The only project of its kind that archives the food practices of Dalits is both a cookery book and a political anthology on the subject 

Dhondabai Kamble, aged between 50 to 55 years, a Matang housewife, formerly into agricultural labour, masonry and scrap collection, keeps a fast every Tuesday and Friday. She breaks it by eating beef. During feasts, such as Diwali, she prepares delicacies such as Karanji, Chakli or Kapni if there are sufficient ingredients at home or else joins other women in begging for food from houses in the vicinity.

Koregaon’s Ashabai Kharat’s childhood memories comprise fetching water and making cow-dung before going to school and getting leftovers from Gujarati and Sindhi families living next door. She recalls having a lot of fun during langar in the neighbourhood gurudwara and eating shira. Her memory on food suggests that the most delicious dishes she ever had were puran poli and mutton bought by her father from Mumbra. The mutton was smeared with masala which was made on a yearly basis. Her mother used to serve it with thin gravy which was a delicacy for the whole family.

Archiving Maharashtra’s Dalit men and women’s memories on food, a project aims to untangle the caste, class and gender dynamics on the food plate.

Going by French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu’s formalisation, taste is often determined by the social position from which it stems. Dwelling on cook books and the absence of representation of certain food cultures in them can throw immense light upon the politics of food. Or so found a class of students at Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre in Pune University who undertook a one-of-its-kind food project, ‘Isn’t This Plate Indian? Dalit Histories and Memories of Food’.

In trying to decode the caste and gender intersections on the site of food through this project, its editorial team including Sharmila Rege, Deepa Tak, Sangita Thosar and Tina Aranha felt that the book “offers a slice of the pain of hunger and desperation of food to the ones who have never truly experienced hunger while at the same time it shares the joys and aspirations associated with food.”

Noting the near absence of Dalit recipes in cook books or Dalit cookery books from the shelves of bookstores across India, the project asks some pointed questions on “why Dalit cooking practices are not worthy of study or why are they not to be considered as knowledge and documented in a cookery book?”

The deafening silence around Dalit food practices in the national and regional cuisines in fact points to a subversion of cuisine culture of the marginalised.

What the team found while researching for the project was that in addition to certain regional cuisines being represented as ‘Indian’ cuisine, certain upper class/ caste recipes were being reproduced as dominant recipes of particular regions. For instance, the recipes and presentation of food that get represented as ‘authentic Bengali cuisine’ was typically upper caste and the use of costly ingredients like ghee and more costly fishes was representative of the taste of ‘Bhadralok’.

While the caste differentiation was hidden under the garb of inter-regional cuisine in English cook books, the Marathi books had titles such as ‘Maratha Recipes’, ‘Saraswat Cuisine’, CKP Specialities’ or ‘The Plate of Panchali’ – Recipes of Panchal Caste Women’s Club in Mumbai.

Meanwhile, Dalit delicacies such as Sukaat, a dry fish preparation with red chilly powder; Kaleja; Besan pitacha wada, Waran bhaat, Kandawani, Rakti, Chunchuni and Sugarcane kheer, were unheard of in the books.

The project recognised the fact that food was central to the practice of untouchability – first because who could eat what was regulated by the Brahmanical order of society and then this itself became a marker of pure and impure status. “As social science researchers, what gets written of is of immense importance for us but so is that which is written off,” state the interviewers. They interviewed 10 resource persons, eight women and two men belonging to Matang, Valmiki, Neo-Buddhist and Pinjari castes.

“Our resource persons were shy, humble, extremely gregarious and with a funny bone. They shared their lives and recipes with us even as it opened up sore points as well as tickling memories of the past. Every moment was savoured, all recipes baked in the specificity of the individual/ region/ community and all memories deep fried with questions, comments and sharing of experiences by students and the team,” states the preface to the book.

According to BR Ambedkar, the principle of untouchability initially emerged as a practice to ban the consumption of eating beef and the Brahmans found it convenient to say that those who ate beef were untouchables, rendering Islam and Christianity alien and communal by Hindu fundamentalists. Historian DN Jha’s book throwing light on the history and context of beef banning starting with the cow protection movement of Dayanand Saraswati in the 19th century has been banned and his life was threatened. Food is therefore an important site on which the memories of why the question of communalism in India is also at once a question of caste are inscribed, according to the book.

The book goes beyond recipes and talks of the role of hunger in politics. The act of fasting being used as a tool for political manoeuvring ensured that the experience of hunger could no longer remain politically neutral; while the experiences of hunger of those ascribed as ‘pure’ by caste society amounted to an empowerment through self restraint; for those inscribed as impure by the same order, hunger and negative rights on food (the compulsion to eat meat of dead cattle) became norms they were obliged to suffer from, states the book.

The book is hence at once a cultural, social as well as political record of a marginalised people and their food habits.