Tuesday, February 23, 2010

[ZESTCaste] The poor man’s palate


The poor man's palate
 Vikram Doctor  Monday February 22, 2010, 12:50 AM

Some years back my grandmother employed a cook called Mary. Mary was a
good cook, and also fond of eating — a good sign with cooks, even if
their employers don't always appreciate it. She was particularly fond
of non-vegetarian food, and since my grandmother is now vegetarian,
she would give Mary a little extra money to buy meat or fish for
herself. And once when I was eating with my grandmother, knowing my
interest in food, she asked Mary to let me taste what she had cooked
for herself that day.

Mary was a little diffident, wondering if I would really like it. She
brought out a small bowl of what looked like chopped long beans, but
whitish, and in a rich brown gravy. They were goats' intestines she
said, waiting for me to refuse them. But, of course, I didn't and it
was delicious — the slight chewiness was more than made up by the
rich, savoury gravy, which had a slight jelly-like thickness. I knew
from much eating in Mumbai's Muslim areas that some organ meats like
liver and brain are eaten for their own unique texture, but others are
more valued for the rich savour of their juices, and these intestines
were like that.

Once she knew I was interested in her food, Mary would happily serve
me some, always the really cheap meats she bought. Another time she
cooked salt fish curry, and again it was delicious, with a tang that
you never get with fresh fish. It was the sort of dish you would never
find in a restaurant, partly from genuine constraints — the Taj
Group's Chef Ananda Solomon told me wistfully he would love to serve
the Mangalorean salt fish dishes of his childhood at his Konkan Cafe,
but doesn't dare for fear of the smell penetrating and lingering
through his hotel kitchen — but also because most customers would not
order what they saw as poor people's food.

I thought of Mary's food when I read that the Dalit poet and activist
Namdeo Dhasal has started a restaurant. Dhasal has done this due to
the financial problems he's been facing, and it sounds like a regular
place serving North Indian style kebabs and curries, but apparently he
also plans to serve lesser known dishes like a curry of harandodi
flowers and vazri, which is intestines and tripe (the stomachs of
ruminants). These are dishes typically associated with Dalits, or more
generally, the poor who could not afford other foods, and I think
there is a real niche here if Dhasal wants to develop it.

First, a clarification: I'm not suggesting this from any patronising
or political interest in Dalit/working class issues. Such an interest
may exist for some, but mine is on the food, and from that perspective
one has to be careful in talking about Dalit food, when the brutal
fact is that most often it barely existed, or only in a rotten,
repulsive form.

For most of their history the basic fact of Dalit lives was hunger, as
Dhasal addressed it powerfully in his poem of that name: "Hunger, tell
us your game, your strategy/ If we can muster guts enough/ we'll fight
you to the finish/ Can't crawl and grovel on our stomachs..." Where
food was given, dropped into the hands of Dalits from upper caste
Hindus, it was usually stale, or even putrid, as in the mildewed rotis
that gave its title to Poisoned Bread, Arjun Dangle's anthology of
Marathi Dalit writing.

I have written about this aspect of Dalit food before in this column,
and given such a history it can be no surprise if most Dalits who have
escaped such lives no longer want to have anything to do with its
food. Yet there is another side to the food of Dalits, or just the
really poor, who were forced into eating things that the rich upper
castes would not touch. Because quite often there is real value in
such food, and tripe is a good example. Across the world there are
famous dishes made from tripe, like the French tripe a la mode de Caen
or American pepper pot soup. In Turkey I've eaten kokorec, delicious
little stuffed intestines that are a favourite street snack.

There are also regional Indian dishes for tripe and intestines, like
Kashmiri chuste, for which the first ingredient in Krishna Prasad
Dhar's Kashmiri Cooking is, vividly, "3 feet of intestines." But as
with salt fish, restaurants are too squeamish to serve such dishes,
and I am guessing that it is also disappearing from home kitchens for
that reason, and also because of the labour involved in making them.
One of the reasons we value ingredients like chicken breast is because
so little effort is involved in making  it, whereas salt fish must be
soaked and tripe cleaned many times before it can be used. The reward
is their great taste, as compared to the lack of any for broiler
chicken breasts, but perhaps we are also uncomfortable with such deep,
complex flavours these days.

But these are flavours that Dhasal would know well. His father worked
in a Muslim butcher's shop in Mumbai, and one of the perks was to take
home whatever scraps of meat were left over at the end of day, which
would definitely have included offal meats. His mother would cook them
all into one sustaining stew, and perhaps it is this that he plans to
serve in his restaurant. The harandodi flowers sound like they come
from another food tradition of the poor — the wild leaves and flowers
foraged in the countryside.

The Deccan Development Society, an Andhra Pradesh-based organisation
that works with predominantly Dalit women in rural areas has
catalogued the amazing variety of foraged greens they know of, many of
them with vital nutritional and health values. Not all make for good
eating, but some definitely do, and this would be a welcome vegetarian
addition to such a restaurant.

There are also the fish and shellfish which Urmila Pawar writes about
in Aaydan, her autobiography which has been translated as The Weave of
My Life: A Dalit Woman's Memoirs. Pawar's book is notable for
capturing not just the many miseries of Dalit women's lives, but also
their small, fleeting pleasures. For example, there was the collection
of shellfish — backbreaking work, and dangerous too, since the tide
could suddenly rise and drown you. Yet one of the pleasures was the
oysters that could be found under the further rocks, and "once on
shore, they would spread the oyster shells on it, cover these with dry
leaves and twigs and bake the oysters."

Another dish that Pawar remembers is katyacha motla, made from small
river fish, "cleaned and covered with a paste made of amsul, turmeric,
oil and salt. Next they would be wrapped in leaves of the kumbhi tree
and tied with thin long strips cut from the stems of wild creepers.
The packet was kept in the stove under hot ash, sometimes even for
eight days... This was a very tasty dish and while it lasted our
mouths kept watering all the time." Such pleasures are few, in the
long history of hunger and humiliations, many of them linked to food,
that she had to undergo, yet they were real ones.

One thing also worth noting about such dishes is their nutritional and
environmental value. Since rice was too expensive or not given to
them, most Dalits had to eat millets like jowar and bajra; yet it
these millets which are being extolled today for their environmental
value in requiring far less water than wheat or rice, and also for
their exceptional nutritional qualities, which results in them being
sold in health food shops in cities at prices that would boggle the
minds of the poor who ate them from lack of choice. As I said, it is
hardly surprising that when they do have a choice, many spurn them,
yet there is some sense in preserving such traditions, and someone
with the influence of Dhasal, is ideally placed to do so in his


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