When was the last time you visited a restaurant with all Dalit chefs? Or picked up a cookery book with authentic recipes of Dalit cuisines? Or even bought a masala unique to Dalit recipes?
Possibly never. For that matter, what counts as ‘Dalit food’ to begin with, you may ask. Not very surprisingly, the omniscient Google would be of little help here. Type ‘Brahmin recipes’ on the search bar, and you’ll be deluged with options, each sounding more tempting than the other. But type ‘Dalit recipes’, and suddenly Google Baba is as blank as the rest of the country.
It is this invisible character of Dalit food that Dalit entrepreneur and adviser to the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Chandrabhan Prasad, is seeking to address through his new e-commerce venture dalitfoods.com which was launched this month. It’s food of the Dalits, by the Dalits, but not for (just) the Dalits. With products like the unique mango pickle, turmeric and coriander powder, dry pea flour and barley flour among others, Prasad wants to bring to the mainstream food stuffs that have been used by Dalits for eons, even as the rest of the country remained oblivious of their existence.
“I want to tell the society, ‘here are your ideas of purity and pollution, and here is this hygienic and healthy food stuff, now take your pick’,” says Prasad. The e-commerce business, co-owned by Prasad and his wife Meera Saroj, took five years to materialise. “My friends cautioned me saying it is a big risk,” he admits. “They tell me it’s an ‘ad-venture’, not a ‘venture’.”
So have we as a country progressed enough to consume food, which is unabashedly Dalit? The answers may be conflicting, although Prasad remains optimistic. More than 90 per cent of the orders received until now are from what he calls “elite addresses”. To be fair, with a 350 gm mango pickle bottle that costs Rs 250, that is not very surprising. It seems, as though, Prasad wants to make Dalit foods an aspiration – one which you need to be able to afford.
But considering how often caste and class continue to coincide even today, that is a telling figure. “There is a social elite in India which would choose health over caste,” says Prasad. “I am catering to them”. But he doesn’t want to stop at them. Once embraced by this “social elite”, he is hopeful that these food stuffs will percolate down to other parts of the society as well. Future plans include expanding the limited offering available on dalitfoods.com and sourcing common spices and masalas from Dalit farmers in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
Prasad maintains that his is a “first of its kind venture”. Asked if there have been other such experiments, he says that he is aware of a few Dalits who own restaurants but they are careful to not announce their Dalit identity. “You see, in society, there is no prize for being Dalit,” he adds. Which is probably also the reason why the products are not manufactured under a brand name which has the word ‘Dalit’ but is only sold through a ‘Dalit channel’. Prasad explains that he does not want to force others of his community to come out and tag their products and their caste identities.
Obviously the task of upending inextricably tied up hierarchies of caste and food seems to be an uphill one. The tendrils of caste and notions of purity and pollution that accompany food in India are difficult to uproot, to say the very least. While there is an array of cuisines across the country, each with details impossible to document in their entirety, the most fundamental distinction between Indian foods is that between vegetarian and non-vegetarian. Unlike in other parts of the world, however, in India this distinction is not based on personal choices, at least traditionally. In fact, the exercise of individual choice in these matters is seen as a transgression, the kind for which one may be severely castigated.
In this land known for its myriad flavours and esoteric recipes, vegetarianism and non-vegetarianism are not just different, they are hierarchical. While the former suggests purity and piousness, the latter impurity and depravity. Is it a coincidence then that the upper castes are associated with vegetarianism and the lower with non-vegetarianism? Perhaps not.
The food culture in India corroborates French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu’s assertion about taste like no other. One’s taste is often determined by the social position one occupies, he postulated. Where could this be truer than in a country where your caste determines whether or not you eat onions, garlic, and yes, beef?
The implications of this are far-reaching. There has been “a normalisation of the dominant Brahmin palate” nationally, explains Vaseem Chaudhary, a Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) graduate and one of the makers of ‘Caste on the Menu Card’, a documentary film on beef-eating practices in Mumbai. “Dal-roti,” he says, “is not food for a student coming to study from the North-East, for example”. But in canteens and cafeterias across universities, including TISS, this remains the standard menu. “The extent of normalization is such that what only 20 per cent of Indians eat is passed off as ‘Indian food’,” he argues.
It is to break this myth of what constitutes “normal and pure food” that ventures like Prasad’s are crucial. It has hitherto only been routine to run into cookery books with names such as ‘The Courtly Cuisine: Kayastha Kitchens Through India’ or ‘Why Onions Cry: Peek into an Iyengar Kitchen’. Their market has perhaps not dwindled. It would thus be interesting to know whether an average middle-class consumer who unthinkingly picks up a ‘Brahmin sambhar powder’ off a shelf in a supermarket would be willing to pick up a ‘Dalit mango pickle’ from the adjacent shelf with the same ease.