The Politics of Food—From the Perspectives of Fundamental Flavours

An impression about the food we eat and the probability to show that a state can start looking from the edges rather than focussing on the centre for its own good—and it is quite apparent from no other issues but the people’s tastes and preferences that border on the line of clashes between societies in a multicultural setting as embraced by the Union of India 

Elsewhere across the world, food politics mainly deals broadly with the issues of food production, nutritional qualities, technological progress, genetically modified foods and so on. Back in India, it is totally different as evident from the pervasive attitudes about how people from a particular region detest, for the lack of a better word, about another’s food habit. To make it worse, certain socio-political organisations are running amok with their oversized fascist-inspired zealots’ hats—encouraged by the existence of a political party at the centre that shares their ideologies. To take a recent case, the provincial government of Maharashtra has banned slaughtering of cows plus the selling and consumption of beef. [PS: Only buffalo meat, or bison, is passed off and sold as beef in the capital city.]

The Economic Times, in yesterday’s edition (8 March 2015) carried a report: ‘Beef ban in Maharashtra is not a one-off incident—the state is used to such reactionary responses,’ citing the cases of renaming the city of Bombay, the ostracisation of the poet Arun Kolatkar, the ever grilling politics of language, the banning of dance bars in the city, et al. In an equally claustrophobic manner, we the people from a periphery of the country have always been facing the discrimination in mainland India about what we eat and what we don’t.   

There is a strong innate ingredient in how we taste food. We tend to like the sweet and spicy stuffs, yet turn down the acerbic and acidic substances. Experts are of one mind that the preferences evolved from the prenatal stage of a baby. For elaboration, certain factors determine our food habits. Our sensory responses play a vital role but these are not the only determiners. Variables in our genes, physiology and metabolism also affect our taste to a great extent. It depends even on our gender how we taste food and enjoy it. For us, ngari and other fermented foods are indispensable in a day’s meal but other folks might cringe at the mere mention of the name. Understandably it depends on where we grew up too. Familiarities do breed tastes and preferences.

It is a fact that some people are more prone to neophobia; and the literal politics of a state can have a huge impact. In the Hindu-majority India, for instance, non-vegetarianism is quite an issue, while for us, it is a just a matter of a day’s culinary decision. I was once diagnosed with anorexia when I arrived in New Delhi for the first time, but for a person like me who is not finicky about food, it was more a result of my lifestyle and habits than the new food items. It is another matter when prejudices over-rule and other people stereotype our food habits. Though it is no surprise it happens in this part of the world where gender discrimination is rampant and even overshadows the social mores: the men in a family are supposed to eat the meal first while the fairer sex of the family eats only what is left. Rapping the knuckles of these horrible cultures, in of their reports, the UN independent experts on the right to food to the Human Rights Council stated: ‘Strengthening women’s rights and moving towards full equality between women and men are vital components of the fight against hunger and malnutrition.’

In any case, these are the days of globalisation, continental restaurant chains and fast-food joints; and, not one culture is perfect. In another word, food aversion is just too relative. Till my teenage days, I had a strong distaste for curd that made me nauseous but not anymore. Alternatively, it is a sickness that a person cannot enjoy a particular food— it pertains to medical reasons and not cultural background. Nobody can deny that if you eat iromba for the first time and get sick, you will develop its distaste. If there is any consequence, we should be worried about obesity and other metabolic diseases. Alternatively, it falls under a dietician’s area of interest; and we should do away with the feedbacks and comments of a prejudiced dork. In Cinnamon and Gunpowder, Eli Brown wrote: ‘Some foods are so comforting, so nourishing of body and soul, that to eat them is to be home again after a long journey.’ He added: ‘To eat such a meal is to remember that, though the world is full of knives and storms, the body is built for kindness. The angels, who know no hunger, have never been as satisfied.’

For those who have not experienced a Meitei feast, it is their misfortune. When we look at our eating habits from different perspectives, we are going to be occupied with the ideas of food as related to our satisfaction at the personal level and its role in rituals at a societal level. Nowhere at any point is it related to a culture’s ignorance about another. For that matter, we have no habit of eating out and that is just fine and in the same breath, we have the custom of offering teas and drinks if we have not started sharing meals together and these are not static as it keeps changing depending on the ever evolving food preferences and eating habits. 
In a nutshell, the politics has been localised while we still have to face the similar issues generally as in any part of the world. We have to talk about sustainable agriculture as much as our understanding about the meaning of food in poverty or how organic farming is going to provide for the rising population. On a different plane, scholars are researching exclusively on the significance of food, nutrition and other related stuffs from gender perspectives. Simultaneously in a society that calls itself multicultural but where issues of race and discrimination are widespread, it is remarkable to note that the food we eat shows our belongingness to a specific location, not defined by the flawed system of a foreign concept of nation-states. We are what we eat. In fact, it is a common joke how we would tease our friends who have been interracially married that they are going to miss altogether cutting jokes about yongchaak and hawaizaar with their better halves.

If we go back to the problem—people in their right sense of mind would agree that India is still under its nation-building process even if the encompassing legal frameworks have covered up the glaring loopholes. It is a common knowledge how social justice is a hokum in this part of the world and the food, regardless of its quantity, is too little to help. If we look back into the olden days, we can clearly see that the pursuit of perfectionism, in this case the ideal food of people and its quest, is only good as the suffocating democratic principles in a military state. The ground reality is that by virtue of its sheer number, the voices are easily muffled by the dominant cultures. What could be good for one people can be bad for others, in the same frequency of one’s patriot is another terrorist. At the end of the day, the idea of perfection only subdues the other voices with pre-determined notions of good food and bad.  

In the modern world, the concepts of nation-states and political sovereignty dictate that informed discussion and collective rationality are essential for building a perfect state. However, the reality tells a different story. The numerous inequalities, in addition to ignoring the democratic processes, make the entire living experience an absurd existence. This is not the end; for when we look at it from another angle, the loopholes are going to be blinding as ever. As a consolation, India is not the only punching bag; the issues of food and race exist in every society, including in the supreme United States of America.

Let us consider an excerpt from one of the pieces in the Oxford Handbook of Food History edited by Jeffrey M. Pilcher. Yong Chen, in Food, Race and Ethnicity, puts it succinctly: ‘What we eat and how we eat is a reflection of our relationship with the natural environment. However, food is important not only as a physical necessity; it is also an indication of the multitude of relationships that we form with others as individuals, communities and nations. Indeed, food has embedded political, socioeconomic and cultural meaning(s). Modern racialisation has been linked to connections between food, identity and power.’

If we look at it from a societal level, it is more of socioeconomic factors that determine what kind of food we eat. This is conspicuous from the scheme of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), which is a Union Government’s flagship programme for achievement of the Universalisation of Elementary Education (UEE), in which there is a provision for mid-day meals for the kids. It is totally impossible that any of the public schools that enjoy this privilege has any government employee’s kid, leave alone the teachers’. And being born and brought up in a impoverished family, I do know a few things about what is healthy and what is not. In another word, the stereotypical dog-eating Northeasterners might just be a poor vegetable-eating gastronomist.

For the Dessert

It is perfectly fine when a person does not eat a particular food because of allergy and it is quite common globally. Somehow the religious compulsion for some people to be vegetarian also makes sense because their faith is no different opium from the others. However, there are so many people, who are not from their own experience, but from a prejudicial ground that they detest some others’ choice of food. It is alright as long as they are enjoying their perfect dinner in their perfect dining room, but many a time, they cross a line. The recent ban on beef in an Indian province concisely illustrates the point. For a person who belongs to a literally cold and mountainous region in the nation’s periphery, it is a common experience how people would ask about our food habits from their preconceived notions—that is the problem. It is difficult while giving orders in a foreign-cuisine-serving restaurant; it is quite a law of nature but you do not need to hate any of the stuffs to get the best dish. Some items will be good, some bad, but in doing so, it will at least defend the proud people’s claims of living in a multicultural society.

Reading Lists

Food and Race by Victor G. Heiser Foreign Affairs,

Are the Japanese, the Javanese, the Chinese and other Oriental races short in stature because of their preponderating rice diet? Are the Polynesians, the larger types of Africans, or the northern Europeans, taller in stature because they hit upon a dietary that resulted in greater growth? There is testimony that this may be the case.

Which Demographic, Social, and Environmental Factors Are Associated with the Eating Habits and Exercise Patterns of Racial and Ethnic Minority Adolescents by Wilfred Eleazor Johnson
University of Pittsburgh,

Research focused on the factors that contribute to the practice of health promoting behaviors by racial and ethnic minority adolescents has been limited and inconclusive. The purpose of this study was to identify a subset of factors, including demographic, social, and environmental factors that are highly correlated with differences in the eating habits and exercise patterns of racial and ethnic minority adolescents.

White Europeans ‘Only Evolved 5,500 Years Ago After Food Habits Changed’ by a Daily Mail Reporter
Daily Mail,

People in England may have only developed pale skin within the last 5,500 years, according to new research. Scientists believe that a sudden change in the diet around that time from hunter-gathering to farming may have led to a dramatic change in skin tone to make up for a lack of vitamin D.

Vegetarianism, Tolerance and Discrimination by Tarunabh Khaitan
The Hindu,

One of the central tenets of the Indian constitution is an injunction on the state to refrain from discriminating on the grounds of religion and caste. Recently, however, the judiciary has failed to recognise enforced vegetarianism as indirect discrimination, which although neutral on the face of it, has disproportionate impact on people belonging to particular religions and castes.



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