Covering the Coverage of South Asian Food: Winter 2020/2021 Edition, Pt. 2

I’d said I post the second part of my Winter 2020-21 round-up of writing on South Asian food two Sundays ago but when have I ever kept my word? (See here for the first part; by the way, “Winter 2020/2021” refers to when this roundup is being posted not to when the articles were published. While most were indeed published in the last few months the entire period covered in both lists is that since the “Late Summer 2020 Edition“.)

As I noted in the previous entry, this series is now no longer even pretending to be focused centrally on writing on South Asian food produced in the US and UK. There’s really no reason why I shouldn’t draw your attention to interesting pieces published in the subcontinent as well. This change of focus may have accounted for the uncharacteristic rush of positivity in the previous entry—the first I think since I began this series that didn’t include any criticisms. This entry too has a number of pieces published in Indian venues; but, as it happens, I do have strong reservations about one of the pieces in this list and it was published in Goya Journal. We’ll start with the positives and then get to the critique. 

1.  Speaking of the Late Summer 2020 Edition, today’s list leads with a piece by a writer who’d showed up in that list as well: Vidya Balachander. It has recently been announced that Vidya B. will be editing the South Asian vertical of Whetstone’s W Journal (which I’d mentioned two weeks ago) and I couldn’t be happier for what this will mean for the development of South Asian food writing. Anyway, right now I want to highlight her excellent piece for Vittleswhich continues to be a necessary read for anyone interested in food—on the place of karak chai in Dubai. To quote myself from Twitter, to read this piece is “to see the the city not through the usual lens of moneyed hyper-reality–malls, indoor skiing, abandoned sports cars–but from below, as a hybrid city traversed and remade by less privileged migrants.”

A bonus: please also read her piece from December 2020 in Himal Southasian on food, power and protest.

2. Sticking with pieces to do with the farmers’ protest, I was very pleasantly surprised to see this piece on by an Indian chef. Surprised because I don’t think I’ve previously come across major political interventions of any kind by Indian chefs (no, please don’t mention Vikas Khanna). The writer, Raghav Simha, works in Bangkok, which insulates him from the controversy that would doubtless have surrounded him immediately if he were based in India. His piece, which starts with the changes ushered in by the Green Revolution in the 1970s, does an excellent job of linking the pitfalls of industrial farming with the role chefs and restaurants can play in popularizing alternative crops and the need for the restaurant industry to recognize that farmers are their most important stakeholders.

3. Back in November I enjoyed Shirin Mehrota’s piece on sattu for the inevitable W Journal. Now on the verge, if not past it, of becoming a trendy “superfood”, sattu’s origins and original affiliations are far more lower class and rural. Mehrotra deftly traces the history, the geographies and the politics of the movement of sattu, as well as its various regional forms. The question raised at the end of the article of the recoding if not appropriation of foods by bourgeois markets and consumers is not answered but is one that reverberates in a number of settings.

4. For Food52 Meher Mirza writes about the remarkable career of Thangam Philip, by any measure one of the most important figures in the development of Indian food in the post-independence era. A prolific author of recipe books and the head of the Institute of Hotel Management at its inception, Philip was among the first to systematize and modernize approaches to Indian cooking, linking it not just to cultural tradition but to nutrition and food science/technology. Mirza’s essay functions almost as a book proposal: I hope someone will commission her to write one about Philip and her contemporaries (like Mrs. K.M Mathew).

5. A remarkable career of another kind was that of J. Ranji Smile, as chronicled by Mayukh Sen in a piece published just this week in Vox. Sen is among the most gifted culture writers in American media and in his piece—which draws on the work of Sarah Lohman and Vivek Bald—the story of Smile is not just that of the enigmatic figure who may have been the first American celebrity chef but of the poles of exoticism and suspicion between which Indian—and more broadly Asian—identity in the US has been suspended for a very long time. There is a novel or bingeable TV adaptation waiting in here, by the way: connect Smile—who disappeared from the record—to the Ghadar party and you’re off (50% of net profits to come to me).

6. From this week all the way back to last September: I really enjoyed this piece by Vinay Kumar on Goya Journal that goes over the foods of Dalit communities, which remain—as Kumar notes—outside the mainstream of Indian cultural identity which remains upper caste Hindu by default. Kumar sketches the histories of oppression that mark both the consumption of certain foods and their erasure from mainstream food discourse; he also notes that the very existence of these food practices is a way of resisting erasure. One can only hope he is at work on a larger book on the subject. He also provides a recipe for goat blood fry. (Speaking of books and Dalit food, early in the essay Kumar notes that there are no Dalit cookbooks. This is not, strictly speaking, true. Shahu Patole’s book Anna He Apoornabrahma was published a few years ago in Marathi; I’m still waiting for an English translation.)

7. And so now to a piece I appreciated some aspects of but also had some major reservations about: Sumana Roy’s piece on “Bata”, also for Goya Journal.

Roy’s essay seeks to highlight a humble part of the Bengali home-cooking repertoire, the bata: a broad genre of dishes crushed/ground to a paste using a shil nora. I am all for the foregrounding of aspects of cuisines that don’t make it into the dominant culture’s iconic representation of itself and for the excavation of cultural histories that are often embedded in these dishes and modes of cooking. And so in the main I am in support of the broad kind of thing Roy is after here (and her description of the process of making a bata is very good). But many of the other particulars, both stylistic and substantive, I find somewhat problematic.

First, while what might be called the “poetic” mode of culture writing has its pleasures, in this piece it takes the form of substituting an impressionistic survey, a sort of aesthetic of sensation for depth. This is signaled early in the piece when she says of pesto that “I suspect that the word comes from ‘pestle’”. Now even a cursory look at Wikipedia would show that in fact pesto does not come from pestle but that the Italian pesto/pestare and the English pestle come from the same Latin root. There’s really no need to “suspect” relationships when it takes barely any effort to look etymologies up. (By the way, while I’m not surprised that in the Indian food world the natural place to go to for an international “comparative”, as Roy puts it, turns out to be Italy and not, say, neighbouring Southeast Asia, I do find it odd that she does not mention the fact that very similar preparations are made in many other parts of India as well.) You might say this is a trivial matter but it’s representative of the approach of the piece as a whole which privileges feelings over analysis.

Later, for example, she wonders whether since bata is “food that is dependent on touch…it has been unable to jump past the caste and class barrier”. The evidence we are given here is that batas are “denied a place at Bengali wedding feasts, picnic menus, or even get-togethers”. With other dishes we are told “it is possible to avoid the touch of the cook or the person serving meals with serving spoons and ladles”. The confusion here may be apparent even to those who’ve not eaten at Bengali weddings, picnics and get-togethers. For one thing, the fact that a bata is made by hand need have no bearing on how it could be served—it too could be served with a ladle. For another, many dishes in all these settings are made and served by hand. Finally, there are many dishes that are iconic in the Bengali food imagination that rely on the bata process: shorse-bata maach or poshto, for example. In other words, there’s not much coherence to the argument advanced here but the alibi for that is the “I suspect” and “I wonder” mode of the writing.

The other major problem I have with the piece is the location, or more accurately the lack of location of the subject position of the writer. There is a salutary attempt being made here to forge affiliations across class lines—the sources of the bata that Roy eats at various points in the essay are women of a lower class than herself. But the piece oscillates uneasily between their subject positions. Early in the piece we are told that when Roy “first ate rice with a greenish paste from Jharna-didi’s lunch box” it was “history that I held inside my mouth”. My first thought is “I hope you didn’t spit it out then” but my second is to wonder how this history works in this essay. We are told of Jharna-didi’s family’s movement from Bangladesh to Bengal (presumably in the wake of 1971; no particulars are given), a wrenching story of privation and poverty, but given no sense of her relationship to Roy, or Jharna-didi’s life beyond her family’s migration story. Jharna-didi’s history is in Roy’s mouth but what happens when she eats it?

A similar thing happens a few paragraphs later with Sapna-didi, another purveyor of batas to Roy. Sapna-didi is presumably a family cook but this relationship is presented rather euphemistically via the phrase “When Sapna-didi began cooking for us”. The asymmetrical relationship of employment is elided into a partnership of eating. Sapna-didi we are told was born into a landed family in Bangladesh but is now living a life of greater privation in West Bengal. How she came from one status to the other and what’s Roy’s own position within her transformed life is is not mentioned.

And there is finally no accounting for the position of Roy herself or those of her families (her natal family or the one she married into) who seem to have very different taste preferences than her. Do the class/caste barriers she refers to elsewhere in the essay apply to them as well and their relationship with batas? How does Roy herself come to diverge from these (presumable) attitudes? These questions are not raised. Instead we get long descriptions of Roy and Sapna-didi making and eating various batas together while Jharna-didi disappears altogether. Vivid descriptions of the act of cooking and eating then become a substitute for accounting for messier class relationships.

The histories of privation and wrenching migration in the essay are those of Jharna-didi and Sapna-didi but in the essay the culmination of these histories seems to be to the production of the subject position of someone like Roy herself: a person unencumbered by the complications of these histories but with the ability to enjoy the batas that emerge from them. I am all for the recuperation and valourization of “humbler” dishes/modes of cooking such as the bata but a little more care has to be taken with the various ingredients that get pulverized in the making of an essay like this one. Otherwise we end up in a situation where the point is not to track the (sometimes unpalatable) complexity of social relations as reflected in food but to produce something delicious for the elite to consume, whether on the plate or in words.

As always, these are my opinions and if you don’t like them…I have others—which will also likely annoy you.



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