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How food defines us

Friday, May 11, 2018

The recent Archaeobroma conference highlighted the role that cuisine plays in defining communities

Last weekend, foodies from across the spectrum made their way to the University of Mumbai. They spoke about Koli cuisine and Konkani Muslim food; about the importance of dal in Indian homes and about how the Partition impacted Sindhi cuisine.

Over two days, they discussed differing customs and how communities defined themselves through food; how a woman who married someone from the Pathare Prabhu community was appalled to find prawns in the poha at breakfast time; how tea cultivation in India was the last hurrah of the debt-ridden East India Company; how Bene Israelis, one of the smallest communities in India, developed a cuisine that echoes the culture of the West coast  of the country even as it remained true to its Jewish roots; how Ayurveda and food were connected (in a keynote address by Shailesh Nadkarni)… all this and more formed part of a fascinating conference organised by The India Study Centre (INSTUCEN) Trust and the Centre for Extra-Mural Studies (University of Mumbai).

Food, as two of the organisers Kurush F Dalal and Raamesh Gowri Raghavan, pointed out in their concept note, “is one of the most ubiquitous objects on everyone’s agenda. After air and water there is nothing more important to our survival. It’s a multi-billion dollar business and its permutations and combinations are limitless.” While cookbooks fly off the shelves, they observed, and food shows have more TRPs than many soaps, there is little serious research on food as an expression of culture. Raamesh and Kurush, along with Mugdha D Karnik, Managing Trustee of INSTUCEN decided to delve into the subject with ‘Archaeobroma: Archaeology, Sociology, History and Ethnography of Food’, the first all-India conference on food as culture.

In itself, the concept of food as an expression of culture is not new. Massimo Montanari’s book Food is Culture examines the subject in detail. Montanari explores the premise that everything to do with food is a cultural act—how it is captured, cultivated, prepared and consumed. The invention of cooking led to the creation of kitchens, adaptation of raw materials into utensils and guidelines that formalised various methods of cooking. Food developed a language of its own, shaped by climate, pleasure-seeking and concerns over health, among other things.

At the INSTUCEN conference, Mohsina Mukadam, a well-known food historian, spoke of how “consumption of food is not just a biological function; many socio-cultural ideas are also associated with it”. To understand the socio-cultural significance of food, in addition to archival material, other sources like travellers’ accounts, custom excise records, diaries, dictionaries, encyclopaedias, lexica, biographies, folklore, culinary literature paintings, utensils and kitchen equipment need to be explored. These sources illustrate how food-related activities play an important role in defining community, class and social status”.

On the inaugural day, the focus was on ‘Concepts in Food Studies’, examining the subject from the points of view of history, archaeology and sociology. Kurush Dalal observed: “A large number of foods we take for granted today are not autochthonous (native) and an enormous number of autochthonous foods are being forgotten at a murderously rapid pace. The millets that fed and nourished us in western India over the last 4000 years have been replaced by cheap rice, a genetically modified grain that has abysmally low levels of nutrients and proteins. The leafy greens of the forests have been forgotten in urban jungles and seasonal vegetables have lost their flavour by being bred the year around in greenhouses.”

Raamesh, who spoke of the role of tea and coffee in modern Indian culture, highlighted how, when the East India Company lost its largest market in the American colonies, both law—as in mandated tea breaks—and marketing were employed to cultivate a new market among Indians, who were accustomed to milk and spiced buttermilk!

The second segment focused on Indian food practices related to basic foods, such as cereals, pulses, meats and fats. Saee Koranne-Khandekar spoke of how, for millennia, grains have appeared in our religious and cultural food traditions, signifying worship, health, and fertility. In her paper, she mapped indigenous grains across India and traced the trajectories of those that came from other continents and became our own. She also spoke of the plethora of grains available that could be absorbed into modern, everyday culinary practice.

Rushina Munshaw-Ghildiyal discussed how dal in India is a primary source of culinary identity. “The space dal occupies in Indian cuisine is so strong that even the most seafood and meat-centric cuisines consume dals in various degrees of frequency, often cooking dals with seafood or meats,” she pointed out. The versatile ingredient can be prepared in many ways, but Rushina expressed concern that with supermarkets, gas stoves and pressure cookers, combined with smaller families and busier lives, the variety of preparations were narrowing.

The discussions also focused on diaspora, and how communities like the Parsis and Bene Israelis had integrated into the Indian social structure. “We all know the Parsis came to India from Iran a little more than a thousand years ago and brought with them the Zoroastrian religion,” said Rhea Mitra-Dalal. “A lot has happened in these intervening thousand-odd years...” The Parsis intermingled freely, picking up techniques, ingredients and recipes to make them their own. Kurush’s mother, Katy Dalal, was one of the best known names in the city for Parsi cuisine; for years, she ran Katy’s Kitchen and then handed over the business to her son before going on to write six successful cookbooks. Guests at the conference, incidentally, were treated to an excellent Parsi meal!

Alka Keswani, who runs, discussed how the Partition impacted Sindhi cuisine, and of how delicacies like Kuneh ja Bhee (lotus stems steamed in an earthen pot) are becoming lost recipes. She also pointed out that Sindhis ate pasta long before it became popular in India, referring to a popular dish that involves macaroni cooked with potatoes and dried lotus seeds (makhana) in a traditional onion curry. Though Sindhi food is associated with dishes like papad, dal-pakwan and what is known as ‘Sindhi curry’, as Alka’s presentation showed, there was far more to it, including a wide range of fish and meat dishes.

“Mumbai was seen as the twin sister of Karachi, so many people came here after Partition,” she explained. However, Sindhi food today is only available in a few pockets of the city.

One of the highlights of the conference was the section on Autochthonous Communities— the Kolis, Pathare Prabhus, Gaud Saraswat Brahmins, East Indians and Konkani Muslims—among the oldest communities to have resided continuously in and around the islands of Mumbai and Salsette. As the organisers pointed out—a fact borne out by some truly memorable presentations—these communities have a rich culture built around food; “these communities nevertheless do not always have a 'public' food culture, as opposed to say, food traditions that go by names such as 'Udupi', 'Punjabi' or 'Moghlai' and which are established signposts of 'eating out' in Mumbai”, they observed.

There were also sessions on Subaltern Regions, which do not get the attention that they deserve—the cuisines of Coorg, Bundelkhand, Garhwal,  and Assam.

While the discussions were wide-ranging and brought together many communities, the organisers were conscious of the fact that despite this, many were left out. “ArchaeoBroma's aims go beyond mere documenting of food culture. It is also intended to serve as an annual platform for bringing together scholars and experts to look at food with greater academic rigour, and to evolve from these interactions, a methodology of study that adds to our knowledge of food beyond nutrition,” they said.

Their first-ever conference was clearly a huge success, as could be seen from the enthusiastic response it received; “this was the best conference I have ever attended,” said research scholar Dr. Sugandha Johar, who came especially from Pune.

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