengal – are dishes made with leftovers (including fish bones) and cheap vegetables/shoots. It is thus associated with the poor man’s idea of a decent meal. Kheer, payesh, pulao, ilish (Hilsa), and sweets are obviously the preferred choice of the rich. The differentiating factor thus is ‘class’ as against ‘caste’.  

However, contemporary Bengal is much more inclusive when it comes to food (and in any case the story is a folktale my Mother told me long back sitting on a sun-kissed verandah from yore. A verandah which stays on only as a vague memory). Scores of young Bengalis – compelled to move out of Kolkata owing to the city’s sorry state – look forward to kochur loti (wild garden shoots), shaak bata (mashed bottle/ash gourd leaves), ghant, ghontos, and more, during their stipulated yearly home-coming. Why, even celebrated cookery online journals/blogs – notably Bong Mom’s Cookbook – feature dishes such as  pui shaaker chorchori (Malabar Spinach with veggies), the aforementioned shaak bata along with more fancy dishes such as pulao, kosha mangsho (Thick Mutton Curry), kochi pathar jhol (regular Mutton Curry).

To be continued…


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