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We are mad about Weingarten’s Indian food comment. But who decides what’s ‘Indian’?

From Padma Lakshmi to Salman Rushdie, many were outraged by the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner's jab at Indian food. But are we not also guilty?

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There are some things Indians love more than anything — cricket, the Army, Amitabh Bachchan and food. And god forbid, if anyone utters a word against them, especially our desi khaana, they should brace themselves for sticks and bludgeons.

This is exactly what happened after Gene Weingarten, a food columnist with the Washington Post, recently said that Indian food is “the only ethnic cuisine in the world insanely based entirely on one spice”. Aside from the statement being patently untrue, with Washington Post even issuing a correction for the statement, it also shows how poorly informed Weingarten is about Indian cuisine. And if we are to give him the benefit of the doubt, since it was a humour column, it’s just lazy, unfunny and generic. Frankly, the column titled ‘You can’t make me eat these foods’, is just a White man whining about what food he doesn’t like. Should we really be that surprised?

And yet, this inconsequential column ruffled quite a few feathers, especially that of Indian-Americans. Everyone, from author Padma Lakshmi, her ex-husband and author Salman Rushdie to actor-comedian Mindy Kaling, rallied in defence of Indian food.

There was also no dearth of outrage on social media:

Bad take on Indian food by White people is not new. Last year, a tweet disparaging the humble idli by British historian Edward Anderson had garnered criticism from even Congress MP Shashi Tharoor. In 2019, American historian Tom Nichols triggered a massive controversy after he tweeted that “Indian food is terrible and we pretend it isn’t”.

However, inherent in these multiple instances of outrage is the hypocrisy of Indians, cloaked better than lauki in one’s dal — what do Indians consider to be ‘Indian’ food? And do we even know ourselves the spices used in the next state or do we just stereotype each other?

Also Read: Indian food fourth most popular in the world, a study of cuisine trade finds

Inclusions and exclusions in Indian cuisine

A major question that needs to be asked in light of this outrage is which are the dishes that people are rallying to defend?

Indian food is, of course, made up of multiple cuisines and dishes, but several of these regional cuisines don’t end up being considered as part of the category.

The very same people, clamouring and up in arms against the guy for criticising our food, will be the ones snootily turning their noses away from the less ‘mainstream’ Indian food.

When one says Indian food, the first few dishes that come to mind are rajma, chole, samosa, dosa, idli, roti, butter chicken, chicken tikka, among others. Most of these are North Indian dishes. But if you push a little further, dishes like aviyal, luchi, rogan josh, poha, dhokla, pav bhaji, appam can also be part of them.

However, no matter how much you extend the definition, dishes from the Northeast barely make an appearance, neither do dishes from Jammu and Kashmir or ‘South Indian’ food beyond dosa. In fact, food from the Northeast has always been considered alien and unsavoury. There is little mainstream knowledge about it and is wrapped in stereotypical ideas that ascertain a certain diet as repugnant.

The dog meat ban of early 2020 is one such example. The animal rights argument notwithstanding, disgust and racism are inherent in how food from the Northeast is viewed.

As my colleague, Tina Das, wrote in a column, “From ants to snails to yes, dogs, various tribes and communities in the region have consumed different kinds of meat for generations, which have been also a marker of their cultural identity.”

These notions of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’ have governed Indian eating practices for some time now. The exalted status that vegetarianism, which is often practised by ‘upper’ castes, gets in this country is a direct result of that. This is especially true for the Indian diaspora that keeps emphasising that vegetarianism and veganism are apparently inherent in Indian food while absolutely invisibilising non-vegetarian food — like Rakti, a dish made of coagulated blood and spices, born out of poverty and necessity but also a delicacy. But remember Mindy Kaling’s dosa video with US Vice-President Kamala Harris?

A research paper, published in CASTE: A Global Journal on Social Exclusion, noted that in India, “the broader discourse on food has been used as a process of ‘othering’ and stigmatised identities as they relate to consumption of  ‘polluting’  food”.

This is further evident in the long-standing controversy surrounding the consumption of beef. Beef has been a prominent part of South Indian and Muslim cuisines. And yet, the violence surrounding the consumption of beef at present is indicative of how exclusionary Indian food has become.

Last year, this religious profiling of food extended to the much-loved biryani as well. After a Tanishq advertisement on an inter-religious marriage caused massive controversy, there were also calls to ban biryani!

Also Read: ‘White foods’ are invading India’s breakfast menu. So are chronic illnesses

South Indian food

Most people are also ignorant of South Indian food, assuming that people in the four states of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala just eat dosa, idli, vada, sambar and coconut chutney. The hundreds of dishes that people prepare in each of these states, many of which are non-vegetarian, are just ignored when people talk about South Indian cuisine.

In fact, for many, anything with coconut and curry leaves is automatically from the south, forget the fact that it is made up of four very large states with their own regional cuisines.

Stereotyping, therefore, which has moved so many people to rage, actually begins at home.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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