Exploring Indian Culture through Food – Association for Asian Studies

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Food (Sanskrit— bhojana,“that which is to be enjoyed,” Hindi— khana, Tamil— shapad) presents a way to understand everyday Indian culture as well as the complexities of identity and interaction with other parts of the world that are both veiled and visible. In India today,with a growing economy due to liberalization and more consumption than ever in middle class life, food as something to be enjoyed and as part of Indian culture is a popular topic. From a 1960s food economy verging on famine, India is now a society where food appears plentiful, and the aesthetic possibilities are staggering. Cooking shows that demonstrate culinary skills on television, often with celebrity chefs or unknown local housewives who may have won a competition, dominate daytime ratings. Local indigenous specialties and ways of cooking are the subjects of domestic and international tourism brochures. Metropolitan restaurants featuring international cuisines are filled with customers. Packaged Indian and foreign foods sell briskly in supermarkets, and indigenous street food and hole-in-the wall cafés have never been as popular. Yet lifestyle magazines tout healthy food, nutritious diets, locally sourced ingredients, and sustainable and green alternatives. India’s understanding of its own cultures and its complex historical and contemporary relations with foreign cultures are deeply evident in public conceptualizations of food as well as in culinary and gastronomic choices and lifestyles.

As Harvard anthropologist Theodore Bestor reminds us, the culinary imagination is a way a culture conceptualizes and imagines food. Generally, there is no “Indian” food but rather an enormous number of local, regional, caste-based ingredients and methods of preparation. These varieties of foods and their preparation have only been classified as “regional” and “local” cuisines since Indian independence in 1947 yet have enjoyed domestic and foreign patronage throughout most of India’s history. Because of this diversity and its celebration, most Indians appreciate a wide array of flavors and textures and are traditionally discerning consumers who eat seasonally, locally, and, to a large extent, sustainably. However, despite some resistance in recent years, the entry of multinational food corporations and their mimicking by Indian food giants, the industrialization of agriculture, the ubiquity of standardized food crops, and the standardization of food and tastes in urban areas have stimulated a flattening of the food terrain.Food in India is an identity marker of food in india food in india caste, class, family, kinship, tribe affiliation, lineage, religiosity, ethnicity, and increasingly, of secular group identification.

In the recurring identity crises that globalization seems to encourage, one would expect that food would play a significant part in dialogues about nationalism and Indian identities. But food in India has been virtually absent from the academic discourse because of the diversity and spread of the gastronomic landscape. Things are different on the Internet. In response to the forces of globalization and Indian food blogs both teaching cookery and commenting on food, are mushrooming in cyberspace.Indian television super chef Sanjeenv Kapoor. Source: http://tiny.cc/7uvxy.

India has several thousand castes and tribes, sixteen official languages and several hundred dialects, six major world religions, and many ethnic and linguistic groups. Food in India is an identity marker of caste, class, family, kin- ship, tribe affiliation, lineage, religiosity, ethnicity, and increasingly, of secular group identification. How one eats, what one eats, with whom, when, and why, is key to understanding the Indian social landscape as well as the relationships, emotions, statuses, and transactions of people within it.

The aesthetic ways of knowing food—of being a gourmand and deriving pleasure from it—as well as ascetic responses to it—are lauded in ancient scriptural texts such as the Kamasutra and the Dharmaśāstras. But historically in India, food consumption has also paradoxically been governed by under- standings that lean toward asceticism and self-control as well. Traditional Ayurvedic (Hindu) and Unani (Muslim) medical systems have a tripartite categorization of the body on its reaction to foods. In Ayurveda, the body is classified as kapha (cold and phlegmy), vaata (mobile and flatulent), or pitta (hot and liverish), and food consumption is thus linked not only to overall feelings of well being and balance but to personality disorders and traits as well. Eating prescribed foods (sattvic foods that cool the senses versus rajasic foods that inflame the passions) and doing yoga and breathing exercises to balance the body, spirit, and mind are seen as very basic self-care and self-fashioning.

This appreciation and negation of gastronomic pleasure is made more complex by caste- and religion-based purity as well as pollution taboos. With some exceptions, since the early twelfth century, upper-caste Hindus, Jains, and some regional groups are largely vegetarian and espouse ahimsa (nonviolence). Often upper castes will not eat onions, garlic, or processed food, believing them to violate principles of purity. Some lower-caste Hindus are meat eaters, but beef is forbidden as the cow is deemed sacred, and this purity barrier encompasses the entire caste and religious system.

As the eminent pioneering anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss noted, there is a sharp distinction between cooked and uncooked foods, with cooked or processed food capable of being contaminated with pollution easier than uncooked food. For upper-caste Hindus, raw rice is deemed pure even if served by a lower-caste person, but cooked rice can carry pollution when coming in contact with anything polluting, including low-caste servers. Religion also plays a part in dietetic rules; Muslims in India may eat beef, mutton, and poultry but not pork or shellfish; Christians may eat all meats and poultry; and Parsis eat more poultry and lamb than other meats. However, as many scholars have noted, because of the dominance of Hinduism in India and the striving of many lower-caste people for social mobility through imitation of higher-caste propensities, vegetarianism has evolved as the default diet in the subcontinent. Most meals would be considered complete without meat protein.

History and the Culinary Imagination

India sought to define itself gastronomically in the face of colonization beginning in the twelfth century. First, Central Asian invaders formed several dynasties known as the Sultanates from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries. Then, the great Mughal dynasty ruled from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. The British came to trade as the East India Company, stayed as the Crown from the eighteenth century until 1847, and then had their heyday as the British Raj from 1857 to 1947. The Mughals brought new foods to the subcontinent from Central Asia, including dried fruits, pilafs, leavened wheat breads, stuffed meat, poultry, and fruits. The Mughals also brought new cooking processes such as baking bread and cooking meat on skewers in the tandoor (a clay oven), braising meats and poultry, tenderizing meats and game using yogurt protein, and making native cheese. They borrowed indigenous ingredients such as spices (cardamom, pepper, and clove) and vegetables (eggplant from India and carrots from Afghanistan) to cook their foods, creating a unique Mughlai haute courtly cuisine.

From princely kitchens, the cuisine has made its way over the centuries to restaurants in major cities. In Delhi, the capital of Mughal India, as food writer Chitrita Banerji informs us, the Moti Mahal Restaurant claims to have invented tandoori chicken. In neighborhood Punjabi and Mughlai restaurants in metropolitan centers, the menu usually consists of dishes of meat and poultry that are heavily marinated with spices, then grilled and braised in thick tomato or cream-based sauces and served with indigenous leavened breads such as naan and rice dishes with vegetables and meats such as pilafs and biryani. These foods, in popular, mass-customized versions, are the staples of the dhabhas (highway eateries) all over India.