Caste in the Kitchen

By Malavika Neurekar

 

What the literature on Saraswat Brahmin cuisine reveals about caste identity, power structures, and dominance in the public sphere

 

Identity on your plate

Dust adorns the deep-red, rustic cover of the Rasachandrika. It immediately tells the reader what to expect: “Saraswat Cookery Book,” it says. Recipes of moogachi usal and paan polli nestle comfortably next to dishes like coffee pudding and fruit cake between its yellowed pages. The quaint page design and cooking instructions, dispensed in direct lucid Marathi, lend to it a sense of authenticity. To the unsuspecting reader, it is a vintage collectible, a relic to perk up a home library. Upon closer inspection, the Rasachandrika – like the plethora of other community cookbooks flooding the market – reveal a fundamental truth about the way in which caste identities are organised and consolidated through cuisines.

Having first hit the shelves in 1943, a large number of Saraswat women still swear by its timeless relevance. In order to understand this everlasting appeal, it might help to refer to Arjun Appadurai’s essay How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India. Published in the late 1980s, the essay quickly become the reference point for any academic work on food studies in India that was to follow. Describing it as the “literature of exile, nostalgia, and loss”, the evolving multi-cultural Indian city plays an integral role in Appadurai’s imagination. At the heart of the modern Indian cookbook, he tells the reader, is the modern Indian woman’s anxiety-ridden journey of exploring cosmopolitan tastes while staying rooted to her traditions.

Through the lens of Appadurai’s theory, where domesticity and cosmopolitanism form the hotbeds of the cookbook publishing industry, one might understand the publication of the Rasachandrika as a response to the socio-political developments of 1940s Bombay. Indian nationalism reached new heights starting in the 1930s and subsequently, there was a growing pan-Indian ethos. This ‘nationalistic’ identity, which threatened to subsume regional religious and cultural identities, could have catalysed the need to present a unified front for Saraswat culture. This is not to say that a Saraswat consciousness did not exist (Saraswat Mahila Samaj, which published the cookbook in question, was founded in 1917), but the need to consolidate identity may have been felt more urgently in the face of rapid changes, especially in a cosmopolitan British province like the Bombay Presidency.

In the ‘Author’s Note,’ Ambabai Samsi explains that one of her primary objectives in compiling the book of recipes was to introduce it to young Saraswat brides of the 20th century who are unable to “devote much time to cooking till they are about twenty years old, "owing to the “widespread” prevalence of “formal education.” This is an important indicator of how cooking traditions formed an indelible part of Saraswat culture, and culinary heritage functioned as a tool to solidify the practice of caste endogamy.

Fig 1: Illustrations in the Rasachandrika, laying emphasis not just on the preparation of the food but also the prescribed arrangement of the dishes.

 

The intricate links between cuisine and group identity become most evident in the latter half of the Rasachandrika. Apart from recipes, it also contains home remedies for health problems, instructions on caring for new-born babies, handy household tips, and a list of important Hindu festivals.

This is not unique to Rasachandrika. Padma Mahale’s Ishtann: The Best of Goan Saraswat Cuisine (2016) contains a Diwali special segment, while Asha S Pilhar’s Konkani Saraswat Cookbook (2011) contain a section on home remedies. These examples illustrate how culinary traditions are interlinked with socio-religious customs and day-to-day experiences to cement the perception of a shared lifestyle and strengthen community identity.

 

You are what you (don’t) eat

Most cuisines are built on foundational flavouring principles, says the French social scientist Claude Fischler. For instance, the ‘olive oil-garlic-tomato’ base is essential to certain Mediterranean cuisines, just as the ‘nuoc mam-pimento-lemon juice-grated carrot’ base is to some forms of Vietnamese cooking. A Saraswat Feast, a story featured in the March 2014 issue of the BBC Good Food magazine, contains a clue as to what the Saraswat flavouring principle might be. Home chef Aksharia Karkaria explains that a coconut-chillies-tamarind base is crucial to most Saraswat dishes. Some may extend it to include recurring ingredients such as turmeric, trefal, and coriander seeds. These flavouring principles breed a sense of familiarity. However, cuisine creation is a double-edged sword that hinges on cultural identification on the one hand, and cultural distancing on the other.

I know a Saraswat Hindu woman who refuses to eat food at restaurants if she sees, or smells, beef or pork being served. She even refrains from eating non-vegetarian dishes at Catholic weddings, automatically associating the food with the meat that her religion forbids. There are many such people, who are well-educated, well-travelled, and harbour liberal values, but remain conservative in their approach towards food. Where does such a strong sentiment of what should and should not be consumed come from?

Perhaps, the answer lies in the 20th century treatise on Goan society, Ethnography of Goa, Daman and Diu, which recalls how Goan Hindus initially refrained from consuming tomatoes and potatoes. Anybody with the slightest exposure to Indian food knows these two ingredients are inalienable from mainstream Indian cuisines in the 21st century context. However, against the backdrop of Portuguese Goa, they were viewed as foreign ingredients introduced by colonial overlords

This instinctive aversion to what is new stems from a fear of the unfamiliar, and highlights a crucial detail about how collective identity works: it is formed not only through a sense of familiarity with one’s own, but also through a sense of distinction from the ‘other.’ Cuisines are built on the dictates of what should be consumed, as well as what shouldn’t be. It is this very phenomenon that prevents Muslims from consuming pork and Jews from eating non-Kosher food. Disgust, a biological safeguard, when socially reconfigured and culturally reinforced, becomes taboo. The fear of consuming beef, for this Saraswat woman, is a modern echo of the conversion-era fear of consuming potatoes: it indicates, for millions of upper-caste Hindus, a loss of caste.

Such politics of vegetarianism may be illustrated through Amita Salatry’s 1997 cookbook Goenche Shivrak Khanna-Jevna, in the opening pages of which Salatry acknowledges blessings from Vasant Joshi, the author of Goan Saraswat Cooking. Her introductory note opens with a fictional account of a challenge between a vegetarian Indian and a non-vegetarian foreigner. The story ends with the victory of the Indian, as the foreigner agrees to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that the author is advocating against a non-vegetarian lifestyle. She goes on to list the benefits of vegetarian food, as opposed to health problems that arise from a non-vegetarian diet. Salatry antagonises the consumption of meat, stating that it is corelated to health problems such as stomach ulcers, skin diseases, epilepsy, and even cancer. Her ideology evidently borrows from the ancient Vedic notion of tamsik foods and their ill-effects, but is also symptomatic of a form of cultural disgust. A lot of Konkani literature echoes this sentiment of associating a Brahmanical lifestyle with health, hygiene, and purity, thus giving it an aspirational quality.

 

Beyond the pages of cookbooks

The Saraswats inhabit pockets of land along the Konkan coast, including Mumbai and parts of Karnataka. Their presence has, perhaps, been the most assertive in the state of Goa. To understand the influence wielded by the community, one may look no further than the culinary literature produced out of the state. Goan food is often presented as comprising two distinct cuisines: Catholic and Hindu. A quick content analysis of cookbooks, magazine articles, online forums, and food blogs reveals the tendency to treat Goan Hindu cooking as synonymous with Goan Saraswat cooking.  Even in instances where an alternative Hindu mode of cooking is considered – Odette Mascarenhas’s The Culinary Heritage of Goa, for instance – it is done so through the lens of Saraswat Brahmin food. In Mascarenhas’s documentation of Goa’s culinary traditions, readers are told about Saraswat Hindu cooking and Goan Hindu cooking: where the very existence of the latter is in construction against the former. The treatment of all non-Saraswat Hindu cooking as a composite, homogenous category is reflective of the centuries-old troubling trend that neglects alternative food traditions and reveres Saraswat food as the sole representative of Goan Hindu food.

Fig 2: Taluka-wise variations in the Saraswat and non-Saraswat preparations of the shagoti (coconut-laced curry) and hooman (seafood curry), as described in Odette Mascarenhas’s book.

 

In the face of modernity and with the breakdown of archaic caste-based food restrictions, customary rules, prohibition, and taboos get re-organised under the banner of ‘cuisine.’ Saraswat food has etched out a significant niche for itself in the public spaces in Mumbai. According to a Mid-Day article, the first Chitrapur Saraswat restaurant in Mumbai, called Simply Saraswat, opened in July 2015. The owners of the restaurant sought to recreate “Mangalore in Mumbai.” Other food pop-up initiatives, such as Authenticook and The Secret Ingredient, have also hosted Saraswat meals for interested patrons.

However, Saraswat cuisine has developed in two divergent ways in Mumbai and in Goa. In the former, it can be understood as an expression of identity, in the latter a display of traditional power structures. “Sea, Sand, Shacks, and…” reads the headline of a January 2017 report by the Indian Express. The strapline reads “a culinary initiative now adds a fourth S to Goa — the hereditary food of the Saraswat Brahmins.” The culinary initiative in question here is the Saraswat Food Festival.

Started in 2004, it is an annual public event organised by a branch of the Goa Saraswat Samaj. A veteran journalist and one of the senior members of the Saraswat Samaj tell me: "when tourists come to Goa, looking for a taste of our culture, all they get is foreign food. This is one of the reasons we initiated the Saraswat Food Festival – so tourists can get the real taste of Goa." He adds that the festival has led to increased socialisation amongst members of the community, and boosted the confidence of Saraswat women to cook Saraswat food for others. “Over 25 Saraswat women in Margao itself take catering orders, especially on occasions like Diwali and Ganesh Chaturthi,” he says. What is being referred to here is the culturalisation of caste – the process through which caste groups represent themselves as cultural groups, associating caste differences (often a function of asymmetrical material and social access) with lifestyle preferences. Through this process, caste-based oppression gets invisibilised as cultural diversity.

“All members of all communities are welcome to the festival – even Catholics and Muslims regularly frequent the festival”, he states. However, what is interesting to note is the way in which exclusion is maintained even within the ambit of inclusion. The festival is funded partly by the reserve funds of the Saraswat Samaj and partly by private members of the Saraswat community. Moreover, all of the cultural contests associated with the festival are open only to Saraswat Brahmins. These factors create a situation where the other members are “welcome to attend” but are mere spectators to an event that is essentially by Saraswats, of Saraswats, and for Saraswats. By the very virtue of being a public event then, Goa’s Saraswat Food Festival becomes a performance of traditional power dynamics.

 

Ushering in a new “food democracy”

The notion of caste operating on a sliding scale of purity-pollution and the perpetuation of hierarchies through rigorous rules of social interaction, inter-marriage, and inter-dining has been well-documented. While such prohibitions have largely disintegrated in urban India, remnants of it have survived under different garbs. The idea that the domestic help cannot eat from the same plate, use the same cutlery, or eat at the same table as their employers, and that doing so would violate codes of ‘hygiene’, has its root in ancient caste relations.

In 1991, an Aurangabad resident Shahu Patole submitted some Dalit recipes to a regional newspaper but they were rejected. In 2015, the publication of his Marathi Dalit cookbook Anna He Apoorna Brahma was hailed as a major breakthrough for challenging the hegemony of the culinary space by ‘upper-caste’ groups. Patole’s book is a poignant reminder of the ways in which food memories are integral to Dalit experiences of discrimination: his recipes feature less milk; beef fat is used as a substitute for the more expensive groundnut or sesame oil; and puran poli is made with jaggery water instead of ghee.

When Brahmin cookbooks are brought under the scanner, it becomes clear that the relationship between food and caste hinges upon identity creation, distinction and dominance. Patole’s book, however, is representative of a fourth feature, one that is largely absent from the Goan public sphere: resistance. Voices like Patole’s are necessary, because they help confront uncomfortable truths about the caste system’s power dynamics, often peddled as ‘cultural pride.’ Such narratives of the marginalised tread a fine line between generations of reinforced shame and a triumphant reclamation of pride. At the very least, they provide a balance – if not an antithesis – to the Rasachandrikas of the world.


Banner image of Mangeshi Temple courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.


Malavika Neurekar is a content producer at Hindustan Times. She graduated from FLAME University, Pune, with a degree in Literary-Culture Studies and International Studies. She previously worked in a research position at the Goa Chitra Ethnographical Museum in Benaulim, and also actively contributed to their blog Goa Chitra Rewind. To follow her on her blog click here.