One man’s food can understandably be another man’s haram but consequences can be fatal when the choice of food is deemed sacred. Food habits have defined identities and discrimination has long been associated with perceptions of certain foods being “polluting”, “unpurified” and therefore untouchable. In India, one’s choice over food does not remain a personal subject when various caste names have originated from eating habits. For instance, Mahars became Mahars because they were mrutahari (those who eat dead animals, mostly dead cattle or bada gosh/big meat); similarly musaharis got their caste name for being rat eaters.

“Food control has always been an important tactic in Brahmanical Hinduism. Dalits must strive for a strong future in food industry, as that will mean loosening of food control, marking the arrival of Dalit freedom. For the first time, food produced and marketed by Dalits will enter the Indian market ,” Dalit thinker, entrepreneur and advisor to the Dalit Indian Chamber of  Commerce and Industry, Chandra Bhan Prasad who has recently started an e-commerce food business under the name Dalit Foods tells Guardian 20.

Prasad believes that his new enterprise is a way of addressing society the huge knowledge gap between Dalits and non-Dalits, particularly in the area of food since largest section of mainstream society would never step into Dalit kitchens because of untouchability, impurity issues and had not the slightest idea about what their servants ate. Dalits, on the other hand, knew what it was like cooking in upper caste houses, and Dalit life narratives in literary texts like Joothan remind us how on most occasions Dalits were paid food as wages. Food is knowledge, acknowledges Prasad as it granted legitimacy to his childhood memories of struggling to assert his food choices even as he questioned the right of others granting it legitimacy.

“Athough Dalits are part of the same village unit, their food sources were radically different from the mainstream. North India is a water-surplus region but in a particular village, there would be areas where artificial irrigation would not reach and those lands, mostly belonging to Dalits, would be used to grow millets, peas, barley, gram and other inferior crops,” says Prasad.

“At the same time, it will be wrong to say Dalits never ate wheat or rice. Nor is the case that non-Dalits never ate millets. However, millets, peas, so forth were the main food source for Dalits. For instance, peas was consumed in 16 different ways by Dalits: in a roti form, split matar that would not be cooked as dal but soaked in water in the evening and taken out of water in the morning and mixed with salt and red chillies to be had for breakfast. There would be times when matar dal with matar roti was the only food item being consumed from morning till evening among many families as I have seen while growing up in the Azamgarh area of eastern Uttar Pradesh. But this is true for the entire Hindi heartland. Likewise, barley was used as main chapati base or to make khichdi by Dalits as chana was expensive. Upper castes would never use barley in this form, mostly mix it with wheat and then consume. It was like living with another species of humans,” adds Prasad.

Students of Pune University’s Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre (KSPWSC) with the help of faculty had done a food project which they compiled into a book in 2010 titled Isn’t this Plate Indian?. They had documented accounts of around 10 resourcepersons belonging to Matang, Valmiki, Pinjari castes to understand the changes in caste-based eating and drinking practices. Sangita Thosar, one of the faculty members, recalled how as a child she would remain silent on the question of eating beef but later as she joined the Satyashodhak movement, she started to assert her food choices against this silenced oppression.  “We were trying to provide an economic explanation for the persistence of castes, how for Dalits food choices were cases of compulsion occurring out of economic deprivation,” says Thosar.

KSPWSC also visited bookstores in Pune including a Marathi bookstore in Thane which revealed that shelves were full of cookbooks where cusines were designed only according to community (Parsi Food and Customs, for instance), or place (Calcutta cookbook), or style (Continental Cooking, Tasting India), without any mention of food practices among lower castes or Dalits. That is when KSPWSC decided to give recognition to Dalit food recipes and include culinary terms like wajadi (intestine), rakti (blood), chanya (dried meat) from Dalit cuisines into the mainstream as part of the Marathi identity and a larger parlance.

“In North India, Dalits stopped eating beef after independence but in the South, North East, and parts of Maharashtra and Gujarat, beef is an important source of protein and cheapest too. North Indian Dalits would make pickle from pork called jhanei where the outer skin of the pig and its fat would be boiled alongwith salt, without adding spice and for hours it would be allowed to sink; that food would last them for a year or two. But in my business, I am yet to include non-vegetarian items because meat has to be processed and frozen which was not in the culture of Dalit eating practice. They used to have dried meat, mostly,” says Prasad.

Dalit food items were half-processed, consumed in raw form. But for their upper caste landlord, the same food would be highly processed, even though there was no technology those days. “Today, science says, this is the best food one should eat. And this start-up will unveil a new Dalit history,” says Prasad.

“Dalits would grind dal in an okhli for hours until it lost its inner brown and black spots for it to be used by upper castes. Today, a dietician will prescribe you to have the dal that Dalits used to have in raw form, what is technically called dal with its natural super fibre intact. Dal by nature is never bright yellow. Mills today polish dal using a substance called metanil yellow. It is a prohibited synthetic colour and can cause cancer. Most common food item among Dalit households was flakseed chutney. Chutney, most often, was a substitute for dal and gravy. While in mainstream households, chutney was dry; in a Dalit household, even at my home, chutney would be made with water. Medical science considers today flak seed as the greatest source after fish for omega-3 fatty acid. Pea is considered as the superfood for longetivity and stamina and barley, a superfood for those above 45 because it is a low glycemic food and if you have the tendency of developing diabetes, you should eat barley,” adds Prasad.

Prasad believes that his new enterprise is a way of addressing society the huge knowledge gap between Dalits and non-Dalits, particularly in the area of food since largest section of mainstream society would never step into Dalit kitchens because of untouchability, impurity issues and had not the slightest idea about what their servants ate. Dalits, on the other hand, knew what it was like cooking in upper caste houses, and Dalit life narratives in literary texts like Joothan remind us how on most occasions Dalits were paid food as wages.

Prasad, who started this business with a Rs. 5 lakh investment is currently limited to only Delhi, with items like unpolished pulses being processed and manufactured by a group of Dalit women in Lucknow, special turmeric from water-deficient Wardha district of Maharashtra and red chillies from Mathania in Rajasthan.

Experts like Veena Shatrugna who has researched immensely on Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) points out how the government-accepted RDA in India reflects an adherence to an upper-caste nutritional regime that maintains India is vegetarian. “British scientists stressed the fact that essential nutrition must be derived from the non-cereal portion of the diet, with a note of caution that proteins derived from vegetable foods had less value for the body than proteins derived from animal foods. After 1947, when Indian bureaucrats and scientists (all upper caste and upper class) got down to providing these calories for workers in India, they zeroed down on the cheapest source of calories which happened to be cereals, and declared that India was a poor nation and could not afford milk.  It is another matter that their own meals were never without milk, and milk products like curd, butter milk, sweets, etc. In contrast, workers were expected to derive their calories from 500-600gms of cereals, to be eaten with chillies mostly,” says Shatrugna.

“The next problem was proteins. A value of 100 was given to egg and milk protein, in contrast pulse proteins was way down with a value of 45-65. But Indian scientists would not yield. They spent time and money to find vegetarian sources of proteins. This concept of vegetarian proteins was alien to scientific literature at that time, it is truly the creation of Indian Brahminical science. The problem of vegetarian proteins was solved for India with lab experiments, which suggested that when two or more foods containing proteins are consumed in the same meal in a ratio, then the resultant protein has a biological value close to milk proteins (for eg. cereal pulse to be consumed in a ratio of 4:1 at every meal).  After this victory of sorts, it was not surprising that the questions of vitamins and minerals were safely forgotten. No attempts were made to investigate whether the poor actually ate cereal pulse in this ratio of 4:1 at every meal. If this was not bad enough, scientists in an attempt to bail out the government during the 1960’s famine stated that if a child ate cereals, say 200-300gm, it will ensure adequate proteins in the child’s diet! (only 19-24gms of protein come from 300gm of cereals). Cereal pulse ratios were forgotten, as food became a terrain for calculations ad nauseaum. The questions of cultural preferences, desire, taste, food habits, were a small price to pay for the country’s call for vegetarian sources of proteins. The specific governmental solution arrived at for the majority of Dalits, OBCs, tribals, in fact for 80-85% of the population, clearly draws on a culture of vegetarianism common to the planners who thought on behalf of the nation. Thus, it was enough to provide for distribution of cereals with little scientific consideration about what these cereals were eaten with. The consequences of this nutritional depletion have been far reaching, and are responsible for a large measure of the profile of malnutrition, stunting in children, specially those belonging to lower classes and castes. But more importantly, it has made the food cultures of the subalterns illegitimate, and their kitchens a place for plunder and search operations by the upper caste vigilante groups,” adds Shatrugna.

Prasad shares how as a young researcher while surveying lifestyles of Dalit households in the villages of UP in 2008, he had found out that their longevity rate is lower than the national average and since then he had been wondering how the community has managed to survive all these years. Dalit Foods is a social experiment to find out whether in a capitalistic economy like India, caste can become irrelevant. “Of course, a Dalit might buy a Mercedes that a Thakur generally can afford even though he cannot buy Thakur-hood. But in a capitalistic system, material markers override social markers and entrepreneurship in the food sector is my way of refusing to hide our identity and trying to integrate with the mainstream,” says Prasad.  

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