In this first in a series exploring food & identity in India, The Diplomat examines the idea that ‘we are what we eat.’
‘Food is not something that just satisfies biological hunger. It’s something way, way beyond…It’s a way in which you to elicit your sense of normality, your world, your relationships, who you are, your sense of identity.’
While many of us might not think about food this way, for Manpreet K. Janeja, author of the 2009 book Transactions in Taste: The Collaborative Lives of Everyday Bengali Food (that looks into why food is pivotal to social ties and identity by studying ‘normal’ Bengali cuisine), this idea has become an inescapable part of her everyday life.
Janeja has chosen to devote years of research into an in-depth look at various aspects of food culture and its connections with identity and society. When I spoke to her on the topic, Janeja, who’s now based in the UK, told me that her profession has in fact dramatically changed how she feels about her hometown of Calcutta, India: ‘It has changed my relationship to that place forever. I can never go back there and not think in fieldwork mode, for example.’ She told me that what makes the topic of food so fascinating for her is that ‘it’s so much a part of our everyday existence and it’s so intimate yet so private yet so public and it’s that simultaneity…’
Janeja’s unique personal background also plays a major role in her interest in food issues. Born in Calcutta, she grew up in a Sikh family in a very traditional Bengali area in North Calcutta feeling like she was always on the inside/outside. Janeja ate differently from her peers—subsisting on a medley of different cuisines that typically consisted of a Western-style breakfast of cereal or toast, a Bengali lunch of fish, lentils, vegetables and rice and a Punjabi-style dinner. She remembers being intrigued by ‘why food was so important to my Bengali classmates.’
Even now, years later, she says she remains an insider-outsider back home, as she discovered again while promoting her book in India earlier this year. ‘When the book was launched in Calcutta, various newspaper articles on the launch emphasized that I’d written this book on Bengali culture and that I was a Calcutta girl and that this was great because it was despite the fact that I was a non-Bengali.’
For Janeja, then, her unique upbringing and environment as a child had a big impact on her current path: ‘It just made me curious because the more I grew up the more I realized how important food was to the people in that part of the country’
However, while most of us might not think about food as frequently or in-depth as Janeja does, when it comes to India, it seems food is—arguably more than in many other countries—an integral part of culture and society.
Mark Austin is a visiting professor at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore. He told me that in the time he’s been there, judging by ‘the frequency of references to food in Tweets’ by his Indian Twitter followers he can safely say that ‘Indians are passionate to the point of obsession with food.’ Indeed, he added that he’s noticed that ‘Have you had your dinner?’ is a common greeting there.
And, some of Austin’s students have very clear ideas about the connections between food and the people from the particular regions they come from. Arpita Kala told me that in her home of Uttaranchal, a small Himalayan state near Nepal, ‘people usually consume a lot of rice, home grown vegetables and flowers (e.g.: local varieties of rhododendron), chicken and pork.’ She went on to explain that in Uttaranchal, ‘food is really a big deal for the people…at least to the people I know. Preparing meals is an occasion where everyone has specific duties, and the vegetables are usually grown in the kitchen gardens.’
Avanish Tiwary, also a student at IIJNM, is from the southern area of Maharashtra where he believes, ‘there isn’t much of a gap between people who eat because of the taste of the food and the people who eat to stay alive.’ However, he also noted that the locals ‘are surely very proud of their cuisine. So much so, that they promote it in their tourism,’ suggesting that even in lesser advantaged areas, people identify with their food as more than just a biological necessity.
These responses, though, underscore a crucial point when touching on these issues, which is just how incredibly diverse this country of over 1.3 billion people is, and that what’s true for one person might not be for another. This point was underscored by Colleen T. Sen, author of Food Culture in India, when I spoke with her. Sen, who’s been on food trips across the country sponsored by the government of India as part of her research, is also part of an Indian family, through her husband. ‘I think one thing about India is that whatever statement one makes about the country you could make the opposite statement and it would be true for another group. So it’s really difficult to generalize,’ she told me. Sen also pointed out that unfortunately, in her opinion, there’s still ‘a shortage of serious writing about Indian food and people write a lot of nonsense about it.’
Perhaps that’s why there are still so many misconceptions relating to India’s people and cuisine, such as that most are vegetarian. But this is something I’ll touch on in more depth later in the series.
For now, it seems that there can be some insight gained into the vibrant and intriguing culture of India by looking into its food and more importantly, the feelings and ideas people both inside and outside the country have toward what they eat.
As Peter Scholliers, vice president of the International Committee for the Research of European Food History (ICREFH) and author of the book Food, Drink and Identity explained to me, for people inside and outside of India, food is always going to be looming large, and therefore in many ways we are always inevitably going to be in some ways, what we eat:
‘Sometimes, food really isn’t that important, and language, religion, ethnicity, age, class and gender may be more important. However, if these other variables may play a role, they may also disappear or become quite irrelevant, which for food is never the case. So, all in all food is central to identity construction.’
Next, I’ll be looking into the ties that bind people in India to their family and the role that women play in building and maintaining these relationships.
Images: Bengali cuisine by mad hatters / Flickr (top), Steve Evans (bottom).