If we are what we eat, then there is a steady stream of archival material emanating from our kitchens that must necessarily be taken seriously, sociologically speaking. Food, at the first instance, is all about nutrition and sensory perceptions. However, for the attentive listener, food is also the story of who we are as a people. If that sounds like a pithy line, the reader is encouraged to pick up a copy of Utsa Ray’s thought-provoking text, Culinary Culture in Colonial India: A Cosmopolitan Platter and the Middle-Class. Ray sets out to document the fascinating story of how the middle class in Bengal attempted to distinguish itself as a coherent social class through the medium of food in colonial India.
The colonial encounter was a defining moment for Bengali society in more ways than one. It is perhaps, natural to be on the defensive when unknown forces are creeping into a hitherto familiar terrain, clashing with ideas held precious and making changes therein. So it was for Bengalis, who developed a love-hate relationship with foreign food, introduced in Bengal as part of a complex web of global agri-capitalism. These were plants, fruits, vegetables, grains and other foodstuffs introduced into the country from foreign shores. But with it came new recipes, cuisines, cooking methods, cultivation, manufacturing and storage methods.
The emerging middle class sought to distinguish itself from the lower classes and the peasantry by being at the forefront of adopting new culinary cultures, thereby projecting their own habits as forward and modern. It was implied that the peasantry was somehow ‘un-modern’. They conveniently ignored the fact that cultivation of foreign crops was to begin with, an exercise taken up by this very peasantry, sometimes under pressure from a colonial administration hellbent on introducing their own version of ‘scientific’ agriculture in India, but sometimes out of choice.
Global influences in Bengali cuisine pre-dated colonialism. ‘Mughal’ styles had already impacted Bengali food, and several popular dishes that are an integral part of Bengali cuisine hinged on liberal borrowing from the repertory of the Muslim kings of North India. A glance through some of the earliest Bengali cookbooks will attest to this fact, although the dishes were modified as per local, Hindu, dietary flavours and preferences. Over time, quintessential English desserts such as custard, puddings and toffees made their way into Bengali cookbooks. These recipes underwent modification too. The book lists a comparison of recipes for the same dish/dessert written by English and Bengali women. It is both amusing and interesting to see how Bengali women tended to give far more precise and accurate recipes, modifying them according to their own culinary wisdom and sense of proportion. Food from different parts of India too was included.
Reducing the distance between what was indigenous and foreign was a way to signal the cosmopolitan attitude of the middle class. But there were also those who insisted that the word ‘pie’ was a derivative of the Vedic ‘pup’, or that ‘omelet’ originates from ‘ambarish’, hence attempting to grant legitimacy to the otherwise unacceptable by appropriating it within the acceptable Vedic fold. Ridiculous as it might be, it was nevertheless a strategy that lent itself to easy justification for inclusion of what could otherwise have destroyed ritual and caste purity. Some foodstuff though was entirely incapable of such redemption. The now-ubiquitous packaged biscuits were viewed with intense suspicion for a long time, and biscuits lovers had to risk social disapproval and physical injury to be able to enjoy the goods.
The Bengali middle class person became a self-appointed connoisseur of food. However, unable to let go of traditional moorings in their entirety, he, and the spokesperson was mostly a he, imbricated the cuisine in domesticity. Bengali food hence, was best enjoyed at home and not at public eateries. This is the reason perhaps why till very recently, it was next to impossible to sample it in a restaurant, although the situation has changed somewhat now. There does not seem to have been any ambition of making it a ‘national’ cuisine, spreading it’s wings beyond the boundaries of colonial era Bengal. The net result was a Bengali middle class self-referencing as cosmopolitan, while keeping it’s cuisine regional with an inordinate amount of pride.
At least part of the explanation for this insistence on domesticity must be sought in the gendered nature of cooking. Cooking for the family was the duty of the women of the household. Hindu nationalists of the time concocted a glorious past where all women cooked, and proceeded to issue instruction manuals on cooking and housekeeping, with an emphasis on refinement and cleanliness. The new middle class women were however, beginning to receive an education as a result of the efforts of social reformers. Cooking was incorporated in the curriculum in schools, and what is essentially labour was, as Ray argues, aestheticized. A woman cooking was deemed ‘labour of love’, and the best hired cooks, could not match up with their paid labour. Gender roles were most definitely reinforced, albeit in a sophisticated way, but the act of writing a cookbook by some women was also quite subversive. A purportedly domestic act was given a very public expression, one that allowed the writer to express her individuality.
Bengali cuisine had to tiptoe along the treacherous path to self-realization, lined with caste, class and communal landmines so that the middle class could carve out a niche for itself, on which to place it’s identity. Smarting from the constant accusation made by the colonials about Bengali men being of a weak constitution, with salt being poured on wounded pride by way of comparison with ‘strong North Indians’, middle class men began a spirited defence of their rice-dominated diet. Bengali men had been part of Mughal military, and the decimation of strength over time, far from being the result of too much rice, was presumed to have been caused by the scarcity of rice. Others blamed it on the poor manner in which rice was cooked in Bengal. Yet others started advocating a vegetarian diet, one that would conform to Vedic principles. Men could be forgiven for deviating by consuming meat, but if women did so, it was nothing short of a crime. Part of the reason was that meat was often cooked by Muslim chefs. But these developments appear to have been new, because counter narratives in print media ridiculed this new-found love for vegetarianism.
Scorn was also reserved for non-Bengalis, primarily Marwari traders who controlled the rice trade, and Oriyas who controlled trade in catfish. The anger manifested itself in a discourse on purity, and the Municipal Corporation of Calcutta was pushed by middle class professionals to crack down on adulteration of food. Caste faultiness could hardly be far behind. Eating with lowers castes or hiring cooks belonging to lower castes would come in for severe disapproval. A sudden spurt in the demand for brahmin cooks was possibly the result of both caste and status consciousness. There was however, a minority among the middle class that questioned the utility of caste rigidities, especially in the context of growing urbaization.
It was not sufficient for food to have a proper caste designation, it should also be free of anything remotely Muslim. Bakers, for instance, were often Muslim, and this was the reason behind the disapproval of biscuits and breads. As the taste for baked goods increased, the solution to purity issues arrived through mechanization. Machine made bread was acceptable since it was ‘untouched by hand’, which could mean both Muslim and lower caste hands. Bengali Muslims returned the favour by declaring Hindu cuisine to be inferior. The enthusiastic inclusion of meat-based dishes was a reaction to this, and an attempt to align themselves with North Indian Muslims. Beef vs goat meat matches were rife, and voices on both sides requesting people to respect the other’s habits and exercise self control were lost in the din.
The final faultline in this long, simmering battle was along regional lines. What is clubbed together under the umbrella term ‘Bengali cuisine’, was itself highly differentiated within various districts of the regions that today cover parts of Bihar, all of West Bengal and Bangladesh. Certain vegetables and types of fish were favoured in certain districts and so on. This was mostly on account of availability of a particular item or lack thereof. But it was very soon turned into an issue of superiority/inferiority. Broadly though, a rivalry emerged among the Eastern and Western parts of Bengal. East Bengalis were criticized for their spicy food, and for paying scant regard to caste and religious principles. West Bengal was ridiculed for cooking their food too sweet. The latter had also stolen a march in developing Bengal’s most famous commodity—Bengali sweets. Post Partition, refugees from East Bengal were routinely ridiculed after their arrival in Calcutta, and a massive part of this was based on food.
The colonial era Bengali middle class essentially undertook an arduous task of rejection and appropriation of food habits and practices from the abhorrent ‘other’ to create it’s own sense of identity, hinged on notions of refinement, purity and heirarchy. In the same process, it also set internal rules regarding who is permitted to cook and eat what. While counter examples are given by the author, or individuals rejecting conservative whimsies and breaking taboos, the construction of the middle class is enveloped in conservative mores. The enthusiasm for projecting itself as open-minded and cosmopolitan starts wearing thin in parts, and in others, is in constant need of rescue by maverick members of the middle class. The book is, as Ray admits, focused mostly on the Bengali Hindu middle class. It is a work of marvellous breadth. However, it would have been very interesting to read in greater detail about Bengali Muslims. Although I still do not have an answer to why fish escaped unscathed in the battle of vegetarian vs non-vegetarian, I have finally found an answer to why a positively repellent product such as arrowroot biscuit is a staple in nearly every Bengali household. And of course, a much finer understanding of the Bengali middle class.
Sucharita Sengupta is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.