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Posted at: Sep 25, 2016, 1:18 AM; last updated: Sep 25, 2016, 1:18 AM (IST)

Care to share Dalit delicacies?

A variety of Dalit recipes is coming out of the closet, thanks to an aggressive Dalit politics rethink. Many food items that tickle our taste buds originally belong to castes considered low. To sell Dalit food branded as one can give rise to old controversies, but we Indians love our food. So, chew on

When Rahul Gandhi and Amit Shah decided to lunch with the Dalits, it became food for thought for Congress and BJP-wallas. Dalit politicians were quick to point at the inanity of such stale ideas for winning over the community votes. That’s why a Dalit member asked a journalist unabashedly: “jo hamare saath khaaya, kya ghar ja ke khaayegain yeh?” (will they have the same food at their homes too?) Politics apart, there is much to chew on. 

Food is central to the age-old practice of untouchability, where Brahmins decided the food chain and segregated something as secular and universal as food into pure and impure categories. Dalit icon BR Ambedkar had segregated people into three different identities: Those who do not eat flesh (placed at the top of the food chart), those who eat non-vegetarian food other than beef (in the middle) and those who eat beef (at the bottom). The existence of Dalit cuisine is directly linked to the caste system. However, this skewed scenario is moving towards a change with some caste-neutral thinkers bringing in ‘achutt ka khaana’ to the table of the rich.

Dalit delicacies

Delhi-based Chandrabhan Prasad, a Maoist-turned Dalit activist and entrepreneur, has started an online venture, Dalit Food. He sells unadulterated food, which includes masalas, chutneys, achaar, and other edible items that have been used by the community for centuries. Chandrabhan doesn’t see this as a business move. It’s an enterprise that comes with a question thrown open to the society: “I am asking people what they would choose if the choice is between health and caste.”

Chandrabhan hit upon the idea while writing a research paper on the changing Dalit scene. “I came across Dalits who were doing intense physical work even at the age of 85-90. It was during a conversation that I found out that this strength came from the food they ate, which was as basic as sukhe mutter ki roti.”

Chandrabhan firmly believes the yesteryear Dalit food has now taken the form of health food, now available at all grocery stores. “It is the medicinal food of today,” he says with a smile.

On a healthy note

City folks lap up everything that comes with a ‘healthy’ tag, especially that which is labeled organic. That’s a food that Dalits have been eating for generations, not as a choice, but as leftover. In reality, their food practices were never made out of choice (but were the fallout) of a lack of options. 

“Pork and beef became part of the Dalit cuisine because it was easily available, and because the upper castes didn’t want it,” says Deepa Balkisan Tak, assistant professor, Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre, University of Pune. She has studied the correlation between food and caste while co-writing Isn’t This Plate Indian? Dalit Histories And Memories Of Food with Sharmila Rege, Sangita Thosar and Tina Aranha.?

As they were forced to depend on certain foods and certain kind of cooking, dieticians rate Dalit food as ‘nearly perfect’ on the health parameter. For instance, bajra or jawar, the staple diet of the Dalits, is now a must-have for diabetics or thyroid patients. “Barley, millets (bajra and ragi ki roti), sorghum (chaara) were the staple diet of the Dalits, primarily helping them to survive rather than please their taste buds,” says dietician Anu Sekhon. 

“The black lentil dal cooked with beef, Sukaat, a dry fish preparation with red chilly powder; Kaleja; Besan pitacha wada, Waran bhaat, Kandawani, Rakti, Chunchuni, moong and dill bhaji with jowar bhakri and sugarcane kheer were packed with nutrition,” she adds. 

Worldly wise

It is the Dalit food practices and cooking style that is being extensively followed in the West. For instance, the rakti, coagulated blood, was and still is a Dalit delicacy. Now, food specialists have noticed blood being used as the key ingredient in cuisines from countries like Korea and Ecuador. The dish is cooked simply, again a need-based cooking where oil is heated in the pan, if available, onions are added and blood is poured by bringing it to a boil, seasoned with chilli powder and salt in the end. 

Yet another dish, Wajadi is made by scrubbing the skin of the animal’s intestines, cleaning the offal and adding salt and a little chilli powder. Similarly another dish made by the Dalit community, Fashi, made from the epiglottis of a milch animal’s blood fused with yesur masala, is now a delicacy in the West.?

Missing in action

Even when the simple cooking techniques and ingredients are being picked up by many chefs to rustle up gastronomical delights, ironically, one won’t be able to find any Dalit cookery book on the shelves. Also, you wouldn’t see celebrity chefs whipping Dalit recipes on their show and dedicating a segment to them like they do for Punjabi, Bihari, or Northeastern cuisine.

Author and assistant director in Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Arungabad, Shahu Patole, in his book ‘Anna He Apoorna Brahma’ talks extensively about the Dalit food and its cooking techniques. The book that came out a little before the March 2015 complete beef ban in Maharashtra, clears many misconceptions surrounding the Dalit food culture. “In 1956, when Dr Ambedkar inspired the conversion of Dalits to Buddhism and asked them to stop eating dead cattle, it was mainly the Mahars who followed suit,” Patole said in an interview. 

Patole, who grew up in Khamgaon, a village in Osmanabad, observed the Dalit food culture closely. He came to a conclusion that because Dalit people didn’t have the leisure time to cook their food, they learnt to whip up quick recipes. 

It is out of his book that Patole shared a fastest recipe that has to do with tender radish leaves. “We pluck them off the radish and eat them with jowar bhakri. Drumsticks, pumpkin leaves, cluster figs (called umber) and a leafy vegetable called tarwat which were easily available have been a part of the Dalit thali,” he adds.

Kitchen Katha

People like Chandrabhan are trying to break social barriers through food. He is surprised to see most of the orders for Dalit food coming from the elite and from the caste-neutral category. Even celebrity chef Vikas Khanna is of the opinion that food is constantly evolving. “Our understanding is always in cycles, we go back to basics and fundamentals. That is the sign of evolution. It’s crucial that we are always looking for substitutions of white flour and thus use more organic grains like jowar and bajra.”?

However, the question remains that despite the high health quotient in their foods and with simple cooking techniques, will the Dalit food make it to the menu cards finally? Known food critic Pushpesh Pant wonders why it should. “Dalit food was actually a prohibited food, something that had nothing to do with choice, but purely need-based. By incorporating their food in the menu, we would be reminding them of the hard times they’ve gone through securing food, or whatever edible was available for them to eat. We would actually be creating a far greater social divide by doing this.” 

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