Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
Food : April 30, 2000
The author is an interior designer and food writer and lives in Mumbai.
There are perhaps more customs, rules, taboos, proverbs and superstitions associated with food than with anything else in the world. And these encompass almost every aspect of food - ingredients, the manner in which they are prepared, served or consumed and even the very act of hospitality. The majority of these dictums and customs have some practical and pragmatic justification. Many are connected with religion - like the Eucharist sacrament of bread and wine in Christianity or the consumption of kosher or halal meat in Judaism and Islam. Others pertain to everyday life - even to substances as common as salt, water and bread, for instance, or the codes of conduct at the table.
Go back many centuries in time to Ancient Rome to picture a banquet held in an aristocrat's home. Guests in evening dress of muslin toga and tunic recline on comfortable couches and eat with the tops of their fingers. However, they use spoons for sauces and gravies, small knives for fruit and tiny spears for removing snails and shellfish; toothpicks are also provided. There is a strict dress code and rules of etiquette govern the manner in which food is picked and consumed or even the way a cup of wine is held. At the end of the meal, a loud belch is considered the greatest compliment to the host. Carrying away tidbits in the folds of a napkin, again, symbolises commendation of the meal.
Table manners evolved through the centuries as a matter of fashion, decorum or tradition. Essentially, they reflect the customs and social behaviour of a particular region or an era and are determined by the type and texture of food popularly consumed within that area. In India, table etiquette was and still is governed by religious as well as regional customs. Several rules concerning purity and pollution evolved as an off-shoot of the caste system. In Hinduism, the gods, Brahmins and honoured guest could, for example, only be offered the superior pakka food, cooked in clarified butter. Family members and "lesser" mortals could be served kachcha food of a more inferior texture and taste, with no ghee used in its preparation. Leftovers in the plate were considered jhoota, polluted by the diner's saliva, and could be given away only to members of the lower castes and livestock.
The rules of "pollution" applied equally to drinking water, which could only be offered to a member of the higher castes by an equal. The water glass too, featured in the rules of convention. Since clay and porcelain were considered polluting, drinking cups made of these material were broken after use. Traditionally, water would be drunk by pouring a stream from the raised glass directly into the mouth, without touching the rim with the lips. A metal glass, especially one of silver, however, could not be polluted and would be reused after a thorough rinsing. Hinduism decrees that only the right hand can be used while eating; the left is considered jhoota and polluting and should be used only for lifting the cup of drinking water.
The rules of decorum amongst Muslims vary considerably from those of the Hindus, primarily because of their habit of eating together. The Bohra community for example, dines in large communal thals of tinned copper, placed on a tarakhti or brass ring, where there is no "head" of the table and all diners are considered equals. Yet, a specially respected guest will be invited to upar baiso, to sit on the side opposite the serving area. Unwritten rules decree that diners help themselves to portions that are nearest at hand though a vigilant host will ensure replenishments and offer choice morsels to those who have not had them. Each diner takes a small serving of rice in the thal area in front of him or her and just enough gravy is added so that it does not run out.
The Bohras have another unusual custom pertaining to salt. The meal begins with the youngest member of the family offering a container of salt to everyone around the communal thal who dips his or her index finger into the bowl and tastes the salt. The tradition, called chakhwanoo, symbolises togetherness and equality.
Indians believe that salt, like nothing else they know, is auspicious and brings good luck, for it mixes pleasantly with everything. In many homes, it is the first purchase of the New Year, to ensure good luck to the house. So many beliefs and superstitions are connected with salt - many Indians, for instance wave salt with mustard seeds and chillies over the head of a child to ward off the evil eye. Such beliefs are not restricted to Indians alone. In ancient Rome, spilling salt was considered unlucky; incidentally, the Romans gave us the name salt, from salarium or salary, since wages in those days were principally paid in salt. The antidote to spilling salt is to throw a pinch over the left shoulder with the right hand. In many countries, salt symbolises purity, sanctity and incorruptibility and hence a covenant of salt is one that cannot be broken. Similarly, many communities around the world put salt in coffins to keep away Satan, who despises salt.
Indians also believe that salt spilt between two friends brings enmity and discord and also that two who want to renew a broken friendship must seal their reunion by eating salt together. A common universal adage says that "to eat a man's salt" is to partake of his hospitality. Hence, a namak haram (originally a Persian term), is one who breaks that sacred covenant - he is not true to his salt. Another term, "salt of the earth" is generally applied to the elect, the perfect, or those approaching perfection.
Among the Baghdadi Jews who came to India in the 19th Century, (the foremost family among them being the Sassons), each Friday before the meal, the seniormost member recited a prayer which began, "eschet khayil mi yimsa". It praised the woman of the house who cooked the meal and looked after the children. After that everyone around the table had a sip of wine and dipped a small piece of bread into salt and ate it.
So many customs pertain to bread in its many different forms. Many believe that you should not quarrel with your bread and butter - in other words, don't give up pursuits that earn your living. Another states, "he took bread and salt" which means he took his oath - salt is eaten in many eastern countries when a pledge is taken. Another form of bread - the kulcha was so significant in the lives of the fabled Nizams of Hyderabad, that it featured prominently on the state flag. According to legend, the founder of the dynasty sought the blessings of a Delhi pir before venturing south on his journey. The holy man placed before him a pile of kulchas and asked him to eat as many as he could. When the Nizam could consume no more than seven, the pir blessed him and prophesied that his heirs would rule for seven generations. As it happened, the very institution of monarchy in India was abolished during the reign of the seventh Nizam.
Another royal family custom of yore concerns the House of Mewar, senior-most of the 36 clans of the warrior caste Rajputs. The thals of the erstwhile Maharanas were crafted of gold or silver, but these were placed on a lowly leaf pattal, with a blade of grass served with the food. This was to remind them that fortunes can swing from high to low, and in times of prosperity, it was necessary to remember days of adversity.
Among the Rajputs, the beeda or paan - which is merely an aid to digestion in the lives of most Indians - played a meaningful role. The Rajputs swore eternal allegiance by accepting a beeda and preferred death to turning false to that beeda. Incredible tales from history are told about this unique custom. One of the bravest rulers of Rajasthan, Rana Pratap of Mewar, for instance, offered the beeda to his band of devoted warriors before a battle that could only end in certain defeat. Over 20,000 courageous horsemen took the betel as a pledge of fidelity to their chivalrous ruler. All of them perished by his side battling against the Pathan invaders in the gorge of Haldighati. Even today, the acceptance of paan signifies a pledge of friendship and honour and contracts are entered into by a mere exchange of the folded betel leaf.
And then there are other beliefs and customs in India pertaining to popular items of food. Some believe that no milk proteins must be consumed with meat for that lethal combination results in leucoderma. Another one is connected with the popular ingredient, tamarind. "The Natives have a saying that sleeping beneath the Date of Hind gives you fever, which you cure by sleeping under a Nim tree", wrote Captain R. F. Burton in 1877. There are many legends about the tamarind, which is supposed to be haunted by ghosts and spirits. Travellers are advised not to rest beneath its shade, and like many taboos in India, perhaps this one also has a practical explanation. The leaves are highly acidic and during the rain, can rapidly decompose the canvas of tents pitched beneath its shade.
The list of customs pertaining to food is endless. Take the coconut, so popular in the cuisine of the coastal areas. Its three eyes are like the three eyes of Siva, some say, and its little fibrous tuft is like the scalp lock of a Brahmin. So close is its resemblance to the human head that the coconut is broken at religious ceremonies as a powerful but bloodless sacrifice. The very word for dried coconut is copra and khopra, which in fact, means skull or shell. Although the coconut is an integral part of ceremonies from birth to death, it is never broken, however, in the presence of a pregnant woman, lest the same fate befall her child's head. Some religious people see the coconut's three-part composition - shell, kernel and liquid - as representing the Trinity, Brahma, Vishnu and Siva - an esoteric resemblance that some find more important than others.
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