What we eat and why has a richer history than the political chauvinism of today would have us believe

Written by Kaushik Dasgupta

Updated: February 24, 2020 11:27:56 am

The communal vitriol against biryani does disservice to such creativity. But then it would be naïve to reduce food history to a linear narrative of social generosity and ingenuity.  (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

In his speeches while campaigning for the recent elections to the Delhi Assembly, UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath made more than one reference to biryani. The target of his opprobrium was Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal who Adityanath accused of supplying biryani to the people protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act. The UP CM was issued a showcause notice by the Election Commission for his jibe. But Adityanath’s jeremiad was aimed at the protesters as well. “I recovered money from them by making videos (of protesters allegedly damaging public property). I told them that we won’t serve you biryani like Kejriwal,” he is reported to have said.

Adityanath was also harking to a primal connection between chauvinism and food. The main villain in the UP CM’s narrative is the food item itself: Biryani, the rice and meat dish often seen as a staple of South Asian Muslim communities. It has got bad press from Hindutva nationalists ever since the then public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam talked of the 26/11 terror accused, Ajmal Kasab, “demanding biryani”. It’s another matter that Nikam later said this was a “myth” “concocted” to stop an “emotional wave which was being created in favour of the militant”.

Myths are as much a part of the world of gastronomy as aromas and flavours. The rules of the table are not just about the rigid separation between savoury and sweet courses, they are also about identities and power structures. In the not-so-distant past — arguably, even today — what you ate and who you dined with denoted kinship and rank. The message in the old Romagnol harvesters’ song, “The master gets the grain, the peasant gets the straw” can hold for many parts of the world. Associations between morality and cuisine are a legion. In his magisterial Bangalir Iithas, the historian Niharranjan Ray writes that the ancient law giver Vrhaspati condemned the upper castes of Bengal “for their love of fish”. The fifth century AD Chinese traveler, Fa Hsien, notes in his memoirs “that the people who eat onions are scorned”. His countryman, Hieun Tsang, who visited India two centuries later, echoes his predecessor: “If anyone uses onion for food, they are expelled beyond the walls of the town.”

Hieun Tsang’s account, though, is dotted with references that speak of a competing human trait — compassion. The seventh century king Harsha, writes the Chinese traveler, built inns where weary travelers were provided free meals. The history of food is also about generosity and the bonds humans forge between each other. One of the many stories about the origins of the dum biryani, for instance, associates the delicacy to the anti-famine measures of the Awadh Nawab.

“Do not refuse anyone at your door, share food with everyone including strangers,” advises a verse from the Taittirya Upanishad. The Biblical phrase, “Breaking bread,” evokes a sentiment that is way older than Christianity — or any organised religion. In Catching Fire, How Cooking Made Us Human, anthropologist Richard Wrangham suggests that tending fires forced humans to figure out how to cooperate — though this also led to the exploitation of cooks, in most cases, women.

The Taittirya Upanishad has a delightful ode to food: “From food, verily creatures are produced/whatsoever creature dwells on Earth/By food, in truth, they live/Into it they finally pass/For food is the chief of beings.” Human societies have given expression to this philosophy in myriad ways. In several cultures, people leave delicacies beside the final resting place of the departed. “The three basic human needs, for food, security and love,” writes the celebrated American food writer, M F K Fisher, “are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot think of one without the others”.

At Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, contingents of farmers from Punjab have organised langars for the protesters. The sight of women sitting in circles to roll out chapatis, men and women stirring cauldrons on makeshift hearths, and rows of people — most of them strangers, except in their opposition to the CAA — eating daal and crisp rotis make one recall Fisher’s words, “there is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken”.

The institution of langar, writes the eminent Sikh studies scholar, the late Hew Mcleod — once a Presbysterian missionary — “was a deliberate attack on the caste system”. In the Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies (edited by Pashaura Singh and Louis Fenech), another religious studies scholar, Michael Hawley, writes that the common kitchen “was a practical means to challenge the social conventions around the caste system and the preparation of and eating of food”. The hearths at Shaheen Bagh exemplify this spirit of inclusivity.

The karah parshad at langars and Sikh gurdwaras is the halwa. The historian Alan Davidson believes that the gummy confection originated in Arabia in the 12th century. But others dispute this theory. The food scholar, K T Achaya, believes that the word is of Arabic origin though the dish may have independent origins — including in parts of India. That is how food history is: Much like human societies, fixing origins of most food history is a fraught endeavour. This holds true for a lot of the food that is traced to the Mughal period, including the biryani. As the historian Lizzie Collingham writes, “apparently mismatched culinary cultures came together to produce a synthesis of the recipes and foods of India, Central Asia and Persia”.

The communal vitriol against biryani does disservice to such creativity. But then it would be naïve to reduce food history to a linear narrative of social generosity and ingenuity. As the writer Tom Standage points out in The Edible History of Humanity, the most effective weapon in the history of warfare, isn’t a sword, a gun or even the atom bomb, it’s cutting off food supplies. It’s not incidental then that during the anti-CAA protests, the UP police has been accused of confiscating blankets and food items.

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