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Fooding around: How 'food' both divides and brings together

...But, as long as it is used to bring people to the table, conversations can start.

 |  6-minute read |   06-01-2019
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What does your food mean to you?

Something to fill your stomach? Is it a nutritional barometer? Does it show others your culinary comfort zone, emerging through a labyrinth of lingering memories? Does food help identify a cultural ethos? Or is it a tool to tom-tom your upper-caste identity?

Food has a thousand connotations, and clearly, when Lipi, the ingredient-driven restaurant of Bengaluru set up its dinner table for about 20 guests, with carefully curated dishes by chef Varun Raj, it sought to look at food as a holistic sensory experience.

It was created around visual artist Rakshita Mittal’s photographs which had captured memories that were singularly related to the kitchen. Through a photo narrative, Mittal depicted the diversity of kitchens which reflect the varying personalities of women in it. Although aware of the implications of matching 'women' with 'kitchens', Mittal nevertheless coaxed out stories of women who are queens or the 'ranis' of their kitchen.

However, the focus wasn’t on the women, although they form a key component of each canvas. The focus was primarily on their connection to the kitchen, to the food they cooked, the recipes they received, the food memories they passed down.

Chef Varun recreated the memories of these women through his food — the jingling bangles worn by one as she ground spices found expression in the starters, the painful memories in another coping with a loss of a dear one were recreated in the searing taste of a dish.

Rakshita's pictures pushed Varun to add several dimensions to his carefully curated dishes, ensuring that food did not remain just limited to an infusion of ingredients, that it evoked synaptic crossovers as people smelt and tasted experiences and memories.

The last dish, the Fena Bhaat — essentially a bowl of fragrant boiled rice with assorted vegetables with the starch locked in, giving the dish its glutinous texture — took eaters to a time when food was terribly scarce and children had to do with the starchy gruel. Images of little children during the 1971 famine in Bengal, emancipated and needy, sitting with begging bowls bigger than their hollowed stomachs and asking for a little bit of starch churned the insides. And the Fena Bhaat ceased to be just food, it represented human agony during the times of scarcity. 

roti_123118074222.jpgIn the pretentious world of gourmet food, comfort food calms people. (Source: Reuters)

Well, such is food. It operates at varying layers — as a talking point of culture, to political, social, psychological, and environmental issues. Food evokes memories of mothers and grandmothers in our lives in cramped spaces, cutting and cooking the whole day. It evokes memories of crumpled cotton saris with the smell of food flavours clinging to the fabric. Sound, smell, and other sensory details construct the food memory and amalgamate seamlessly into the name of ‘comfort food’.

In the pretentious world of fusion cooking, gourmet food and concept cooking, comfort food calms and centres people.

If 'food' was the talking point for memories in the 'Rani o Ranna' event, it has been used in inventive ways in Indian politics, too when Mahatma Gandhi pushed home a point through his salt satyagraha.

rbzznh48wzz2myfnf87c_123118073819.jpgThe Dandi march was the first step towards culinary freedom. (Source: IndiaToday.in)

Salt — a basic in any dish was used by Gandhi to tell the British to Quit India. Interestingly, Gandhi also made his point with food by not having any of it. Gandhi sat on innumerable fasts to get his way with the British. Once the British government acceded to his requests, Gandhi was known to break his fasts with ‘The Prophet’s Food’ — curd and dates. So, not- eating became a form of protest. Many political protests have been marked by the shunning of food, and even Prime Minister Narendra Modi has used it to good effect at no less than at a White House dinner to exhibit self-discipline.

Food and politics' song-and-dance continues in references to Sonia Gandhi's pasta antecedents, and readers would do well to remember the heightened food pitch in Laloo’s political sloganeering: Jab tak rahega samose mein aloo, tab tak rahega Bihar mein Laloo.

Sadly the food discourse today is rife with a display of power, and blood-spilling battle lines seem to be drawn within the country.

Beef was banned and people were lynched over suspicions that they consumed beef. Meat-eaters were viewed with condescension and vegetarian food became synonymous with upper-caste credentials. Communities were distanced, popular eateries were forced to change their menu and obliteration of certain food continued unabashedly across kitchens, tiffin boxes, menus, making food acquire an ominous glow. Food became a divisive weapon.

In the midst of all this, a category called 'Dalit Food' was identified, and as the group struggled to get mainstream space in modern India, their culinary habits drew both flak and favour.

rosogolla_650x400_51_123118073701.jpgWho's rosogolla is it anyway? Bengal's of course! (Source: Reuters)

The food divide spilt across states with Bengal edging out the Odisha Rosogolla, as it got itself the coveted GI (geographical indication) status for its brand of mishti. In fact, the accusatory and indignation-loaded pitch reached a crescendo when social media activist Abhijit Iyer Mitra was pressed with criminal charges when he said that the Rosogolla does not belong to Odisha. That gave another shot in the arm to the Bengal-Odisha culinary war, and the animosity magnified over what is seen as an appropriation of culture.

Culinary history documents suggested that Odia cooks were found aplenty in the state. Richer households hired Odia Brahmins so that the culinary spread would not be compromised, and at the same time, the caste-purity of the family would be untouched. 

This flared up animosity which reached a simmering point when the recipes of these cooks were quickly documented and passed down as part of the family legacy. Soon, makeshift recipe books by elderly women in Bengali households slowly made their way outside kitchens and to publishing houses. As they turned into commercial success stories, the appropriation was complete.

The Bengal-Odisha divide mirrors the battle over Falafel and Hummus with Israelis passing it off as a part of their culture, leaving the Palestinians incensed over the appropriation of their cultural symbol.

Similarly, Australia and New Zealand are locked in a culinary war of their own with each side claiming their rights over meringue and pavlova.

baklava_wikimedia_sa_123118074601.jpgA bittersweet war over baklava! (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Turkey, Greece and Syria on the other side, are throwing off recipes at each other to stake their claim over Kebabs and Baklava, although Turkey, through some good branding, documentation and of course, star chefs as Maksut A┼čkar, claimed the rights over Kebab, Coffee and Baklava.

Nigeria and Senegal are also fighting over Jollof rice.

Food stories abound everywhere and even Bollywood is full of its flavour. From Cheeni Kum or Lunch Box, food and romance make for great bedmates. 

Clearly, food binds as much as it divides. It is pregnant with nuances of a culture. Food represents memory — personal and collective. As long as it is used to bring people to the table, conversations can start, and as the final dish is served, real communication could very well begin.

So now, what does food mean to you?

Also read: Are dosas making us fatter? A new research paper says so. Here's what we say

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