Colonialism, caste, and capitalism are essential to understanding Indian food. Not only with regard to what is eaten, but also who gets to eat it.
By Madhuri Sastry
Food is having a real moment — from documentaries to memoirs to artfully curated Instagram accounts. It even found its way into Kamala Harris’ campaign strategy, when she teamed up with Mindy Kaling to make masala dosas and discuss their culture. Cuisine is central to our identities — collective and individual, cultural and political. For writers, it’s often the one entry-point into a blindingly white industry afforded to immigrants and people of color – like myself – who use it as a conduit to tell their stories. Food Essays abound. But they are usually uncontroversial. Conformist. Like how an immigrant was bullied for their funky-fragranced food by white folk who wouldn’t know flavor if it slapped them in the face. How another learned to make the perfect fried chicken as an homage to their Americanness. Many of these banalities come from the Indian diaspora (of which I’m a part). These narratives – while reflective of the diasporic experience – are really just the stories about us and our food that white people are willing to stomach. So, for all our talk of spice, the way we write about the complex richness of our food is…vanilla. Basic, and neutral. More often than not, our stories lack something as crucial as salt to a sambar: politics.
Food is political.
Diaspora discussions about food do sometimes raise political points, but they usually lack nuance and are disconnected from history or context. Take, for example, the debate around how turmeric lattes are cultural appropriation. Writers of the diaspora (and those in India) were frothing – as much as the beverage – to “reclaim” a drink that is actually alien to a vast majority of Indians! As the insightful writer Mayukh Sen explains, food that’s primarily eaten in northern India has become a de-facto representative of Indian food writ large. “It’s a power dynamic bolstered, innocently and accidentally, even by the people who are primed to discuss this drink best: those in India and its diaspora. India is an enormous country, fractured by colonialism, partitions, wars, and modern-day border disputes. Its diversity is staggering in every imaginable capacity. This bleeds into its food, too, but many of these stories don’t get told.”
Colonialism, caste, and capitalism are essential to understanding Indian food. Not only with regard to what is eaten, but also who gets to eat it. This informs what is exported as “Indian food” abroad. Food-writing in the West ignores this. Instead, what we read is saturated with tropes that the dominant (white) culture has okayed, blended with the tropes okayed by the dominant culture in India, which is decreed by the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas. Many of whom also make up most of the Indian-American diaspora. Wherever South Asians go, they take caste with them. Among the caste-privileged are America’s brown sweethearts, Mindy Kaling and Kamala Harris. In the video of them making dosas, they reduce their identities to banal stereotypes, bonding – too much – over how their families stored spices in “Tasters Choice” jars. The media – in both countries – lapped it right up. Honestly, though, they lacked chemistry and served up a bland video, and missed an opportunity to have some long-overdue conversations on cultural stereotypes, and the politics of the food they cooked.
Take, for example, the idea that India is primarily vegetarian. Harris categorically states that South Indian food is all vegetarian. Firstly, “South India” is a large part of the country, comprising three union territories and five states, each of whose cuisines are complex and diverse. She’s referring to food from Tamil Nadu – both her and Kaling’s families come from here – which is neither “all vegetarian”, nor representative of “South Indian” food. A 2014 nation-wide government survey shows, the South Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu are more than 90% non-vegetarian. Actually, over 80% of India identifies as meat-eating. Sharanya Deepak writes how upper-caste Brahmins historically controlled access to grain, restricting “satvik” foods like vegetables and dairy to the upper-castes, while “tamasik” food like beef and garlic were restricted to non-elite and non-caste groups. Choice and abundance were upper-caste prerogatives, forbidden to Dalits – “untouchables” who were excluded from the caste system by caste-Hindus. Vegetarianism, thus, is an upper-caste Hindu model of food-consumption, that totally excludes the food practices of other communities. Yet, so much of the power is concentrated in their hands, including as the group that primarily interacted with the British and the West, that even though upper-caste Hindus are not the majority, their food-consumption model has come to define what “Indians” eat, even winding its way into slickly-produced campaign videos.
Problematic falsehoods and tired stereotypes are more than the erasure of swathes of people, histories, and realities. They reinforce narratives about Indian food rooted in colonialism and Brahmanical hegemony with very real modern-day consequences. Kaling recounts, for example, how she snuck out to eat lamb burgers – not beef, obviously – and how even her family dog in India ate only rice and yogurt, like a “good Hindu vegetarian”. Growing up, I heard this unsavory phrase everywhere. I was raised a vegetarian, but I loathed its intolerance from a young age. It reeks of judgment and drips with moral superiority. Cows are sacred to Hindus, and many don’t eat beef. In fact, meat-eating, especially beef consumption, is an urgent conversation – particularly for a prosecutor-turned Senator – and for food-and-culture-commentators in general, given the surge of “food fascism” in India under the aegis of Hindu Nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Emboldened by his victory, “cow-protection groups” have lynched Muslims and Dalits for eating and trading in beef. Human Rights Watch reported that 44 people were killed between 2015 and 2018 on the suspicion of transporting cows to be sold for meat, 36 of them Muslims.
C Sathyamala traces the notion that the pan-Indian diet is primarily vegetarian to the time of colonial rule. When the British first systemically documented food consumption among the natives, their primarily cereal-based diet came to be seen as the normative “Indian” diet, deemed inferior to the Western meat-based diet. Dr. Ambedkar, a pre-eminent Dalit thinker, leader and thinker, and architect of the Indian constitution, writes that the caste system is centered on food, with two main taboos dividing Hindus. The first is a taboo against meat-eating, dividing Hindus into vegetarians and meat-eaters, while the second taboo is against beef-eating – dividing the ‘Touchables from the Untouchables’. Caste is obsessed with purity, and the higher the caste, the greater the food restrictions. Gandhi – an upper-caste vegetarian – linked his vegetarian morality to the concept of ahimsa, non-violence. He alienated many Muslim supporters with his particular offense to beef-consumption, targeting Dalits, who ate cow, and shaming them for eating carrion (flesh of the dead cow, often the only thing they had access to) for his reformist propaganda.
The institutional violence of Hindu vegetarianism affects the daily lives of the Indian poor in countless ways. The Musahar caste, for example, were obliged to catch rats. They also eat them (Musahar literally means rat-eater). However, ruthless shaming and stigma around this practice has forced them to give it up. Lacking resources for other food, the community now struggles with malnourishment. And yet, the exported image of Indian food is one of northern-Indian extravagance: ghee-soaked paranthas, succulent cubes of chicken in pools of creamy crimson gravy. India actually has the largest number of hungry people in the world, with almost 200 million undernourished, nearly 40% of children suffering from stunted growth, and over 3000 children dying every day from poor diet-related illnesses. In an interview, Dr. Veera Shatrugna, former deputy director of the National Institute of Nutrition, explains how most of the research underlying the Recommended Dietary Allowance was done in the 50s and 60s by vegetarian Brahmins, who emphasized cereals and pulses as a source of calories and protein. Despite a majority meat-eating population, the Mid-Day Meal Program, a government scheme providing school meals, is mostly meat-free, with only a third of states providing eggs. But this protein is crucial because most of those children cannot afford to get it from other sources. Dr. Shatrugna also notes that highlighting cereal as the cheapest form of calories has helped the government bring down minimum wages by a third.
In India, where power controls access to food — and then legitimizes structural violence against people based on their food choices — food is especially political. The Indian diaspora, while insulated from these effects, has been instrumental – through donations, for example – in helping Modi actualize his dream of a Hindus-only India. They are also the fastest-growing electorate in America. Still, Senator Harris, a former Presidential hopeful, refrained from making even the barest of political statements about Indian food, centering her narrative on a centuries-old system of caste-based oppression. Instead, Harris milks her Indian roots when it suits her, pandering to her Indian-origin base in token ways, while remaining largely silent about atrocities perpetrated by the Indian government, particularly against Muslims and Dalits.
But who in the white world cares about this? Several – who gleefully shared the video – have profited from their roots. So many others have built careers and amassed followers through food culture. For many Indian writers, telling white-approved stories is the cost of entry. So, if food is the instrument through which we’re afforded the opportunity to explore our culture, it behooves us to move beyond our tired disdain of “naan bread” (I, too, have no time for it, but enough), and write stories infused with politics. When we adopt and disseminate mealy-mouthed narratives approved by those who wield power, all we do is reinforcing their hegemony.
Madhuri Sastry is a feminist writer. She holds two Masters’ Degrees in Law from New York University and The London School of Economics. Her political writing, personal essays, and cultural criticisms have appeared in several publications including Slate, Bitch, Catapult and NY Mag’s Grubstreet. She is an amateur – but dedicated – home cook. She lives with her partner, a corgi-mix, and about twenty plants in a concrete jungle.