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The Story Of A Marginalised Cuisine: How Caste Determined What Dalits Got To Eat

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Food might just appear as a part of our everyday chore but if we look at it closely, we can easily find its association with caste. The journey of a full-fledged meal from its ingredients to its preparation reveals a story of how the hierarchy is ingrained in our everyday practices. This hierarchy emanates from the old tradition of linking certain food with a certain community as a means to marginalise and further subjugate the supposed lower caste communities.

Dalits form a major part of such communities who have faced ostracisation because of the kind of food they consume. In fact, the names of marginalised communities like ‘Musahar’ (rat eaters) are linked to their general food practices. ‘Mus’ means rat and ‘Ahar’ means food. We have seen how dalits are beaten to death and brutally treated for consuming beef or pork but one needs to understand the fact that foods like these are not their self-made choice. There is thus, a genuine need to document Dalit food practices so that people know about a part of history which has been ignored for really long.

There are many peculiar ingredients and preparation techniques which are used only in Dalit cuisines. Rakti (coagulated blood) is a Dalit delicacy, which is prepared with fried onions, salt and black pepper. Similarly, Wajadi is another dish made with the skin of an animal’s intestines, by cleaning the offal and adding salt and chilli powder. All of these were rejected by the upper caste groups and hence were incorporated in Dalit cuisine. While social factors were one reason, economic factors also contributed to food practices of the Dalit community. Since sugar and grains were expensive, they had to rely on mota anaaj (coarse grain), molasses (made from sugarcane) and pea flour. This marked a peculiar culinary tradition of thick black chapatis. Other than this, many also consumed watermelon seeds because they could not waste anything.

While caste was an essential factor behind the peculiar varieties of Dalit food, scarcity of food also had an impact on how food was preserved and prepared. Various preservation techniques were devised to keep something during difficult times. Beef and pork were usually the first choices of preservation and therefore chanya (long slices of sun-dried beef) was developed which could last for months. Sun-dried pig-skin – chunchuni was another such invention. Apart from pork and beef, fish was also a major part of Dalit cuisine.

Urmila Pawar, in her book – “The Weave of my life: Memoirs of a Dalit Woman” says – “The rich stored the flesh of sode (shrimps, prawns), tisrya (clams) or mule; poor people stored the water in which these fish were boiled. The stock was boiled till it became a thick-like sauce and was then stored in bottles. This was called kaat.” Thus, these unique preservation techniques and unique ingredients emerge from the social, economic and cultural subjugation of Dalits who were forced to live in deprivation.

However, one needs to understand that the peculiarity of Dalit food is not based on the kind of choices the community got but whatever they had for themselves. All the so-called ‘pious’ foods were taken away by the upper caste communities, leaving Dalits only with leftover meat, flour and grains.

Ex-journalist Shahu Patole in his book “Anna he Apoornabrahma” talks about how Dalit food practices is not a personal choice but an ‘acquired taste’ which one internalises due to centuries of discrimination.

What Dalit ate was always food of poverty. They never felt that their food should be celebrated. What they ate was not the food prepared in abundance but recipes that originates in the lack of ingredients and poverty in kitchen,” says Pushpesh Pant (food historian and political analyst).

A close observation of our surroundings can tell us a lot about the interplay of food and caste. Our contemporary popular cultures, including literature, TV shows, films, etc. implicitly disseminate food-based hierarchies. The popular cookery shows only have food recipes consumed by the masses and there is never a discussion on the lost recipes that Dalits in some parts continue to consume. Apart from Doordarshan’s telefilm “Surabhi” which had a recipe on red ants, no other television show (to the best of my knowledge) has ever tried to show Dalit foods.

Our film characters can only be seen gorging on chicken biryani, rasgullas, daal rice, potatoes, etc. We rarely see them eating what Dalits eat. The menu cards that we meticulously scan through also doesn’t have a category on Dalit foods. One doesn’t need to make Dalit food inclusive of the general food tradition but the point here is that when masses are feeding on spongy white rasgullas, why is it that there still exist communities which are still surviving on red ant’s blood and animal intestines or why is it that caste is cleverly saddled with brands?

Market and consumerism at large also play an instrumental role in connecting caste with food choices.The famous eastern brand has a sambar powder which says – “Brahmin Sambar”. This casteist labelling suggests that this spice box is only meant for certain sections of the society even if it is not done intentionally. Similarly, there is a food chain website called -‘Brahmin Foods’ which sells meat-free products. This again is an implicit attempt to connect caste with food to make the enterprise more profitable.

Amid such casteist brands and companies, a one of its kind Dalit food venture has emerged which has made the term ‘Dalit’ its selling point. Chandra Bhan Prasad (advisor to Dalit India Chamber of Commerce and Industry- DICCI) initiated this startup to sell products like flour, spices and pickles with the tag ‘Dalit Food’. According to Prasad, the aim of the startup is to make people aware of the hidden preservation techniques used by Dalits. While this argument appears to be an attempt to glorify the tradition, the open acceptance of the employer’s identity and their entry into e-commerce enterprise is a positive step towards creating a socially inclusive society.

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Image source: YouTube
You must be to comment.
  1. raj kosaraju

    You have mentioned some good points. I agree there is an implicit attempt to connect caste with food to make the enterprise more profitable.

    1. Tanya Jha

      Thank you so much. I hope it reaches out to those who capitalize on casteism without realizing the division that they create in the society.

  2. True Indian

    Stereotyping at it best. Know people well before painting them all in a stereo-cast of what you’ve been taught in your home by your elders as some fabled form, now propagating these things in modern world as if it is the same era. I have friends with the same title Jha they all eat all kind of meat (yes holy beef also), should I come to the conclusion that all Jhas who mostly hails from bihar eat beef? No!
    Notch up your writing skills and writ unbiased while respecting every human ok spoiled brat of privileged progeny.
    Dalit is an offensive word kindly avoid using that if you respect Indian government orders.
    Yes they had to eat those shitty foods because of deprivation and inhumane treatment by people of history but most of them are pure vegetarians now go read about Ravidasiya & Valkmiki community.
    When you write in English please do not think of world as fools they have very well documented history of India.

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