Dalit Identity And Food – Memories Of Trauma On A Plate

Dalit Identity And Food – Memories Of Trauma On A Plate

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?

Says Pune-based visual artist and ethnographer of Dalit origins, Rajyashri Goody, “There is no “Dalit cuisine”—these culinary traditions are as diverse as the regions and communities in which they originated.” 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.

To re-establish, Dalit is not a social grouping. As Ashwaq Masoodi suggests, ‘Dalit’ is “a term popularised as an assertion of social anger and self-respect by Ambedkar, it is now a political category encompassing all lower castes, particularly the “untouchables”.”

Dalit culinary traditions developed across the country as a mode of survival, born from economic necessity and the need to adapt. Says Dalit researcher Deepa Balkisan Tak, “Be it land, water or food, Dalits never had any rights to anything. Food practices were never made out of choice (but were the fallout) of a lack of options. Pork and beef became part of the Dalit cuisine because it was easily available because the upper castes didn’t want it.” 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 castes and 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 levitate 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 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 (leftover) 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 activism 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 is a complicated, traumatic and audacious culinary story that we have attempted to shed modest light on. Here are a few dishes that have become central to the fabric of Dalit resistance and identity over the years.

I. Rakti

Rakti from western India is made out of oil, goat blood, onion, red chilli powder, and salt. The coagulated blood is reduced into a spicy thick paste and eaten with jolada (jowar) roti.

Preparation of Rakti, a dish made of coagulated blood

II. Chanya

Preserving foods has been 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 the people. Chanya essentially comprises long slices of sun-dried beef that could last for a few months. Sun-dried pigskin, called chunchuni, was another creation, while malidas are thick wheat rotis cooked with preserved pork fat and jaggery.

III. Kaat

Fish was an important part of the Dalit diet, particularly small fish that were redundant to bigger fishermen. In her book, The Weave of my life: Memoirs of a Dalit Woman, Urmila Pawar says, “The rich stored the flesh of sode (shrimps, prawns), tisrya (clams) or mule; poor people stored the water in which these fish were boiled. The stock was boiled till it became a thick-like sauce and was then stored in bottles. This was called Kaat.”

IV. Wajadi

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 the Dalit community, so the food’s flavour had to be extracted through the best possible methods of cooking.

Preparation of goat-based Wajadi. Source: Youtube

V. Maande or Randana roti

Rotis are made differently from 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.”

VI. 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 film Newtonand even abroad, it originally comes from the region of Bastar in Chattisgarh. Called ‘chaprah’, it is a pungent and spicy paste made by crushing red ants and their eggs, eaten widely at communal festivals and in local dishes.

Dalit diet draws from several different social and political histories that have sparsely been 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 heartbreaking truth that has to change. 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.

Feature image source: Shahu Patole | Express Foodie

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