Shana Jhiej  (Photo: Samar Halarnkar)
Shana Jhiej (Photo: Samar Halarnkar)

Opinion | Unification by food, one class at a time

  • Children are not untouched by the religious prejudices around food and eating
  • It is up to schools to lead the way in propagating a non-discriminatory pan-Indian food culture

Sorry, Zomato, food does have a religion, and children are not exempt.

In the new India where antagonism to minorities is in fashion and there is growing pressure to conform to the majority view, disturbing stories emerge of culinary discrimination in schools. For some time now, I have heard how meat-eating children in south Mumbai are turning vegetarian owing to peer pressure and bullying.

A Parsi friend of mine reported that his pre-teen daughter refuses to accept anything non-vegetarian in her lunch box because her school is dominated by Jains and Gujaratis who frown at what they consider gastronomic sacrilege. It isn’t that she has turned vegetarian—she just does not want her friends to know. My teenage niece, who attends an “international" school in Mumbai, reports the same pressure to eat vegetarian. She refuses, thankfully, to fall in line.

I am glad to note that my nine-year-old in class IV faces no such pressure. This may have something to do with the fact that her school is a noticeably liberal, secular institution. Last year, the theme of an annual school concert was discrimination. The title, “Who tells your story", enfolded within it a celebration of India’s diverse cultures and the battles fought for equality. We heard the keertanas of Kanakadasa in Kannada, songs in Bengali from Rabindranath Tagore’s Chandalika and segregation-era freedom songs from the US.

The nine-year-old’s friends are too young to understand adult prejudices, but she discerns their restrictions. I am pleased at how she navigates the diverse cultures in her class. She never shares pork with her best friend—who is Muslim—or beef jerky, which she takes to school to share with the bestie, with Hindus who do not partake. She is also aware that she comes from a Hindu family that will eat any of God’s creatures.

The important point is that no one frowns at any kind of food—if they are not supposed to eat it, they will not, but that’s about it. About seven of them sit for lunch at the same table they share during class, so all the food is laid out together. There are no taboo foods, and there are no objections. Sharing is only allowed on Friday, and what they share and eat is their affair.

As I write this, class IV is rehearsing another project. The theme, unity in diversity. I am delighted. It’s old-fashioned and secular, like the title of one of those grainy films division shorts from the late 1970s and 1980s. It also cocks a snook at today’s insistence on unity in oneness and cultural conformity.

Last week, my daughter suddenly burst into song, one that I had not heard since I was a young man just out of college. More than 30 years old, it was a paean to secularism back in the day, and I remember the video that accompanied it, a celebration of diverse musicians and cultures merging into a song of unity.

“Mile sur mera tumhara," she sang, breaking into Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Kashmiri, Tamil, Malayalam, Gujarati and a language she could not identify. Her Hindi was—as it always is—marked by a distinctly southie accent, her Kannada and Marathi pronunciation was flawless, the Tamil, Kashmiri, Malayalam and Gujarati I could not vouch for, and the mystery language—as a wide-eyed friend, a Sengupta, delightedly exclaimed—was Bangla!

I went to YouTube and found the original video, kicked off by the mesmeric voice of Bhimsen Joshi and ending in that now archaic slogan, “United we stand, divided we fall."

I am not sure how many mothers on the class IV WhatsApp group knew and subscribed to that old theme, but they enthusiastically helped translate that vision into culinary reality. To accompany the performance on the eve of Independence Day, parents had been asked to contribute snacks that represented India’s diversity.

The class teachers asked for measured quantities and mainly vegetarian snacks—some meat is inevitable in Bengaluru—so there would be no great need to separate and label, I assume. Initially, many mothers offered food from their cultures, but as the discussion grew and drew in more of us, the women became adventurous, offering to go beyond their comfort zones.

The final list ran to more than 30 snacks from almost every state—from Andhra’s pappu chekkalu to a bamboo stir-fry from Mizoram. I jumped in late with shana jhiej, Bengal gram fritters from Meghalaya. They were simple, easy to make and come from a cuisine I adore: from the dominant Khasis of that state.

I considered infusing what is normally a meatless snack with pork or lamb but I remembered the criticism this column often receives, of the lack of vegetarian entrées, and decided to only modify the shape. My mind, in any case, was focused on the theme, and the pleasing prospect that a now fading idea of India was being revived and seeded into a new generation.

Shana Jhiej

Makes around 10

Ingredients

1 cup split chana dal

2 green chillies

3 tbsp sesame seeds

1-inch piece of ginger, chopped

Salt to taste

2 tsp sunflower oil

Method

Soak chana dal for an hour, drain and grind with green chillies to a coarse paste. Mix in salt, sesame seeds and ginger. Shape into small patties and place on a greased baking tray. Brush with a little oil and bake at 180 degrees Celsius for about 20 minutes. Flip side, brush with oil and bake for another 20 minutes, broiling for the last 10. Alternatively, shallow-fry.

Our Daily Bread is a column on easy, inventive cooking. Samar Halarnkar is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures.

Twitter: @samar11

Close