The first time Anita Bharti and I met for tea in her brightly-lit living room in New Delhi we discussed childhood memories of food over butter biscuits and sweet, milky chai. Mine included soft yoghurt, white rice, lentil based stews. Hers were more vivid, recalling specific moments: her father standing up “on his own two feet” to cook all the parts of a goat into a stew; the time her plate overflowed with rendered fat from pete, a dish made with the stomach of a goat, or cow. She remembers well her sister-in-law’s hot, thick rotis made from makka (corn flour), which they would slap with oil and fat grains of salt for a snack. “Smooth, creaseless, and round like the moon,” she says. “The most beautiful rotis in the world.”
Anita disagreed when I called certain dishes “essentials.”
“I don’t understand this word. Rice, turmeric, jaggery—who thinks about, who can afford and eat these?”
“My husband is from an upper-caste Kshatriya family, and I remember the first time I went to eat at his house,” she said. “Roti, sabzi, dal, dahi, anchar (bread, vegetables, lentils, yoghurt, pickles) and salad all for one meal, whereas in my house, we ate roti, and one dish, that’s all we needed.” She added,“the upper-caste minimum is our maximum.”
Anita is a writer and critic born into a Dalit family in Delhi, with roots in Uttar Pradesh. “Dalit” is a term adopted by the more than sixteen percent of Indians excluded from the Hindu caste system. Traditionally, such groups were assigned the most menial tasks, including clearing animal carcasses and disposing of human waste. These jobs were considered hereditary, meaning no social mobility was possible.
“Untouchability” was a by-product of the caste system, in which Dalits were excluded from access to space, food, and social benefit by the caste-Hindus. The practice was banned when India became an independent nation in 1947, but the biases persist: Dalits are disallowed from sharing dining areas with caste-Hindus, and banned from sharing local resources like wells and farmland.
The word Dalit means “broken” or “scattered,” and was first used by activist Jyotirao Phule in 1873. It was subsequently adopted by Bhimrao Ambedkar, an author of the Indian constitution, considered the most prominent Dalit activist of his time. It was further radicalized in 1972 by the Dalit Panthers, a group that modeled themselves on the U.S. Black Panthers. The Dalit Panthers used Dalit as an anti-caste term, to liberate Indians from casteist limitations in every aspect of life. The term Dalit continues to elicit controversy and, in fact, the Broadcasting Ministry recently ordered that it should not be used in the media.
During a recent talk I attended, the speaker claimed that Dalit originates from “dal,” the Hindi word for lentil. Dal is a staple ingredient across caste-bound households. It is not a stretch to claim that caste-bound identity and practices require Dalits to exist, just as much as they require dal as food. Dalit labor is consumed as readily as dal.
Historically, the Brahmins, the most elite caste, controlled land and access to food grain. They created three levels of the food order: satvik, rajasik, and tamasik. Each order corresponded to social and spiritual status. Satvik food, which includes vegetables and dairy, is restricted to the elite castes, while tamasik food, which includes beef, garlic, and tobacco, is restricted to non-elite and non-caste groups. More generally, plenitude and choice were granted only to elite castes, Brahmins and Kshatriyas, and forbidden to Dalits. For instance, the Musahars of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were forced to eat rats that were left with scraps from the harvest.
Faced with limited food options, Dalits created innovative cuisine with available foods. “Upper castes reject ingredients of much of the food culture in Dalit homes,” Anita says, about Panje (chicken feet), which some of her friends cook into a stew. Pote (intestines), which Anita calls the “toilet area,” is another such ingredient. Her relatives would clean them, cook them until soft, and then eat them with bread.
“We couldn’t afford oil, so we would grind peanuts and use them to cook,” says Shahu Patole, the author of Anna He Apoornabrahma, a book that chronicles the food cultures of the Mang and Mahar communities in Marathwada from 1950 to 1972. “I still do this.”
Shahu writes about the keen inventiveness of his community: Bee larvae plucked from walls, and faashi, the epiglottis of the goat—both delicacies. A dish made from the dill easily foraged in the village was common, as were onions toasted on an open grill, and chutneys made from fat chilies pounded into a fiery slush with salt.
Jowar bhakris are flatbreads common among the Dalits of Maharashtra, Shahu says. Jowar (sorghum) is a millet-grass rich in potassium, which makes for thick rotis cooked on an open-air stove. Unlike the lighter, softer chapattis, made from wheat flour, bhakris are coarse and fibrous. When I ask Shahu if bee larvae is a good source of protein, and if bhakris make for good nutrition, he is indignant. “It doesn’t matter,” he insists. “That’s not what people were thinking when they foraged.”
“It was what was available, and it was what was cooked. These processes of thought that group food into categories, that attribute to each dish one quality, is a product of privilege that our communities do not have.”
Shahu also questions the Brahmanical culinary traditions based on purification and abstinence.
“How many of the communities that observe chaturmaas—periods of fasting and austerity in the upper castes—are involved in physical labour on the very fields that they have to thank for their superior diet?” he writes. This concern with food preferences and restrictions even extends to inter-caste marriages. In such marriages, Shahu explains, household food is dictated by the dietary restrictions of the person “whose caste comes higher in the caste hierarchy.” He speculates that “the one who belongs to the lower caste has an inferiority complex about their food.”
Hiraben Solanki, a Dalit social worker from Bhavnagar, Gujarat, echoes these sentiments. In Gujarat, vegetarianism is associated with the stronghold of political power. “I used to eat beef, but I don’t anymore because I have to answer to everyone. Expressing a fondness for meat as anyone else is okay, but as a Dalit, it can have consequences.”
And serious ones. In May of 2017, the government banned the slaughter of cows throughout India, making selling and eating cow meat a punishable offence. The ban was reversed a matter of weeks later, as it gave legal cover to the demonization of meat-eating in Hindu society. Since 2010, 28 Indians, mostly from Dalit and Muslim communities, have been killed by mobs of right-wing Hindu vigilantes who call themselves “gau-rakshaks,” or protectors of the cow.
While some Dalits have stood up for their traditional culinary practices, others convert to vegetarianism in protest.
“This whole system puts you in a position that you can’t afford the food you want to eat, and when it comes to something like beef, you enjoy it because it is what you know and like,” says Rajyashri Goody, a visual artist and ethnographer of Dalit origins based in Pune. “But even then, there is always the shame of caste, the shame associated with eating an ‘impure’ food, holding you back.”
Rajyashri says there is no “Dalit cuisine”—these culinary traditions are as diverse as the regions and communities in which they originated.
In her photographic exhibition Eat with Great Delight, Rajyashri incorporates photographs of her own family eating with extracts from classics of Dalit literature, using food as a means of illuminating Dalit lives. “We have been writing about food since we first got a pen in our hand.”
In Karruku, Bama Faustina Soosairaj, a Tamil Dalit-Christian woman from a village in South-India’s lush Western ghats, reflects on her village and its “rivers overflowing with fish,” which were out of her reach. She recalls the bitter-sweetness of stealth when she would “press her tongue to a cold cucumber on a hot day.” In Omprakash Valmiki’s Joothan (“leftovers”) the writer notes how members of his community would anxiously wait outside for the guests of a caste-Hindu wedding to take away leftover food, to be eaten later “with great relish.”
“Rotis, dal, sabzi, whatever we got we would mash it into a big plate and make round balls and eat,” says Sanjay Gehlot, when I went to eat with his family in Shahdara, a suburb in Delhi, one warm Sunday.
“Joothan is a bad word in upper caste households?” I nodded. “But for us, it was precious,” he continues. “It was all we had to eat.”
Pork has a special meaning in the Valmiki community. “But you won’t see many Valmiki families cooking pork these days,” says Sanjay. “They are afraid of backlash, and with changing times and some mobility, people are slowly breaking away from what the caste-system says they are supposed to eat.”
When we sit down for lunch, Sanjay’s wife brings out thick parathas stuffed with minced cauliflower and thick slabs of butter. “We eat lots of butter when we have guests, it’s a reason to celebrate,” she tells me as she rolls dough out for more. “Makkhan (butter) is a way of affirmation,” she adds. “Sanjay says it is like giving yourself something that you once couldn’t have.”
“Like the Dalits cooking with ghee in Rajasthan,” Sanjay adds from behind us. In 2012 the Dalits of Chakwara, Rajasthan were attacked by upper-castes for using ghee.
Like ghee, sweets are considered an upper-caste luxury. “Sweets can be equated with pleasure and desire,” says Anita, the same evening. “Introducing dairy, sugar, and treats into the Dalit kitchen is a way to access what for centuries has been denied. It is adding sugar to the present,” she adds, laughing. “To counter a history that is far from sweet.”
Delight, shame, secrecy, reclamation, and protest are recurring themes in Dalit literature and conversation about food. “It is not the food that is different,” says Rajyashri. “It is the emotions that are associated with food that upper-castes will never be able to understand.”
I tell Rajyashri about being asked my caste on the train before someone offers me food, and how in my grandmother’s home, different plates are laid out for different people: silver for Brahmins, bamboo or plastic for everyone else. While class and caste are not the same mechanism—class can incorporate the concept of mobility, whereas caste is rigid—they’re connected, with one keeping the other tightly in place. Dalits have, through history, made their place through skill and intellect in the upper-class and middle-class professions, but caste remains a constant ground for discrimination in Indian society.
Some, like Chandrabhan Prasad, the CEO of Dalit Foods, are challenging these prejudices explicitly. Dalit Foods is the first enterprise packaging and selling spices and pickles, and other foods made by Dalits, and the first to call it what it is.
Dalits have faced “limitations their whole lives,” Chandrabhan said in a TV interview. “It got me wondering what the secrets of survival then were.”
“Millet, madwa, these are what the communities would eat to live,” he added. “Foods today considered medicinal and provided by dieticians or considered ‘fashionable’—we have been eating for centuries.”
Chandrabhan’s efforts come at a time in which merchants like Patanjali, run by right-wing propagandist Baba Ramdev, dominate the market for food products in India. Patanjali sells everything, from toothbrushes to noodles, advertising in his products an extreme, warped, upper-caste Hindu sentimentalism. “If he sells cow’s shit, people will buy it,” Chandrabhan objects to the Baba in the interview. “But I want people to start buying Dalit foods, so they can know about the Dalit experience.”
As it grows in popularity world over, the exported culture of Indian cuisine is still premised on excess, on lavish meals interspersed with endless cups of tea and snacks, rich thalis and desserts bedecked with nuts, abundance and variety entwined with a centuries-old system of caste-based oppression.
Dalit professionals and scholars continue to challenge that system, but in the mainstream, the flag-bearers of Brahminical Hinduism still have the upper hand. Masterchef India, the country’s most popular competitive cooking show, promotes and propagates the traditional upper-caste hierarchy of food. Star chefs like Sanjeev Kapoor do the same, as does the country’s most prominent food critic, Vir Sanghvi, who reveres the upper-class and colonial vision of Indian cuisine.
There is a glaring absence of Dalit chefs and food professionals in India. Dalits are even restricted from cooking and serving food in fast-food chains like Haldiram and smaller local businesses. The discrepancy between who grows and who eats is still widely unrecognized, along with the question of who eats at all.
During lunch on Sunday, Sanjay whipped out a written transcription of a folk song sung by Dalit women in Marathwada, in India’s West.
“Patibharladdukaykamache, watibharpahije Matan Aniwatibharmatana sathizurate,” goes the song, in which the women sing about the redundancy of “patibhar laddu” (a basketful of laddoos) against the vitality of “watibhar matan” (a small cupful of beef). Laddoos have nothing on a small portion of beef, the song says. What are large, ornate desserts to a hungry stomach, when all it longs for is a cupful of life-giving meat?
“Until the day in which a basket of laddoos can be as celebrated as a small serving of meat, we are not equal,” Sanjay said, explaining the song. “When we get there, we will celebrate. I will cook pork, you come back, and we will eat.”