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  • Dipti Arora and Astha Chaudhary

Looking beyond mainstream food cultures

Coexistence fellows Dipti Arora and Astha Chaudhary share their experience of visiting a local market.

Food occupies a central position in international policy debates affecting global, national and local actors. In the domain of development, diet can be looked at from a social, economic or environmental lens, and is closely linked to cultural identities. Dietary variations also in turn, influence how various cultures and systems are constituted, how they evolve and who stands to benefit or lose from changes in policies.

In India, different consumption patterns are often spoken about in the context of the caste system that plays a significant role in determining peoples’ physical and economic access to certain means of accessing nutrition. For instance, Brahmins, a priestly caste who adhere to a strict vegetarian diet, prefer to eat food that has been cooked by an appropriate upper-caste person. This diet is often placed on the pedestal of being the purest. However, even within the upper-caste there are communities who are non-vegetarians but refrain from consuming beef and pork Finally, there are people of marginalised communities who consume spare parts, often left out by the upper castes because they are considered impure, in addition to beef and pork.

During the course of our fieldwork, we, Dipti Arora and Astha Chaudhary, visited a weekly market in Attaria village of Sitapur district in Uttar Pradesh. Attaria is home to a diverse range of communities such as the Yadavs (traditionally a pastoral community), Kurmis (traditionally a non-elite tiller caste), Kahars (erstwhile palanquin bearers), Lonia (traditionally salt-makers), Thakurs (the warrior caste), Pandits (Brahmins), Malha (fishermen), and Pasi (the second largest Dalit communities in Uttar Pradesh).

Pasi women buying meat at the local market.

The weekly market sells a variety of meat to cater to everyone’s needs including mutton, broiler and desi chicken, and fish. One seller summed up peoples’ buying preferences saying “ अपनी पसंद और हैसियत के हिसाब से लोग खरीद कर ले जाते हैं ” (people buy according to their choice and status).

For instance, while buying fish, one fisherman from Attaria said that the distinction was made based on whether or not the fish had an overwhelming amount of bones, making it harder to eat. People from the upper classes consumed rohu, catla or singhi fish even though they knew comparatively little about their nutritional value. People who could not afford these fish, often from the lower caste, would fish in small ponds for their self-subsistence or buy cheaper varieties like magur. The Thai magur fish Clarias gariepinus is farmed as it is fast growing and yields good returns, however it is an invasive species that is now believed to be carcinogenic and was hence banned in 2020.

Thai magur fish Clarias gariepinus

When it came to chicken, one seller went on to explain how the middleman often preferred to buy broiler chicken that sold for Rs. 180 to Rs. 200 per kg, while people from the upper class bought desi chicken that cost between Rs. 600 to Rs. 700 per kg. Another seller who sold spare parts such as the liver, intestine and panja (paw) for between Rs. 60 to Rs. 70 per kg, said that they were bought almost exclusively by people from lower caste and from weaker socio-economic backgrounds even though they were highly nutritious. The upper caste people considered this portion of the animals to be impure.

Broiler chicken sold at the market

There are numerous factors such as affordability, availability and nutritional value of food which are beyond mere likes and dislikes. On one hand, diverse food consumption patterns reduce food wastage and increase income for sellers, but on the other hand, as a result of consumption of certain parts of animals (or the animals themselves) being linked to purity often dictated by a privileged minority, this propagates a hegemony of certain communities over others.

This is evident from the fact that as peoples’ standard of living increases, their food preferences also change — they no longer eat spare parts of animals and begin eating more socially acceptable parts of the animal.

Preferences with regard to diet are therefore not confined to nutritional needs but are also intimately related to one’s values, identity and beliefs. Culinary cultures often serve as agents both in solidifying groups and setting groups apart.

By Dipti Arora and Astha Chaudhary; images by Akshit Sharma.

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