My Food Is My Identity: Is It True?

Most Indians love a hot cup of masala tea; it may be the one drink that connects our nation. In many cities, guests get the tea as the welcome drink irrespective of whether you want or not. But when I see tea, I see age-old colonialism, British rule, coercion, and the rise of opium and opium war and nothing really Indian about the way we started drinking, or how we got the training to brew a cup of hot beverage. Whether tea grew in the jungles of Assam in the beginning or not is not the contention but the way we drink it was not usual to most Indians before 1930 or 40s or perhaps before the British ruled this country.

But tea is not the only dish that defines who we are or not; there are many in this list.

A couple of days back, I was attending an online discussion on food, and everything was going so fantastic. All of a sudden, one of the hosts talked about how food is such a big part of their regional identity and which made me examine this idea further and find the answer, is it true? Can food define the social status or just a personal or family identity?

Food is as exclusive a human behavior as language. Lévi-Strauss has pointed out that

…cooking, it has never been sufficiently emphasized, is with language a truly universal form of human activity: if there is no society without a language, nor is there any which does not cook in some manner at least some of its food (1978, 471)

Just like how language, dialect, and spoken language evolve, ways of living evolve; cooking also evolves. Every ingredient, each dish, the meal structure, and all the elements forming a culinary culture are connected. They are influenced not only by the past, frequently interpreted and practiced as tradition, but also by new occurrences resulting from both internal dynamics and the incorporation of external elements.

A Muslim living in Kerala would be eating different kinds of food than someone in Delhi, or within Delhi, the vegan Muslims will have a very varied diet as compared to a non-vegetarian or vegetarian one. Or, a Brahman community who is otherwise popularly considered as a vegetarian enjoys fish and meat in Bengal, Kashmir, Maharashtra and other parts of the country.

Food habits and ingredients often change as users make sense of what they eat, at least when they stay within the territory of familiarity or survival and learn newer culinary competencies, which functions as a practical toolkit to create a new dish and a new way of eating.

In my opinion, there are three ways of our food gets evolved and we shall try to discuss in detail

  1. Traders and rulers
  2. Human Migration
  3. Memory

Eating is inevitable and an important aspect of our lives, when migrants find themselves in unfamiliar sensory and cultural environments they resort to ingredients which are familiar and are edible. It gets cooked or eaten through the techniques that they know the best and hence giving birth to a new kind of dish. They apply the personal understanding and use of foods— how and where they are obtained from, how they can be stored and for how long, and, above all, how they can be processed, cooked, and consumed in the most edible way possible.

The history of Biryani is very interesting where we know many stories of already existing similar kind of dish oon soru from 2nd AD or even back in the days of Ramayana where Late Dr. KT Acharya mentions in his book how during the exile, Sita used to cook a one-pot meal for Rama and Laxmana which had deer meat, rice and other basic spices of that era, but Biryani, as we know it now, came during Shahjahan’s era.  Even Akbar did not eat this delicious Indian/Pakistani/Bengali Biryani. However, Biryani in Persia is very different from our version. They serve minced meat cooked in lots of caramelized onion (briyan) with pan-fried flatbread. It can be considered that our version of Biryani is literally a mix of pulao and Persian biryani. Indians always have been eating rice and rice dishes, and we know the Afghan’s and Turks love their rice dishes special pilaf or palaav. Mughals did give birth to Dum Pukht technique (slow cooking), which is mostly used in cooking biryani.

The popular dish of Bihar, Litti chokha perhaps has its precursor in Baati of Rajasthan. Ibn-e-Batuta mentions of sun-baked wheat chunks as early as the Magadha Empire, during which time grains like wheat, jowar, bajra and other millets were common and a part of the meal. Madhulika Dash writes in her article on India Express

This little wheat globe made of unsalted wheat, ghee and camel milk was first mentioned during the time of Bappa Rawal – the founder of the kingdom of Mewar in Rajasthan. Known as a nomadic warrior tribe before they settled into the tapestry of a kingdom and got Chittor in form of dowry from Maan Mori, Baati was the Guhilot’s official war time meal.

It is believed that the soldiers would break the dough into chunks and burry in the thin layer of hot sand to bake. So when they returned, they could find perfectly baked roundels that were dunked later dunked in ghee and enjoyed. There are stuffed baati as well which can be found in Madhya Pradesh. And then, we have little which in a way is stuffed baati. The simplicity of litti made Tantia Tope and Rani Lakshmi Bai carry these round balls with them during the war. The litti or baati last for at least 2-3 days and require bare minimum utensils to cook.

The classic combination of Bihari litti was with chokha, which was a mash of roasted eggplant, onions and tomatoes, and chutney but it did go through changes as and when different experimental chefs enjoyed the flavor. In the Mughal Empire, litti was served with shorbas and payas; with Britishers, curry came in and so forth.

So now, let’s ask the question whose litti is it anyway? Rajasthani, MP, Mughal, British, or Bihari? Can we call it Muslim, Christian, Rajput, Baniya or from any other castes? How I see it, it is just a handful of people and their eating habits influencing the food of their community in that particular era and time.

Most recently, I made aalo chop (potato fritter) famous in Jharkhand, Bihar, and Kolkata; you might know this dish by the name of aalo vada, aalo pakoda, or aalo bonda. This dish is made differently in different states and regions. In Jharkhand, however, the popularity of aalo chop is unparalleled. You can find every tea and samosa seller to have this fried fritter. They’ll wrap this fried delicacy in a newspaper, and serve you with coriander and tamarind chutney. So that makes it the identity of Jharkhand? It is also popular during Ramazan, which might make associate with Muslim identity. However, further, the examination might bring both these notions down. The word “chop” is a Bengali word, which means fritter (battered and deep-fried), and since Bihar/Jharkhand is close to Calcutta (now Kolkata), it must have traveled and stayed back.

We take pride in cooking food in spices and call the dish “cooked in Indian spices,” but further exploration will tell us; they aren’t Indian. Turmeric and black pepper can be genuinely considered as Indian, but almost every spice came from a foreign land. The way we use spices, nobody else does. India is the only country in my knowledge using as less as 2 spices in the dish as many as 156. This range is not in any other cuisine. But, this makes me go back to my question, what if traders and foreigners never came to our part of the world. What would have been our identity? Same or different?
Lastly, if we talk about memory, many recipes are passed to generations. The most “authentic recipe” is passed on to the next generation of the family. In most of the family, it operates as the expression of cultural identity.

But with passing on the knowledge, many a thing gets lost because of the ingredients, measurements, or our memory. Many dishes died with my grandmother, but most recently, when we tried to recreate one of her recipes, we realized it was similar to Kunnafa (a Middle Eastern vermicelli based dessert). Grandmother used to boil the vermicelli, whereas people in the Middle East don’t boil, they toast. To date, I am confused about how this one dish traveled from the Middle East to Bihar and stayed in my family and changed its avatar. My father had no answer. I concluded it could be travelers. Grandmother must have learned from someone else who had some Middle Eastern influence. But, can Bihari Muslim associate them with this dish or just a group of people can claim their association.

Even when I conclude this article, I am unsure; can food define one community, caste, and religion, especially in times of this globalized world?

Collective experiences are supposed to be shared by individuals and groups that might not be in direct contact but somehow share the same origin and story.
~Fabio Parasecoli

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