The Culinary History of Dalit Identity
Never has history been so blood-stained and soaked in violence as that of caste on a plate. When culinary tradition is so intrinsically linked to the celebration of culture, what happens to the histories of foods that carry with them generations of pain, the cuisines forged from centuries of oppression?
There is no singular, homogeneous category called “Dalit food” because the Dalit community is itself so regionally and ethnically diverse. But what is common throughout Dalit history is the denial of a right as basic as that to food and water. Dalit cuisine is not common, not “trending”, not even acknowledged in mainstream discourse — precisely because this is the oldest way caste has been practised by those in power: as a tool of silencing and invisibility.
Dalit “cuisine” developed across the country as a mode of survival, born from economic necessity and the need to adapt. Dirt, pollution, water and the segregation of wells are now widely-known indicators of caste in India, but the ways in which food hierarchies were structured for Dalits still remain in the shadows, although the consequences are fairly straightforward. A majority of Dalits are non-vegetarian. Hindu caste hierarchy puts pure vegetarian Brahmins at the top, non-beef-eating non-vegetarians in the middle, and beef-eaters at the absolute bottom. A recent national survey found that over 70% of people that eat beef are from the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), 21% are from other backward castesand only 7% belong to upper castes.
What should be an obvious issue is in fact a very intentionally and historically dismissed reality; at a time when self-righteous gau-rakshaks and ardent Hindu nationalists shout in favour of Modi’s beef ban, the true cost of such religious zealotry is whisked away onto the plates of society’s most marginalised.
Upper castes didn’t want beef or pork — specifically parts of the meat like the intestines and digestive remnants - so they became the discards that Dalits had to maximise for taste and nutrition. Caste made them eat what they eat — but it’s the social narratives built around their diets that determine the everyday stigma of Dalit food practices. “Upper castes make it sound like we are dirty and that we eat things that are dirty. If I eat pig meat, I am marked a pig-eater. If an upper-caste person eats it, it becomes pork, the rich man’s delicacy,” says Dalit researcher Deepa Tak.
Within Dalit castes, too, hierarchies concerning the kinds of animal meats being consumed were predicated on occupation, as was the case with most social realities. For instance, the Mahars were known as mrutaharis, or those who eat dead animals; the Musahari in UP and Bihar were prominent because they ate rats and the Valmikis were known for taking joothan food given as charity.
However individual traditions developed for Dalit communities across India, they all shared a level of ingenuity that reflected in the resilience of Dalit assertion movements that sprung up nationally. Today, Dalit pioneers like Chandrabhan Prasad are bringing to the table inventions that challenge the most rigid foundations of Indian society, daring so-called “post-caste” citizens to eat foods made at the hands of the very Dalits ostracised for being impure. Contemporary Dalit cuisine is finally beginning to establish space for itself.
From borrowing the tricks and techniques of upper-caste kitchens and using smart substitutions to provide the same level of flavour to the dishes that were available to them, Dalit food has a complicated, traumatic and audacious culinary history. Here are a few dishes, knowledge pieced together from interviews and historical literature, that have become central to the fabric of Dalit resistance and identity over the years.
A timeless Dalit delicacy, rakti is coagulated blood cooked simply. Heat oil in a pan, add onions (if available), pour in the blood, bring it to a boil and season with chilli powder and salt.
Preserving foods was intrinsic to Dalit food practices. Not only were stocks of preserved meat a sign of wealth, but they were often necessary for the changing circumstances of Dalits. Chanya essentially comprises long slices of sun-dried beef that could last for a few months. Sun-dried pig skin, called chunchuni, was another creation, while malidas are thick wheat rotis cooked with preserved pork fat and jaggery.
Fish was an important part of the Dalit diet, particularly small fish that were redundant to bigger fishermen. Those who could afford it stored sode (shrimps, prawns), tisrya (clams) or mule in preserves, whereas poor people stored the water in which these fish were boiled. The stock was boiled till it became a thick-like sauce, called kaat, and was then stored in bottles.
Wajadi is made from scrubbing the skin of the animal’s intestines, cleaning the offal and adding salt and a little chilli powder. Spices were rarely affordable or accessible to Dalits, so the food’s flavour had to be extracted through the best possible methods of cooking.
Maande or randana roti
Just as Dalits ate rice made from corn, rotis in Dalit homes are made differently than in most other upper caste homes. Usually with a fermented dough of coarse-ground wheat flour, mota anaj and curd, in some places even pea flour, it took a long time to become soft enough to stretch into circles. “Once the dough is ready, a portion of it is stretched over the arm and allowed to hang down,” explains the recipe. “This drawn mass has to be transferred to the oiled, heated surface of an upturned earthen pot ( randan) at just the right moment, and baked.”
Red ant chutney
Although this “tribal” red ant chutney has been featured on-and-off in Indian pop culture — from a 1980s Doordarshan show to the 2017 Marathi film and even abroad, it originally comes from the region of Bastar in Chattisgarh. Called “ chaprah “, it is a pungent and spicy paste made from crushing red ants and their eggs, eaten widely at communal festivals and in local dishes.
From using sugar cane molasses in sharbats and watermelon seeds to thicken gravies, Dalit diet draws from several different social and political histories that were never deemed worthy of study. I am neither an expert on Dalit history nor Dalit myself; the mere fact that these stories are only heard when told from the privilege of being on the outside is a deep-seated systemic issue long overdue for reckoning. Because food was at the heart of untouchability, Dalits never felt their food was something to be celebrated. Food is an important manifestation of identity, and particularly for the Dalit imagination it is shaped by protracted memories of trauma and poverty — testimonies of caste violence that need to be acknowledged in sociopolitical spaces as much as in culinary ones.
Originally published at https://homegrown.co.in on November 21, 2018 by Paroma Soni.