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

Now that brings me to the other – this time accurate observation – in the article: Upper Caste Hindus (read Brahmins) and their austere Vegetarian food habits, which is their ‘superiority card’. A lot has been written about the ‘vegetarian fascism’ ever since the Modi Government came into power. Food – as I am sure most would agree – is the last thing that should be politicised.

Disciplined ‘Upper Caste Hindu’ meal

Perhaps food culture and perceptions give the most comprehensive look at the prevalent ambiguities in India. While ‘tribes’  and ‘castes’ (not to mention a certain religion) are targeted for their largely meat-centric food habits, North-Eastern cuisine is all the rage among the meat-consuming metro crowd. As is common knowledge, the North Eastern population is mostly tribal. Pork and buffalo/beef forms a dominant part of North-Eastern (and Nepali) restaurants scattered all around Delhi and nooks and crannies of Kolkata. I am sure Mumbai and Bangalore have theirs as well. And to my knowledge, they do pretty good business.

While ‘Hindu-militarism’ – as the media likes to dub it- is on the rise, Mughlai restaurants are doing roaring business almost everywhere in the country. Even as Tam-Brahms fiercely guard their strictly vegetarian diet, they are perfectly fine with a carnivorous Bengali son-in-law!

The aforementioned article is of the opinion, unlike cookbooks written and curated by upper-caste Hindus (particularly Brahmins), Dalits (and tribal) culinary traditions don’t have takers. Maybe that is the case. Maybe not. I am inclined to believe that more than not having ‘takers’, the lower castes, as a whole, don’t have the required network/resources to be heard or even be taken seriously. In short, Dalits still remain largely poor, and marginalised. They don’t have the money to market themselves, let alone sell!

Food habits and practices associated with Dalits

“Caste is there in the smaller world. When you go up into the higher strata of society, nobody looks into your caste,” says Karnataka-based Dalit Entrepreneur Raja Nayak (as quoted in LiveMint).

Money is indeed a game-changer. Nayak along with Chandrabhan Prasad are the two of the most eminent ‘White Tigers’ of the Dalit Community in India and both are doing their bit to eradicate the caste divide. Prasad in particular. Earlier this month he launched his e-commerce brand ‘Dalit Foods’. The idea is to see if people readily buy food products which proudly proclaim being manufactured and sold by Dalits. I have a feeling, they would!   

As for cookbooks, let’s face it: Unless written by celebrity chefs, they are meant for a niche market. For bored men and women who love to adorn their shelves with glossy over-priced books. Maybe, they don’t even bother to read them. Just like they don’t use the delicate Chinese porcelain coffee mug placed on a conspicuous nook of the wall-to-wall cabinet which also happens to have book shelves. The other audience for such books are the ones who really love to cook. The exotic is always better than the plebeian. A Brahmin’s kitchen must thus have much more to offer than the uncouth Dalit!      

What Prasad is doing is not just remarkable but clever. He’s ‘exoticising’ the culinary traditions of his ilk. His premise is simple: Dalits might have been pushed down the hierarchy based on their food habits but what they ate/eat is healthier than food consumed by the moneyed upper caste.

Chandrabhan Prasad displaying products from ‘Dalit Foods’

An excerpt from a Daily O article reads…

Prasad has made it his life’s mission to make adulteration-free pickles and spice powders available across the country. He calls these “Dalit foods” because members of his community, being the last to be exposed to packaged food brands, have been eating hand-ground spices and homemade pickles.

In modern India – more specifically Urban India – food is more a matter of perceptions than caste or class. Irrespective of the inclusion or exclusion of onions, garlics, and flesh. And food politics doesn’t even manage to bother the educated, urban milieu in the larger scheme of things. The only things that matter are flavour, taste, and the story behind every bite you take.


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