A story of culinary apartheid
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Kanta Prasad is 64, but his childhood memories are vivid—empty utensils and growling stomachs. Crisis was not a phase, it was an everyday affair. It wasn’t the story of just his family; it was the same for every Dalit household in his village in Azamgarh district, Uttar Pradesh. For them, this scarcity meant eating everything they could lay their hands on—which was usually everything that the upper castes allowed them to eat.
As a child, Prasad remembers running through narrow lanes with hordes of people whenever an animal was to be slaughtered. Meat was not something Dalits could afford, so they carried wide-mouthed containers to collect the blood, the intestines and the offal, all parts that the upper castes discarded.
The rakti, coagulated blood, was and still is a Dalit delicacy (though not uniquely so; there are instances of blood as the chief ingredient in cuisines from countries as far apart as Korea and Ecuador). It’s cooked simply: Heat oil in a pan, add onions (if available), pour in the blood, bring it to a boil and season with chilli powder and salt. Wajadi is another treat, made by scrubbing the skin of the animal’s intestines, cleaning the offal and adding salt and a little chilli powder.
“There were no masalas; we couldn’t afford them. Most of our food had only a little bit of oil and salt, and we looked at different ways to make the food taste better,” says Prasad.
The food hierarchy, as Dalit icon B.R. Ambedkar said, segregates people into three different identities: Those who do not eat flesh (at the top), those who eat non-vegetarian food other than beef (in the middle) and those who eat beef (at the bottom). Contemporary memories of Dalit cuisine are linked inextricably to the caste system.
The cuisine, such as it is, was born in the economics of survival, using resourcefulness and ingenuity to extract the maximum from available resources. “Be it land, water or food, Dalits never had any rights to anything. Food practices were never made out of choice (but were the fallout) of a lack of options. Pork and beef became part of the Dalit cuisine because it was easily available, because the upper castes didn’t want it,” says Deepa Balkisan Tak, assistant professor, Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre, University of Pune, who studied the correlation between food and caste while co-writing Isn’t This Plate Indian? Dalit Histories And Memories Of Food with Sharmila Rege, Sangita Thosar and Tina Aranha.
Under the radar for much of independent India’s history, the identity of Dalits and their food practices have come into focus in recent days because of self-proclaimed gau-rakshaks (cow protectors), who accuse Dalits of cow slaughter and beef consumption. According to the latest National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) figures, more than 70% of the beef-eating population is from the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), 21% is from other backward castes and only 7% belongs to the upper castes.
To be sure, Dalit is not a social grouping. A term popularized as an assertion of social anger and self-respect by Ambedkar, it is now a political category encompassing all lower castes, particularly the “untouchables”. Consequently, food practices among Dalits aren’t uniform across the country. As food critic Pushpesh Pant says, “The concept of untouchability varies between, say, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh. The hierarchy of food depends on social status, caste, and region. There is no such thing as Dalit food…there are, however, the foods of the Dalits.”
Growing up in Uttar Pradesh, Kanta Prasad saw his family—and all others in the area—forage for what was edible and opt for grains that would grow quickly. “We preferred mota anaj (coarse grains). We also ate makkay ka chawal (rice made from corn) because that was cheap. Wheat was so expensive that we did not have that even for guests. Our chapatis were thick and made of pea flour. Sugar was expensive, but sugar cane was cheap. We used molasses (a by-product of the refining of sugar cane) to make sharbat. The idea was not to waste anything. Even watermelon seeds were ground and used to thicken the gravy,” says Prasad, who retired as a sales tax head from the Uttar Pradesh government’s commercial tax department.
While Dalits didn’t possess the ingredients used in upper-caste kitchens, they were well aware of their food, as many worked for them or were fed by them. “Dalits copied everything from the upper castes, but the ingredients and the method of cooking was different,” says author and Dalit entrepreneur Chandra Bhan Prasad, who recently launched Dalit Foods, an e-commerce enterprise that seeks to mainstream Dalit foods and test if people are ready to buy foods manufactured by Dalits.
The plan is an audacious one, given that most Dalit narratives revolve around their stigmatization at upper-caste tables or wells.
But even among Dalits, Tak says, “food choices are determined by one’s occupation”. The Mahars were distinguished as mrutaharis (those who eat dead animals), the Musahari in UP and Bihar were noted for their taste for rats and the Valmikis were dependent on hand-outs—leftover or joothan food given as alms—so they didn’t have their own food practices. In his book Joothan: A Dalit’s Life (translated into English by Arun Prabha Mukherjee), Omprakash Valmiki writes: “After working hard day and night, the price of our sweat was just joothan. And yet no one had any grudges. Or shame. Or repentance.”
Food, acknowledges former journalist and tribal food researcher Aparna Pallavi, runs through every aspect of Dalit life; even their protests are named after their food. “Consider goat meat: They eat the head (mundi), trotters (khur) and the intestines and digestive system (sundari). So many Dalit agitations, mostly against discrimination by officials, are called khurmundi sundari andolan, she says. Similarly, in Maharashtra, the term “Kandabhai” is loosely applied to all Dalits, the kanda (onion) a hat-tip to their generous use of the root vegetable.
Even though it was caste that has made them eat what they eat, Tak says “upper castes make it sound like we are dirty and that we eat things that are dirty. If I eat pig meat, I am marked a pig-eater. If an upper-caste person eats it, it becomes pork, the rich man’s delicacy.”
To underline how food was used as a tool of humiliation for Dalits, Gopal Guru, professor of social and political theory, Centre of Political Science, Jawaharlal Nehru University, describes how the distribution of livelihood resources came to be organized strictly around the “watertight compartmentalization of India into caste groups”, pushing untouchables completely outside the domain of distribution. “The power relationship is mediated through the restriction on food,” he writes in the research paper Food As A Metaphor For Cultural Hierarchies.
With few resources and little prospects of change, preservation emerged as an important part of the Dalit food culture. “We didn’t have fancy ways of preserving food—we had to make do without spending a lot of money,” says Tak. Beef and pork were the first choices for preservation, leading to the development of products such as the chanya, long slices of sun-dried beef that could last for a few months. Sun-dried pig skin, called chunchuni, was another innovation, while malida refers to thick wheat rotis cooked with preserved pork fat and jaggery. Within the community, notes Guru’s article, stocks of preserved meat were regarded as a mark of affluence.
Apart from beef and pork, fish forms an important part of the Dalit diet. Villagers sorted out small fish, dried them in the sun and stored them for later use. “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,” according to Urmila Pawar’s book, The Weave Of My Life: A Dalit Woman’s Memoirs.
Dalits also have specific rotis, cooked in different ways: Maande or randana roti, made with a fermented dough of coarse-ground wheat flour, curd and salt. “This (slimy) mass has to be lifted by hand and slapped down repeatedly for a long time to make it sufficiently pliable for the rotis to be made. Once the dough is ready, a portion of it is stretched over the arm and allowed to hang down. This drawn mass has to be transferred to the oiled, heated surface of an upturned earthen pot (randan) at just the right moment, and baked,” says a 2005 article in India Together.
There are efforts in Nagpur to keep the tradition of this roti alive. However, Tak says, it is not easy to dismiss the resistance. “We preserve things that are special to us. Why would we want to keep alive the memory of such traumatic days? People want to move on now, particularly those who have shifted to urban settings,” she says.
The lives of some Dalits have changed, especially after the liberalization that started in 1991. It has inevitably influenced their food practices. As Pallavi says, “In Maharashtra, contemporary urban Dalit food is mostly spicy, heavy on oil—both of which were hallmarks of rich people’s food. The high use of salt, oil and chilli, therefore, is a reaction to the Dalit sense of deprivation.”