Editor’s Note: This piece is an adaptation of The Big Fat Bao’s Instagram series titled “ Caste and Food.”
As a kid, I would sit between the gas stove and wall to watch my mother cook meals on school holidays. The most fascinating of all foods cooked in our house was bhakri — I was always amazed at how such a small ball of dough grew so large by the simple touch of my mother’s hand. Bhakris are a staple in Dalit households because they’re made from millets or local rice which are much cheaper than wheat. They aren’t considered a part of the mainstream “Indian cuisine” because they lack the richness and softness of chapatis and parathas. In addition to the affordability of millets, some Dalit households eat bhakris because they last longer and don’t require oil or butter to cook.
Food is a marker of identity and social status that underlines regional specificities and personal histories. Caste, gender, and environment constantly intersect at the site of food and here is an intricate relationship between food and caste economy. Although food is a site for knowledge, for many communities both globally and in South Asia, it is also a site of oppression and humiliation.
For Dalit communities, food has been a contentious issue. Right from access to natural resources like drinking water to availability of cooking oil, Dalit communities have been excluded on all fronts when it comes to food and nutrition.
Dominant culture in India often formalizes food hierarchy by placing food into the Samkhya philosopher's system of "trigunas" or three qualities. These trigunas are Satvik, Rajasik, and Tamasik. Dalit food is generally considered Tamasik because it comes from a supposed place of impurity and filth. Discarded parts of a dead animal like hooves, brain, and tail are a source of nutrition for some Dalit communities, but they are associated with unclean and unhygienic eating practices. Furthermore, many willingly forget that meat was and sometimes still is an essential component of the food that Dalit communities consume, because it is the "unused" or "leftover" parts of the dead animal.
On the other hand, Brahminical foods, which have been popularized as sustainable and nutritious, are limited in flavors, textures, colors, and smells. The assumption is that foods associated with the colur white, purity, and non-violence are Satvik. These foods are said to cleanse the body of all impurities and intoxicants with their well-balanced flavors and textures. Dominant caste dietary and food sensibilities were homogenized as "Indian food."
This concept of "Indian food sentiments," under the name of secular and pan-Indian tradition, is hegemonized as one of vegetarianism. The implication is that rich dominant caste people could survive on such food since they could afford the different vegetables and dairy products needed for proper nutrition. But marginalized castes would have to survive on just cereals, thus being denied the meat that could have been a source of nutrition for them.
When thinking about recipes from my childhood, I am aware of the shame and degradation that oftentimes forced Dalit people into secrecy about their eating habits. I could never imagine carrying fish or eggs to school because of the smell. Being bullied and ridiculed for carrying smelly foods in a cheap plastic tiffin is a memory I can never forget. I even begged and pleaded with my mother to buy a Tupperware container just so I could “fit in” with my classmates. But it never was enough.
The fight against hunger and for food is the primary focus of Dalit life narratives. Most of the food that Dalit communities historically have consumed is often a battle between survival and nutrition. When we have to pick between the two, it is often the former. Memories of food, lives, culinary skills, and the knowledge we carry in the process cannot be separated from caste. But we have always made do with our lack of access to food and have transformed our struggle into something palatable.
Food as a fundamental human right
It is important to recognize that food habits are a fundamental civil right and the kinds of impediments and "hate campaigns" against particular foods should be regarded as violation of basic human rights. Food is political because dominant caste people have consistently worked at ensuring that food security, nutrition, and resource availability is denied to Dalit communities. Additionally, millets like raagi (finger millet) and bajri (pearl millet) (which were once inexpensive and a staple in Dalit households) are now considered as super foods by the dominant castes. This has resulted in making these grains as expensive as polished rice and wheat. Marginalisation often comes not through direct attacks on particular foods, but through insidious attacks on questions of nutrition, hygiene, and most importantly taste.
From shunning entire communities to the outskirts of urban spaces to prohibiting families from availing residential spaces within gated communities, dominant caste people have successfully managed to enforce vegetarianism and veganism in cities. Their constant desire to declare their sense of culinary art and smell/taste as superior has had a large influence on policies for nutrition and health as well.
For these and many other reasons, it is highly inappropriate for dominant caste people to assume and therefore declare that there are national and regional cuisines — because food and everything linked to it is essentially centered around gender, caste, and nature.
Patriarchy, caste, and food
The politics of food doesn’t simply end at the recipes or resources. Food, and its preparation, always brings back memories of how there would be “controversies'' over what kind of food was served, how it was served, and to whom it was served first.
The intricate but volatile relationship between food and caste has a visible layer of patriarchy within it. As a child, I always wondered why the women in the house were always cooking or cleaning. Even on special occasions, the women would hustle about in the kitchen without having a chance to enjoy the day. The burden of ensuring that there is enough food on the plates almost always falls on the women.
The men would always get a larger share and eat first. They almost always insist on freshly prepared food, unlike the women who ate the leftovers.
Growing up, I also witnessed my mother’s first hand experience of a battle at building a “negotiated taste” across two cultures in her inter-caste marriage. She was used to eating meat and spicy food, but my father always insisted on eating only vegetarian food which, in my opinion, was bland and lacked any spices. I remember him abusing and mocking my mother and her family for being meat eaters. For her own safety and mine, she would take cooking lessons from her office colleagues for vegetarian food in order to satisfy my father’s food preferences.
To this day, she continues to remain fearful of adding chillies and has entirely sacrificed her own food likings. Brahmanical patriarchy has quashed her taste buds and every meal for 33 years has been about systematically converting her to a vegetarian. Now, she has even forgotten what her favorite crab curry tastes like.
Food is very much a part of our identity, because our choices are shaped by it and vice versa. Cultures across the world are identified based on the kinds of food people eat. However, for Dalits (where there is often no recorded and documented culture), forgetting the foods we eat because of urbanization or inter-caste marriages is an erasure of our caste identities. Each meal comes from a place of worry because there is no guarantee that the next one will be accessible to us. This is a food culture that has been created by the lack of resources but we take pride in it. It may have been enforced onto us by upper caste people, but it is ours to own. This ownership is what Dalit communities celebrate everyday with our simple and humble meals. There is dignity and an assertion of our identity when we are documenting and enjoying our food. Our celebration begins with reclamation of our recipes and the history of them.
But what is celebration for us Dalit people? It is the act of acknowledging and recognizing ourselves as humans. It is the understanding that we can think for ourselves and that we are worthy as living beings. That is what our food reminds us of.