Can we eat our way to a more tolerant society?


There is a closer relationship between food and fanaticism than we are normally willing to accept. I am not speaking here of the obviousness of the goons who enter private homes to check if there is beef in the refrigerator, but the point more fundamental than the socialization of a person, within a family or community, in the rules regarding permitted and prohibited foods produces a mentality that results in an attitude of tolerance or intolerance. Food builds the other diet. This then transforms into the cultural other, soon becoming the political other, and transforming itself more into the hated other. Food in India produces political fanatics.

In a country with such a diversity of food cultures, this seems like a far-fetched thesis. How can India, which is an archipelago of food islands, produce food fanaticism? Let me elaborate. Each food island has evolved its cuisine based on what is available in its natural ecosystem. As cuisine evolves, a set of conventions and rules emerge that determine what foods are allowed and prohibited, and when. These rules and conventions are accompanied by explanations. The Jains, for example, outlaw foods that grow underground, such as potatoes, beets, garlic, and onions, because uprooting them could harm the organisms that live on and with them. Uprooting violates the principle of ahimsa. Likewise, there is a heated debate among Islamic scholars as to whether foods with a touch of alcohol, such as vanilla extract, are haram or not. For Jews, only kosher foods are allowed. As communities consolidate culturally, their dietary rules become more rigid.

My interest here lies in what cannot be eaten because in these proscriptions are the seeds of social fanaticism. I am not referring to the sattwic, rajasic or tamasic categorizations that relate food to gunas since their claims of certain foods producing happiness or indolence are a matter of scientific testing. I don’t even have a problem with foods that make health claims since all of these can be tested. My problem is with foods that acquire status based on a religious text or cultural practice, haram / halal foods, or “hamare jati ke log yeh nahi khate hain” types. For them, certain higher powers give banned foods inferior qualities, properties to be avoided, such as dirty pork or dangerous garlic. This attitude is transferred to those who eat such foods. They are either dirty, ungodly, oversexual, or just inferior.

So what I mean is more than just a transfer. The processes of food socialization, from childhood, produce a sense of division of the world between those who are good, who eat the things that we do, and those who are inferior, if not bad, because they eat the things that are. proscribed by religion or cultural practice. This is why landlords all over India do not want to rent out their properties to non-vegetarians. This is why entire buildings of Mumbai’s elite Malabar Hill do not have non-vegetarian residents and do not allow non-vegetarian restaurants on their premises. The fanaticism produced by food is reflected in social life. It impacts urban spaces, undermines marriage proposals, and now, in our intolerant India, produces a “politics of otherness” where the other becomes another hostile. Because Indian cuisine is so diverse, it has the potential to slide into an uncivil war on food.

The rules on prohibited foods, which are engraved in the minds of young people when they first socialize, produce a state of mind that leads to such fanaticism. Others, who do not conform to these rules, are judged inferior, to be opposed and even to despise. It is this state of mind that is gaining strength in India. Growing political intolerance is therefore being forged not only in the shakhas but also in the kitchens of India.

There is, however, another trend that is also developing. If one goes to central Bangalore or the Fort district in Mumbai, one will see a proliferation of restaurants serving food from all over the world. There are restaurants serving Italian, Thai and Chinese, fusion or Asian dishes, including dishes from Vietnam, Indonesia, Korea and China. Alongside the fanatic Indian, it seems, the food fusionista is also making an appearance. These Indians are not only ready to break through cultural taboos of forbidden food, but are also ready to experiment with elements from different cuisines to produce a new mixed food menu. Fusionistas are cool about food adventure. Pizza may have started life as an Italian appetizer, but ended up becoming a Gujarati snack. Only the Indian noodle, a Chinese infiltration, has gained more popular support. This food fusion can be called multiculturalism. Think about the most multicultural place in the world, New York, and you will see restaurants from all over serving all types of food. Dietary diversity is what you see in cities giving way to cultural tolerance. The diversity of food consumption is a good indicator of a tolerant society. This is why, I guess, some people hate Lutyens Delhi.

If a lot of Indians are willing to cross over and become culinary fusionists, while liking their mother’s cooking, I think we will be a more tolerant country. After all, Indian cuisine has evolved through such borrowings which remain insufficiently recognized. I can’t imagine the cultural nationalists in Nagpur thanking the Portuguese colonists for giving us the humble potato and the hot pepper. Even our ubiquitous samosa, it seems, has a debt abroad. A tolerant India demands that our public spaces offer more diverse foods from everywhere – not just paneer pizzas from Ahmedabad, but pork from Nagaland and beef from Kerala. Food festivals such as the Beef Festival in HCU, Hyderabad, or a Pork Festival in JNU or an Udipi thali in AMU are the way to go if we are to become a more tolerant society. I was delighted to hear, a few years ago, the son of a friend Marwari become a chef specializing in fish dishes. Think about the mental journey he and his family had to take to break Marwari’s food taboos. It’s the future. I have often wondered if anyone who ate and enjoyed this minced mutton dosa in the 1970s in the Delhi School of Economics canteen had become a fanatic later in life.

Peter Ronald deSouza is DD Kosambi Visiting Professor at the University of Goa. Opinions are personal. The book he co-edited with Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Keywords for India was published in 2020 by Bloomsbury UK

Previous 3 major changes to holiday rules could be announced this week in huge overseas travel boost
Next Startup Boston rewards the winners of the Startup Boston's Community Awards

No Comment

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.