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On Jain /Indian food taboos …

Rich man's food sampler across India

Rich man's food sampler across India

Some years back my grandmother employed a cook called Mary … a good cook … also fond of eating … particularly … non-vegetarian food … my grandmother … would give Mary a little extra money to buy meat or fish for herself … knowing my interest in food, she asked Mary to let me taste what she had cooked for herself that day.

Mary … wondering … brought out a small bowl of what looked like chopped long beans, but whitish, and in a rich brown gravy. They were goats’ intestines she said, waiting for me to refuse them. But, of course, I didn’t and it was delicious — the slight chewiness was more than made up by the rich, savoury gravy, which had a slight jelly-like thickness. I knew … that some organ meats like liver and brain are eaten for their own unique texture, but others are more valued for the rich savour of their juices, and these intestines were like that.

Once she knew I was interested in her food, Mary would happily serve me some, always the really cheap meats she bought. Another time she cooked salt fish curry, and again it was delicious, with a tang that you never get with fresh fish. It was the sort of dish you would never find in a restaurant, partly from genuine constraints — the Taj Group’s Chef Ananda Solomon told me wistfully he would love to serve the Mangalorean salt fish dishes of his childhood at his Konkan Cafe, but doesn’t dare for fear of the smell penetrating and lingering through his hotel kitchen — but also because most customers would not order what they saw as poor people’s food.

I thought of Mary’s food when I read that the Dalit poet and activist Namdeo Dhasal has started a restaurant … due to the financial problems … and it sounds like a regular place serving North Indian style kebabs and curries, but … he also plans to serve lesser known dishes like a curry of harandodi flowers and vazri, which is intestines and tripe (the stomachs of ruminants). These are dishes typically associated with Dalits … generally, the poor who could not afford other foods … one has to be careful in talking about Dalit food … For most of their history the basic fact of Dalit lives was hunger … there is another side to the food of Dalits, or just the really poor, who were forced into eating things that the rich upper castes would not touch … quite often there is real value in such food, and tripe is a good example.  There are also regional Indian dishes for tripe and intestines, like Kashmiri chuste, for which the first ingredient … is, vividly, “3 feet of intestines.” But as with salt fish, restaurants are too squeamish to serve such dishes, and I am guessing that it is also disappearing from home kitchens for that reason, and also because of the labour involved in making them. One of the reasons we value ingredients like chicken breast is because so little effort is involved in making  it, whereas salt fish must be soaked and tripe cleaned many times before it can be used. The reward is their great taste, as compared to the lack of any for broiler chicken breasts, but perhaps we are also uncomfortable with such deep, complex flavours these days.

But these are flavours that Dhasal would know well. His father worked in a Muslim butcher’s shop in Mumbai, and one of the perks was to take home whatever scraps of meat were left over at the end of day, which would definitely have included offal meats. His mother would cook them all into one sustaining stew, and perhaps it is this that he plans to serve in his restaurant. The harandodi flowers sound like they come from another food tradition of the poor — the wild leaves and flowers foraged in the countryside.

The Deccan Development Society, an Andhra Pradesh-based organisation that works with predominantly Dalit women in rural areas has catalogued the amazing variety of foraged greens they know of, many of them with vital nutritional and health values. Not all make for good eating, but some definitely do, and this would be a welcome vegetarian addition to such a restaurant.

There are also the fish and shellfish which Urmila Pawar writes about in Aaydan, her autobiography  … notable for capturing not just the many miseries of Dalit women’s lives, but also their small, fleeting pleasures. For example … collection of shellfish — backbreaking work, and dangerous too, since the tide could suddenly rise and drown you. Yet one of the pleasures was the oysters that could be found under the further rocks, and “once on shore, they would spread the oyster shells on it, cover these with dry leaves and twigs and bake the oysters.”

Another dish that Pawar remembers is katyacha motla, made from small river fish, “cleaned and covered with a paste made of amsul, turmeric, oil and salt. Next they would be wrapped in leaves of the kumbhi tree and tied with thin long strips cut from the stems of wild creepers. The packet was kept in the stove under hot ash, sometimes even for eight days… This was a very tasty dish and while it lasted our mouths kept watering all the time.” One thing also worth noting about such dishes is their nutritional and environmental value. Since rice was too expensive … most Dalits had to eat millets like jowar and bajra; yet it these millets which are being extolled today for their environmental value in requiring far less water than wheat or rice, and also for their exceptional nutritional qualities, which results in them being sold in health food shops in cities at prices that would boggle the minds of the poor who ate them from lack of choice. As I said, it is hardly surprising that when they do have a choice, many spurn them, yet there is some sense in preserving such traditions, and someone with the influence of Dhasal, is ideally placed to do so in his restaurant. (via The poor man’s palate:On My Plate :Vikram Doctor’s blog-The Economic Times).

Curious tales

This post from Vikram Doctor, unraveled to me, a part of Indian cuisine, that was long a mystery. A tribe in Bihar specializes in diet limited to rats – the mushahaaris. Why don’t Jains eat anything that grows underground – potatoes, onions, garlic, ginger, carrots, et al. Similarly, Agarwals-Marwaris also have taboos against onions and garlic.

These taboos are covered by a patina of a folk-religion and tales. Onions and garlic were cursed by Shiva, for instance. There are no references in any classical texts for such a curse by Shiva. Then there are thin moral explanations, surrounding the taboos and preferences in Indian communities. Onion and garlic ‘contaminate’ the mind with ‘dirty’ thoughts – and increase ‘sexual desire’.

Not a good idea, you will agree!

A study in parallels

The Indian food conundrum!

The Indian food conundrum!

Looking at how property, gold, trade and commerce were historically organized in India – so was food. In a non-competitive manner.

Everyone could and did invest in gold. Property was every peasant’s right – till the Desert Bloc started the Great Indian Land Grab, 800 years ago. Like how trade were reserved for certain communities – which later ossified into an exclusive, caste system.

Similarly, the food system seems to have evolved. The rich did not compete with the poor for cheaper foods. Roots and tubers – like onions, garlic, carrots, are all low-cost vegetables. And rich traders (like Jains /Agrawals-Marwaris) did not compete with the poor for the same items.

Could this be the logic?

  1. samadhyayi
    November 24, 2010 at 5:45 am

    what logic.

    the upper castes have rules. while the lower castes have no rules. who is upper and who is lower is determined by the number of rules they have to follow.

    lower caste people didnt have to follow any rules. that is why their low social status. the lower caste people liked their lifestyle and thought that was better than that of higher caste people. (this was not so during british rule . because plight of lower caste people during british rule was very bad.)
    lower caste people dreaded to follow the rules and regulations of higher caste people. and they thought higher caste people didnt know how to enjoy life.
    that is the logic.
    lower caste people dont eat intestines and testicles because they cant afford other organs but because they want to eat these things.

  2. June 10, 2011 at 1:47 pm

  3. June 10, 2011 at 2:41 pm


    I think, your logic is wrong.. the quotes you said is by a person who did not understand the food habits of people, but yet, comfortably tied the dalit identity to it.

    The upper caste and lower caste in our society is based on the roles and associated disciplines the people has to follow.. for the brahmins, the onion and garlic is a big NO in south india.. (atleast as per tradition).. the reason is that a brahmin should not succumb to this desires..

    Similarly, for those who are at leadership roles, the Non-vegetarian food is a must NO.. and i have many living examples in my community..

    As we go to the upper castes they are called “Upper Castes” only because of their discipline they follow in life.. And food is an integral part of their life code..

    whereas in western society, the upper caste is defined by their wealth, power and status..

    Unfortunately, in india, the western meaning is imposed on indian society..

    For the jains, they follow the brahminic food style, because, they should not fall by vices.. as they handle with large money, naturally any wealthy people would fall to vices, like madhu, maadhu & mamisa.. even today, we cannot find any traditional jain or marwari, no matter, how wealthy they are, do not fall to any vices..

  4. June 12, 2011 at 9:20 am

    I think Vikram Doctor’s factual observation is important. Vikram Doctor’s factual examination on food is good. His commentary and conclusions are finally opinion.

    It is dangerous to use words like Class (as in Marxism), Caste (as in colonial historiography) Dalit (post independence progressive-liberal invention) because there is long history of perversion, inversion and agenda. Rich and poor are simple.

    How a society deals with the rich and poor is the key to its success. Poverty due to structure (as in Desert Bloc systems) or poverty due to circumstances, misfortune, calamity, human aggression are two different things.

    Bharattantra prevents the first kind of poverty – and enables members to find solutions to the second type. It is then not for the State to step in with JRY schemes.

    Your comment implies that Upper castes and lower castes were a permanent feature of Indian society. I find that hard to agree with.

  5. June 12, 2011 at 10:19 am


    Can we relate poverty to food? we need to relook in to what poverty means?

    In my opinion, poverty is lack of means of survival and NOT lack of luxury, or lack of certain things.. west defines poverty based on standars, which is absurd in my opinion..

    i am from farming community.. in our community itself, people have food style, based on the environment, region, and the mode of agriculture.. My family evolved from a dry region, and our food is based on maize etc.. whereas, my relative families near river banks have rice to eat.. Can we say, maize is for poor, or rice is for wealthy?

    And the old system in the village is that farm labourers (who are now classified as dalits) get a share of the produce from fields.. wages were paid in terms of grains, whether its maize or rice.. Only in the last 20 years, the money system started creeping in.. thus both the rich and poor had the same kind of food..

    So in my opinion, there is no competition b/w rich or poor.. the food depended on the geographic character and local agriculture pattern..

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