Looking at the Past through Food Practices

As an oft-quoted phrase goes, “you are what you eat.” There is more wisdom and truth in the above than it would appear at first. Food habits, the rituals and traditions involved in the preparation of food varies from place to place, community to community and society to society. It also varies across time. It is particularly for that last bit that a lot of Indian academic writing has started focusing on history as it manifests itself through food.

Don’t get me wrong: this is not a history of how a recipe has shaped over time. That would be culinary history. What I am referring to is the history of food itself. Or rather the insights as delivered to us through the historical processes that sediment into rites and rituals surrounding the preparation and consumption of food.

Food practices then, if I can use that word to encapsulate what I’ve tried to explain above, are based on the fabric of time, place, society, community, caste, sub-caste, religion and what not. To give an example, the practice of vegetarianism and the accompanying food practices are filtered through on Hindu and Jain beliefs. Similarly, the notion of caste purity comes into play strongly when food is concerned. Notions of not eating with one’s inferior caste, the pollution of food because prepared by a lower caste are all socially determined practices filtered through the prism of cultural notions/biases.

What this broad lens also includes are modalities of availability: it seems like common sense to state this but climate too determines the cultural production of food. So too do phenomena like trade and spices. The latter holds especially true for a non-globalised antiquity, which relied heavily on individual tradesmen for exchange of products.

Every contact with other civilisations, other modes of living, brought with them their own food culture. For instance, Mughlai cuisine as the term suggests is an amalgamation of food practices of the Mughal Empire introduced to a population hitherto unacquainted with them.

Spaces too become relevant to our discussion here. In a lot of Hindu places, kitchens were and continue to be constructed without the use of iron for purposes of sanctity. Similarly, in colonial Bengal the space for preparation and serving was separate. The food was prepared in the inner quarters of the house, traditionally the space of women, and consumed by the menfolk in the houses outer areas. The order of eating too would be determined by gender and cultural hierarchies: The man of the house, or the husband, the mother-in-law would consume first followed by the daughters, daughter-in-laws.

The fact that food consumption rituals in most urbanised spaces has changed is a result of a changing ethos among other things. We are no longer casteist about our consumption preferences, at least most of the time. With female emancipation, men and women eat together. We have broken down at least that barrier in most urban cases.

Still, studying a particular culture at a particular period of time can be done through the lens of food practices – something that History as a discipline is only just beginning to realise.

Related Information

Indian Food