Food Politics, a Bowl of Rasam and the Vulgar Hegemony of Caste Hierarchy

FOOD AND CULTURE

Rasam as a traditional Brahminical delicacy from the South symbolises a significant discourse on food politics and the urgent need to radicalise our culinary discretions for egalitarian milieus.


V. Swaminathan is  a Culinary Ethnographer located in Madurai .


Indian diversity is characterised by the co-existence of cultures, foods, practices, languages and religions that seem to be distinctive beyond the possibility of meeting and that symbolise the socio-cultural and moral-ethical standards of various communities living in the nation. 

The variety that we see in terms of the food that the various communities in India enjoy, hold sacred or declare profane is wide and often so much in contradiction with each other, that it is quite possible that a particular food item from one state is made in all auspicious occasions and yet in another state is regarded as impure or undesired. 

Devotees Perform ‘Ede Snana’ in Sri Krishna Temple Udupi / Image : Deccan Herald

It is in this context that we focus our attention on a culinary delicacy- the Rasam from south India. The recipe for the traditional rasam requires ingredients such as lentils, tomatoes, turmeric, tamarind and other spices that are cooked together into a soup-like curry taken with white rice.

The preparation of rasam may vary from household to household today but the traditional way of making the food was guided by strict Brahminical culinary practices. Like most traditional foods made with Brahminical norms, thee rasam too was allowed to contain only some select ingredients and not many others. 

The rasam being a cherished and simultaneously relished food in most Brahminin households had to traditionally be made without onion and garlic, with a slight bit of tamarind, without the use of ‘hot’ or whole spices and had to be served with fresh boiled rice.

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Rasam

Brahmin food is a food of forbiddance and Brahmin recipes often have larger lists of what they should not include than what they are allowed to include.  In homes where rasam is made keeping in mind traditional practices, no onion and garlic are used, no whole spices other than red chillies and coriander are used, no market made spices are used, no foreign vegetables except tomatoes are used and it has to be made in a special aluminium utensil.  Many other rules are adhered to when the rasam is cooked such as it is never the first dish to be served and is preferably the third or the second dish, no other prominent dishes are to be had along with it and it is never cooked in a small quantity.

In a well-known book by UR Ananthamurthy entitled Samskara, the Madhwa Brahmin priests who form the protagonists plead for rasam rice in order to break the ritual fast after they complete the death rites of a Brahmin.  For any Brahmin who believes in stringent cultural practices, the Udupi temple food and among all the items, the rasam is acknowledged to be of the highest quality.  In the modern age too the lunch served at the temple maintains a hierarchy between Brahmins and non-Brahmins and does not allow equal access to the later.

Up till the year 2015, the temple allowed the ritual of snana to take place in which devotees (lower castes and untouchables) would roll over banana leaves holding the leftover meals of Brahmins, in order to get rid of their bad karma.

The Udupi temple is known as much for its caste hierarchy as for its rasam.The history of rasam is the narration of exclusion, power dynamics and segregation for a large section of the society marginalised by the oppression of caste system.Food that one group names as its comfort food does not necessarily give comfort or happiness to another group. In fact the food of one community can tell the truth of marginalisation, hierarchy and exclusion practiced by it over a large section of the population. Foods like customary rasam have enabled Brahmins to keep non-Brahmins out of public spaces.

 In the modern age the rasam may be made in various styles across homes but what is important to acknowledge is the fact that only a certain version of the recipe is considered authentic or sacred and even today not all versions get equitable honour. The story of food unites the public and personal domains of people’s lives and tells us the narratives that cultures for long have not looked at critically.  Rasam as a culinary delicacy invites us to rethink caste and radicalise our culinary habits for more democratic and equitable lifestyles. What purpose does food serve, if it fails to bring us closer?

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