May 23, 2024


Travel Adventure

Breaking our food myths: Muslims don’t make the best qorma and Afghan bakeries have Bihari bakers

1 min read

The adage “you are what you eat” reveals the intimate connection between our diet and identity. The act of sharing meals transcends the idea of food as survival, fostering a sense of security and camaraderie among individuals. Yet, the growing trend of dining out, associated with status and sophistication, has eclipsed the intimate act of sharing meals. This transformation is not merely a change in dining preferences but signifies a deeper cultural shift.

Food as identity

In today’s socio-political landscape, food has emerged as a potent symbol of identity, forging distinctions between “us” and “them”. Different kinds of regional foods and food markets are also on the rise, such as Odia food, Naga food etc. Many chefs (including me) are turning to evocative culinary experiences to revive the flavours and experiences of yesteryears that speak to personal histories and collective memories. But there is also beauty in the act of breaking bread with strangers. And so, many of the iftar heritage walks that I lead through Old Delhi during Ramazan are meant to blur the lines between these ideas by both creating familiar experiences and sharing them with others.

Festivals in India offer a lens to view the “other”, with Ramazan being a prime example. It is a time of abstinence, discipline and community. It is a festival that invites people from across religions to partake in a communal dining experience and opens up space for everyone. If you are in Delhi, walk around Purani Dilli, Jamia or Shaheen Bagh for the experience and the food — with a big heart and a big appetite. But to understand food, it is necessary to explore what is consumed, the methods of preparing that food and ways of consumption.

Breaking the stereotype of ‘us’ and ‘them’

Yet, the narrative of food as an identity marker is rife with complexity and conflict. There have been incidents of violence and lynching, such as the 2017 case of Pehlu Khan and the 2015 case of Mohammed Akhlaq. An instance as common as a Zomato order being cancelled because the delivery person happens to be Muslim underscores the grim reality of how dietary choices can become a cause for conflict. The politicisation of food, manifested in the banning of certain meats or the imposition of dietary codes, reveals a troubling inclination towards majoritarianism, often at the expense of minority rights and freedom. When I was younger, it was normal to grill seekh and boti kebabs at home. But now that has been replaced by shammi or chicken tikka kebabs that can be cooked on pans, without creating too much smoke, ensuring that vegetarian neighbours are not alarmed.

Last month, a chef said to me that it was fascinating how Muslims made the best qorma and biryani. I was taken aback because in my experience, the best qormas have been cooked by non-Muslims from Uttarakhand or Punjab. Similarly, last year during my research on bread, I was surprised to find that most bakers in Afghan bread shops in Delhi are from Bihar. The Kashmiri food joints in Old Delhi are also run by people from Bihar or Uttar Pradesh, irrespective of caste. Yet, we have strong stereotypes of people from certain communities with regard to their food and culture. If that is not a myopic worldview, then what is?

Festive offer

The myth of vegetarian India

Today, there are sections which emphasise vegetarianism as a key aspect of Hindu identity, undermining the rich diversity and complexity of India’s social fabric. Vegetarianism is projected as a virtue, synonymous with cleanliness and higher moral standing, while meat-eating is stigmatised. This dichotomy ignores the reality that a significant portion of the Indian population, including various Hindu castes and other minority groups, also partake in meat consumption.

In the past, the judiciary has held that dietary choices are personal. In 2018, while hearing a PIL to ban meat exports, the Supreme Court clarified that it would not dictate dietary choices. But political agendas often infringe on personal freedoms, with promises of regulating food choices to garner electoral support.

Sharing meals and cultures

That variations exist in food habits and customs even within a religious community can be seen in an anecdote recouted by Siobhan Lambert-Hurley in her book Three Centuries of Travel Writing by Muslim Women. Lambert-Hurley, a professor of Global History at the University of Sheffield wrote about how South Asian Muslims on Haj sometimes tended to differentiate themselves from “other” Muslims — by sneering at the Mecca Sharif’s “stinking ghee” for example. A woman from one such group that travelled to Mecca in the early 20th century, Rahil Begum Sherwani (1894 – 1982), founder of the All India Women’s Muslim League, exemplified that difference while making a key observation about food, identity, and difference. When the other women stood firm on their idea about the ghee, Rahil Begum asked, “Why? Aren’t the residents of Mecca humans too?” Their answer was definitive: “Human or not, everyone has their own habits and tastes.”

Food indeed serves as a powerful bridge between cultures, but only if one is willing to embrace new culinary experiences. During a recent culinary heritage walk to celebrate Ramazan, I encouraged strangers to share their food-related stories while weaving in details about the fasting practices of Muslims, their rituals, and dietary preferences. It was enlightening to observe the gaps in understanding among participants about each other’s cultures. Sharing meals is a crucial step towards appreciating culinary diversity that may also protect food and culinary practices from being politicised. My cuisine may differ from yours, as it may from those in Pakistan, London, or Uganda, but therein lies its universal appeal.

The writer is a chef and author


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