Friday, January 8

Nation on a Platter

You might have heard about this quote: "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are", by Anthelme Brillat-Savarin who was a gourmet and lawyer in his book, The Physiology of Taste, published in 1825. It is quite true, we form some significant social and cultural frameworks around what we eat. What is also very interesting is how the cuisine has changed or has changed because of external influences. For example, I am hearing so much about the rise in the eating of meat + diary products in India and China and how that is driving the increased carbon emissions across the world as well as leading to something of a food crisis.

Over the past few years, my interest in food has grown after having had dropped into a hiatus. Grew up in a Bengali household which loved food, and Ma has won many prizes in cooking all kinds of wonderful dishes in the continental, desserts, Bengali, Mughlai etc culinary ranges. And of course you have macher jhol bhaat (fish curry and rice) which is the staple food for all Bongs. Then for various reasons, went off food as a thing to be savoured and it became something that needs to be done. Had the opportunity to eat in many countries but never really managed to enjoy and savour it till few years back when I left smoking. That's when I rediscovered my palate. Also, it allowed me to spend time in the kitchen with the kids, with my little princess being the chef in charge of the recipe book, my son as the helper, me as the general dogsbody and my wife as the helper/saver/firefighter/advisor, etc. Quite a lot of fun to be had and these days, the entire deciding on the recipe, shopping for the ingredients, the preparation, the cooking, the eating has become a weekend family activity. Much fun to be had.

But besides that, I am also exploring the history and culture behind the various cuisines of the world and have made friends with some good gastronomic experts, such as Vikram Doctor of the Economic Times who is an absolute giant in this area, my friend Luca who is a Cordon Bleu chef etc. So it was with interest that I noticed a paper (details at the bottom) which talks about the food and cuisine in Colonial Bengal times. The basic underlying argument is interesting. When the Brits came over, they felt that eating tons of meat was a clear distinction between themselves and the natives in Bengal. Here's an example of a menu at an ordinary British household in Calcutta.

We dine too at two o’clock in the very heat of the day . . . I will give you our bill of fare . . . . A soup, a roast fowl, curry and rice, a mutton pie, a fore-quarter of lamb, a rice pudding, tarts, very good cheese, fresh churned butter, fine bread, excellent Madeira (that is expensive but eatables are very cheap).

another one:

Our chota haziri, or little breakfast, was at five-thirty to six, and consisted of tea, eggs boiled or poached, toast and fruit . . . . Breakfast at eleven consisted of fried or broiled fish, a dish or two of meat—generally fowl cutlets, hashes and stews, or cold meat and salad followed by curry and rice and dessert. We drank either bottled beer—the universal Bass—or claret . . . . Between four and five there was tea and cakes, . . . . Dinner at half past seven or eight consisted of soup, and entr´ee, roast fowls or ducks, occasionally mutton, and in cold weather once or twice beef, an entremet of game or a savoury, and sweets

I feel full just reading the damn description. Can you imagine this kind of food being ingested? But this is what was considered as "masculine" behaviour, the antithesis of the feminine Indian Hindu man, who mostly ate rice and vegetables. I quote:

According to the eighteenth-century historian, Robert Orme, the diet of the ‘people of Indostan’ exacerbated these shortcomings, dependent as it was on rice, an ‘easily digestible’ food, obtained with little labour, and thus ‘the only proper one for such an effeminate race’. Even among such ‘generally lethargic’ people, Bengalis were especially known for their feeble, ‘effeminate’ ways, and for their slothful habits. Herbert Risley, the amateur British ethnologist and physical anthropologist, observed that Bengali effeminacy had much to do with the ‘relaxing climate’, the ‘enfeebling diet’, and the premature maternity of women

This was discussed at great length around the 1870's in the Hindu Mela Meetings and a quote gives an interesting view of the reaction of the grand poo bah's in Bengali society. See the links with marital race, military powers, etc.

Consider, for example, the following passage from a treatise on food written by Chunilal Bose, a Chemistry Professor at the Calcutta Medical College and one-time Chemical Examiner to the Government of Bengal: The health and physique of the Bengalis were not so poor a few generations ago. Time was when the people of this province were not unaccustomed to military life and service, for they formed regiments which successfully fought against the disciplined army of the Mughal Emperors of Delhi. In the latter half of the 18th century . . . they showed their prowess, courage, endurance and the other manly qualities of a soldier in successfully counteracting the military operations of the French in the struggle for supremacy in South India. There was then plenty of nourishing food (such as milk and fish) available in the land, and people could afford to take them in the right quantity. It is the dearth of these two staple articles of food in Bengal at the present moment that has made the diet of the generality of the people so poor in its nutritive value and has contributed to the deterioration of the health and the lowering of the resisting power against the onslaught of diseases. It is the duty of every true son of Bengal to devise means and adopt measures for the increased supply of milk and fish throughout the province. This will improve the diet of the people and make the country smile once again in health and prosperity.

So what's the recommendation?

In order to make up for the deficiency in protein, he prescribed ‘a more liberal allowance of protein-foods of animal origin [e.g. milk, fish, meat and eggs] in the present-day diet of the people’.

Because of all these pressures, couple of interesting changes came up and that are cookbooks and the expression of what a proper housewife should be able to cook/serve in her household. A typical bhadramahila in the Bengali household should be able to (and this was in 1874):

Native Brahmin dishes of rice and curry; meat in the Moghul style; sweetmeats made from chhana, coconut, semolina, lentils, pumpkin, and thickened milk; western-style pickles and jams, cakes, biscuits, puddings, and bread; and Indian roti, luchi, and puri

Funny that I can recognise this in my own mother's cuisine. Not much has changed, eh? But at the same time, to aid the lady, cookbooks started coming out. The first one came out in 1831 and a second edition in 1854. The first magazine dedicated to cooking emerged in 1883. See this quote from a book published in 1900 as an example of how far cuisine and martial feelings got involved:

In our Bengal, some aspects [of life] are characterized by a lack of orderliness (bidhibaddha bhav). In this country, there is no discipline (srinkhala) and finesse (paripatya) in any matter. This [distinctively] Bengali trait is especially noticeable in the way we eat. Fish and cream (kshir) freely go together to make an abra-ca-dabra of our diet; such a diet is asmuch detrimental to health as it is against the scriptures (shastra). One of my principal objectives is to rescue the Bengali cuisine from this chaos, and to give it a disciplined character. Unless this is done, Bengali cuisine will never develop a backbone. It is not of much use to collect a few recipes and publish them in a book. Just as a disciplined regiment of even a few soldiers is of much greater use in war than the mobilization of millions of troops, so is discipline a crucially important matter in the writing of cookbooks. This discipline is not evident in the few books on food that have been written in Bengal. It is for this reason that I have started with the staple vegetarian food of rice, and [then] systematically moved on to other categories.

But now comes the other pressure point, and that is the nationalistic pressures to create an Independent India. And that meant that the cuisine again had to show some difference between the natives and the British. Guess where this goes? It goes to the vegetarian versus non-vegetarian business. While the author does not mention this, but this also leads to the rise of Hindu nationalism via the vegetarianism versus the Muslim non-vegetarianism. There is much discussion on the dharmic (both Hindu and Buddhist) nature of  vegetarianism. Anyway to show the civilisational refinement of the East versus the materialistic West, this quote is great:

‘To this date, the Europeans have not mastered the exquisite art of combining different vegetables [into a marvellous dish] . . .. Many a century will pass before the Western race will manage to learn these mysteries of vegetarian cooking’.

Swami Vivekananda, interestingly enough, took the opposite view:

As long as men have to practise rajas, as required by the modern age, there is no other alternative than meat-eating. It is true that king Asoka saved the lives of a couple of millions of animals by his sword, but is not a thousand years’ slavery even more terrible than this? Which is a greater sin—to kill a few goats, or to fail to protect the honour of my wife and daughter, and to fail to prevent others from plundering the food meant for my children? Let those who belong to the elite, and do not have to win their bread by physical labour, shun meat. But as for those who have to provide for their subsistence by means of continuous physical toil, forcing them to be vegetarians is one of the reasons for the eclipse of our national independence. Japan is an illustration of what good, nutritious food can achieve.

The debate still keeps on going. As I mentioned, 100 years on from the above debate, its still raging but now its an issue of climate change.
I quote:

“The first elephant is the huge increase in demand from emerging countries like China and India. These countries are eating more meat. It takes about 4 kg of cereals to produce one kg of pork, and about two kg of cereals to make one kg of poultry meat. So a dietary shift towards meat in countries with populations of over 1 billion people each has an enormous impact on commodity markets,” noted the Danish commissioner.

Read some more about this. 

This is something that I have seen quite a lot, specially in USA and EU, their carbon consumption is not really going down, but they are now getting concerned about the carbon consumption of China and India. Well, tough, you cannot stop the change in dietary requirements, folks. Here's an idea, think about GM foods, but no, that's not good either. Anyway, I dont want to go banging on and on about this, but I thought this historical argument was quite interesting to see how one part of the culture of India has changed due to pressures coming in from outside as well as inside.

Nation on a Platter: the Culture and Politics of Food and Cuisine in Colonial Bengal, by JAYANTA SENGUPTA, Department of History, University of Notre Dame, 219 O’Shaughnessy Hall, Notre Dame, IN 46556, USA.
Modern Asian Studies 44, 1 (2010) pp. 81–98. C Cambridge University Press 2009 doi:10.1017/S0026749X09990072

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