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Food racism: Biryani to target Muslims? 

This comes at a time when a beef ban has been imposed in Maharashtra and Haryana.

 |  5-minute read |   22-03-2015
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Following the admission of public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam that he had cooked up (amazing how well this metaphor works here) the once infamous story on the 26/11 convict Ajmal Kasab requesting biryani in jail, not too long after an unhinged sounding Coast Guard officer refuted government of India's self-combust terror boat version to boast he blew up the boat because he didn't want to serve its Pakistani shippers biryani, the question is upon us - is biryani now a communal food?

Has mutton biryani come to represent the humiliation of a minority community by targeting their food?

Biryani has always been synonymous with the Muslim community in India just as vada pao is to the Marathi cuisine, or idli sambar to the Tamil community, or sarson da saag and makki di roti to the Jat and butter chicken to the Punjabi.

So if there is a recent rise in biryani baiting, is it a sign of rising intolerance among communities? The question comes at a time when the eating of cow, considered sacred to the Hindus and eaten as food by other minorities in the country, is hitting the headlines as the new BJP-ruled governments in Haryana and Maharashtra have moved towards new cow protection laws.

Food as insult is not new for racist or communal stereotyping. "Chinese eat snakes" or "Nagas eat dog food" and "Indians smell of curry" are some of the common terms of stereotyping as insult and to convey disgust towards a community - though it's true people in some communities do eat, um, food items as a delicacy that many others do not consider food and actually call a man's best friend, every Chinese and every Nagaland native, migrant or immigrant doesn't. And even if they did, who's to decide one man's best friend can't be another man's food, if non-vegetarianism is a given in both cultures.

As for Indians smelling of curry, sure, because many Indians cook curry regularly in their home, and it's possible that the smell gets into clothing items such as overcoats and lingers, would it be okay to say to them, or even behind their backs, that Indians smell of curry and not expect them to take it as an insult? Certainly, who is to say that someone actually smelled of curry or other people just assumed it because of the colour of their skin and used it as a racist insult?

Food habits are among the most easily used to convey otherness, or bonding. When Indians of certain traditional rice-eating communities meet, they may not hesitate to use their hands to eat rice, as is the traditional practice in those communities, to convey a sense of comfort with one another, a sense of belonging and bonding, while they would not do the same when in company with diverse and other ethnic origins.

In India, traditional vegetarians do not lend out their homes to meat-eating communities as it goes against their religious beliefs and taboos. On the other hand, in Singapore, "a quick glance at online rental listings shows many that include the words: "No Indians, no PRCs (People's Republic of China)", sometimes followed by the word 'sorry'.", says a 2014 BBC report. "Smell of curry" is given as an explanation.

It is easy to identify with or exclude on food, and therefore attack people on food habits and it's not always cultural or religious differences involved - among the big divides is between non-vegetarians and ideological vegetarians.

In India vegetarianism has a religious context with most Hindu communities, the majority of the population, holding vegetarianism up as a pious ideal, and non vegetarianism, like biryani for Muslims or beef for Christians etc, is food eaten by members of "other" communities.

And if you are Hindu and meat-eating, the insults and suspicions are also religion flavoured - you are deemed Westernised and forgotten your roots.

So if you are a vegetarian who belongs to the majority community, you are labelled a "Sanghi" without a thought if you may actually be vegetarian by choice, and if you are a non vegetarian you are most definitely a slave to the West "libtard."

This is ironic, as in the West, a vegetarian person is more likely to be a liberal going against conventional norms - a study published by livescience.com titled "Political Ideology Linked to Food Choices" says ten per cent of liberals surveyed indicated they are vegetarians, compared with three per cent of conservatives.

The knives are out between neo-vegetarians and non-vegetarians in Western worlds though is devoid of religious or racial profiling. Here, where vegetarians are a minority as a relatively new age animal rights movement, they are mocked and insulted by non-vegetarians for being bores and killjoys, for eating "ghaas-phoos" and painted as weak hearted slightly off-mainstream figures (think Phoebe of the TV show Friends who sings the crazy cat song and doesn't eat "food with a face"). As for vegetarians giving it back, well, there's a reason it's called vegetarian militancy by the other camp.

Indian vegetarians and non-vegetarians have always tolerated, if not respected, each other's food choices, despite the divide between veg and non-veg, both ideological and cultural, and it often being difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. We have also suffered racism when we are elsewhere in the world for our food culture of curries and should know better than to do it to one another. We should at last agree to chew on that for the moment.

Writer

Kanika Gahlaut Kanika Gahlaut @kanikagahlaut

The writer is a journalist of more than two decades and author of Among the Chatterati (Penguin India).

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