Food as idiom for cultural diversity
December 16, 2021
Indian culture should look like a spread on a thali and not like a western meal dominated by a single dish. — Dr. Jaya Kakkar
Food is an integral part of our culture. A vast country like India is replete with regional variations in terms of local cuisines. These food habits have been shaped by many environmental conditions. Coastal regions, for example, have fish and coconut as parts of their staple. Cosmopolitan population of metros is imbibing global influence on its eating practices. Infact cultural assimilation since ancient times has led to varied food traditions so much so that now we have forgotten that potato, samosa, biryani, and many more, all had foreign origin. Muslims introduced India to many dry fruits, leavened bread, extravagant banquets, kebabs, and many more. Likewise British rule saw invasion – now permanent, of variety of foods – into Indian eating habits. And now, thanks to global travel and worldwide net we are being exposed to cuisine of every nook and corner of the world. To be sure food is only one, but very significant, part of our cultural expression. It needs to be defined, expressed, and preserved since it is unique to our being.
Culture encompasses it all : how we express ourselves through speech, communication, language and literature, how we create new ways of expressing ourselves in the form of architecture, books, garments, films, paintings, and ofcourse food, how we gesticulate in the form of Namaste or adaab, and nowadays, in somewhat forceful ways, how we pray or express our religiosity. This together differentiates one culture from another, Hindu vs Muslim, vegetarian vs non-vegetarian, Indian vs Western and so on. Problem arises when there is an attempt to rank one versus the other, when one cultural expression is sought to be bamboozled.
Culture at any point of time is an outcome of the coming together of shared experiences of individuals and groups over a very long period of time running into centuries. But while these cultural practices are inherited in the form of traditions, there is a constant evolution too. This leads to churning of culture (momos, pasta, oats, and many more western influences have gained ground) which leads to emergence of heterogeneous cultures (increasing popularity of K – for Korean – pop and drama) and their diffusion or even rejection (Pakistani serials have lost their popularity, Chinese goods are being boycotted). Culture has its past, present, and its emergence in time to come. Remember, most societies are diverse and heterogeneous in their composition, as is India.
Multicultural societies comprise different groups with varied beliefs, practices, and historical memories. All cultures here are equal. There is no attempt to dominate over others, even though disagreements on various issues persist. Ideally in a democracy we should have a multicultural society where disparate cultures coexist, express themselves freely, as also engage in debate with each other without any acrimony. Each culture here is valued, is neither superior nor inferior to the other one, yet retains its differences and uniqueness. This is ideal a society can strive for. India, alas, is moving away from this ideal, with intolerance towards, say, non-vegetarian food habits.
Plural societies are those where many cultures coexist but some are dominant, or atleast seek to dominate. Plurality is empharized here but not equality. Initially self contained cultures may be allowed with equal participation, but gradually this equality is curbed, majoritarianism is attempted. Indian society is coming in the grip of such clutches too; it is time we take remedial steps. Instead we shold strive towards a composite culture. Thus we should have an organically evolved culture which holds within it elements of engagement and debate about different types of cultural experiences, but certainly not violent confrontations. We have to allow for cultural exclusively of subgroups who have their own definition of their culture, their own limits and boundaries. Culture is generally assimilative and integrative. But there are always conflicts, negotiations, reworking of strategies, and attempts at establishing hegemonies and supremacy. Culture is ever evolving under the general influence of dominating groups. By definition there is unequal access to resources, platforms, and opportunities to different segments in the society. This prevents them from making equal contribution to the formation of a composite culture. While the ideal of composite culture presupposes giving all groups, including class, caste or religious minorities, equal opportunity for self expression, providing them platform for constant dialogue with dominant groups, so that cultural diversity and harmony can be simultaneously maintained, this is attained in actual practice only to a varied and limited extent in all societies. Otherwise, there would not be a need for movement like ‘Blacklives matter’ or call for restricting access to namaz prayers in public places. Problem arises when situation goes out of hands such as attempt to dictate to others as to what they should eat, wear, or practice.
Our food habits are being subjected to such constant cultural onslaught incessantly. Thus, with commercial agriculture and monoculture gaining ground and climate change threatening livelihoods and habitats, traditional food habits are being compromised. As a result there are campaigns to promote traditional foods that are in danger of vanishing owing to environmental factors, and changing consumption styles. India has nearly 90,000 varieties of rice many of which are suitable for gourmets. But instead of traditional, really fragrant, slightly brown rice we have veered towards ultra long, ultra while, highly polished basmati rice since under the influence of culture, it is elite or high in terms of hierarchy. Such cultural distinctions – elite/popular, classical/folk, high/low, traditional/modern, etc. need to be rethought since these are just labels. Our classical traditions have been changing and subject to transformation. It may be revealing to know that when Emperor Humayun was traveling in the south, he declared that beef was unfit for devouts and avoided it. Akbar too followed suit. But Tamils of sangam period ate it. Ayurveda says there are six tastes – sweet, sour, salt, bitter, pungent, and astringent. It suggests use of five colours in each meal. Preparing food by intelligently mixing them ensures provision of nutrition, minimizing cravings, and balancing the body. Each state in India has traditionally adapted to them depending on myriads of factors. Overtime they became part of cultural practices. But subsequently contrarian forces have led to going against cultural wisdom. The north is known for robust farm food, the west for fastidious cooking, the south for snacks, and the east for heavenly sweets. Street food and dahi, butter milk and fruit drinks are loved everywhere. But due to loss of traditions, now painstakingly efforts are being made to revive traditional cuisines. Traditional besan laddoo is being encased in dark Belgian chocolate truffle, rich motichoor laddoos are being infused with lavender extract. There are whisky laddoo, red wine laddoo, old monk halwa.
So what is the idea? While our cultural traditions have evolved overtime, having been adapted to the need and time of the society, subculture have retained their distinct flavours. In contemporary world there should be no attempt to uproot any culture and supplant it with a monolithic counterpart. As in food, variety is the fact of life.
Dr. Jaya Kakkar-Associate Professor, Shyam Lal College, University of Delhi