New Cultures of Food Studies
During his travels in South Asia in the 1940s, Claude Lévi-Strauss visited a young teacher’s flat
in Dhaka (then Dacca) and shared a meal with his family. As he recounted in Tristes Tropiques:
Squatting on the concrete floor, in the dim light of a single bulb hanging by its flex from
the ceiling, I once—oh, Arabian nights!—ate a dinner full of succulent ancestral savours,
picking up the food with my fingers: first, Khichuri, rice and the small lentils.… Then
nimkorma, broiled chicken; chingri cari, an oily fruity stew of giant shrimps, and another
stew with hard-boiled eggs called dimer tak, accompanied by cucumber sauce, shosha;
finally the dessert, firni, made of rice and milk (Lévi-Strauss 1973: 129).
Later, Lévi-Strauss would go on to write The Raw and the Cooked (1983), analysing how
oppositional pairs permeated and organised the structure of meals and myths. The piling up of
oppositions that repeat themselves could, he argued, be boiled down to a logic or ‘mental
pattern’ that persists across cultures and times. However, his grand theory unifying categories of
thought and action was dismissed by Mary Douglas who argued that, ‘[H]e takes leave of the
small-scale social relations that generate the codification and are sustained by it. Here and there
his feet touch solid ground, but mostly he is orbiting in rarefied space where he expects to find
universal food meanings common to all mankind’ (1972: 62). Douglas also criticised Lévi-
Quoted in Khare (2012: 240).
Strauss’s exclusive reliance on binary analysis: ‘Worse than clumsy, his technical apparatus
produces meanings which cannot be validated’ (Ibid.).
Ironically, it is Lévi-Strauss’s passing description of his meal in Dhaka that, in many ways,
captured the culturally specific meanings that Douglas demanded. His brief sketch highlighted
elements which were to become key in contemporary analyses of food. First, there is the
attention to social relations and the sociality around food: the passage describes the teacher’s
household, including a ‘brother-in-law, who acted as a butler, a maid, a baby, and lastly my
host’s wife who was in the process of being emancipated from purdah. She was like a silent,
frightened doe…’ (Lévi-Strauss 1973: 129). Notably, there is no structural analysis of kinship
here. Instead, there is sensitivity to the atmosphere between the couple and to the subtle play of
tension during the meal. Second, the embodied act of eating—squatting on the floor, mixing
morsels of food with one’s fingers—is acknowledged here. Bodily dispositions unfamiliar to the
foreign visitor are noted. Third, there is palpable pleasure in the food itself (Sutton 2010). The
recital of the sequence and the sensuous description of taste, texture and ingredients highlight an
essential element that is altogether missing in the anthropologist’s formal writings: food is not
only good to think, it is good to eat.
Douglas does not refer to Lévi-Strauss’s rare departure from binary codes in his elaboration of the ‘culinary
triangle’ which classified cooking techniques along the three poles of ‘raw, cooked and rotten’ (Lévi-Strauss 1965),
but her critique remains pertinent for this theory as well.
Caste and cosmology: Early studies of food in India
These aspects of food were to remain muted in sociological and anthropological studies on India
during the 1960s and 1970s. While early village studies (cf. Mayer 1960) did focus on social
relations around food, they were interpreted primarily as reflections of an all-encompassing caste
hierarchy, the grand unified theory for the subcontinent at that time. Thus, McKim Marriott
constructed a matrix that meticulously recorded exchanges of sidha (raw), pakka (superior),
kachcha (inferior) and jhootha (leftover) food between 24 Hindu and Muslim castes in a village
in Aligarh district, Uttar Pradesh, in order to arrive at how villagers ranked each other in the
caste hierarchy and, sometimes, competed for upward mobility (Marriott 1968). Marriott’s
preoccupation with caste as it shaped everyday life was mirrored and magnified in Louis
Dumont’s Homo Hierarchicus (1970) which folded food (and pretty much all else) into a larger
fabric of transactions organised around the central principle of purity and pollution. Marriott’s
minutiae and Dumont’s grand design: both assumed that the substance of food was to signify the
caste order. Other social meanings inherent in the acts of cooking, feeding and eating—or for
that matter, in how food was produced and procured—went unnoticed. Equally ignored was the
increasing presence of ‘neutral foods’ (Baviskar 2018; Gillette 2000) or industrially
manufactured edible commodities within Indian diets, items that had spread across the world
since the late 19th century (Goody 1982: 154-74). Also missing from the analysis were practices
of eating outside the home in teashops and ‘hotels’, places that served an increasingly mobile
A wider field of meaning and action was accorded to food by R.S. Khare who proposed the idea
of ‘gastrosemantics’ to encompass ‘a culture’s distinct capacity to signify, experience,
systematize, philosophize, and communicate with food’ (Khare 1992: 44; also see Khare and
Rao 1986). Moving beyond Indian anthropology’s singular preoccupation with caste, Khare
pointed to the depth and density of the cosmological, ritual, social, economic and nutritional
meanings of food, dimensions that could not be disentangled from each other. ‘Good and proper
food not only creates a good body (medicine) but also a good mind (yoga). What you eat both
reflects who you are and determines what you will be…. What one eats both demarcates one’s
social boundaries and demonstrates one’s spiritual aspirations’ (Olivelle 1995: 370). Far from
being confined to members of the village community, food is offered to the gods and the divine
leftovers distributed as prasad (Breckenridge 1986; Toomey 1994). Food is bestowed on
casteless renunciants as alms and presented to ancestors as pinda daan, forging relationships that
link this world to others. Food also connects ecological landscapes to the human body
(Zimmerman 1987). The changing of seasons—of climate as well as the stages of life—is
marked by changes in diet. Everyday eating is interrupted by fasting and feasting, occasioned by
concerns that range from the ritual and the spiritual to the medical and the moral (Alter 2000; P.
While the notion of ‘gastrosemantics’ opened up the subject of food to a fuller appreciation of its
meanings, in practice Khare’s analysis equated ‘Indian’ with ‘Hindu’ and culled textual and
ethnographic data from widely varying regions and historical periods to construct a reified,
unchanging Hindu identity in his later work. This was especially disappointing since his 1976
book The Hindu Hearth and Home was an exceptionally nuanced, closely observed ethnography
that was fully alive to the differences between orthodox and secular practices, to urban and rural
variations, and to differences in gendered roles, within caste-specific households in the Kanpur-
Lucknow region of Uttar Pradesh (Khare 1976).
And, though Khare mentioned the economic
and nutritional aspects of food in passing, the secular political economy of food production,
distribution and consumption—exemplified in Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power (1986), for
instance—was marked by its absence in his work. Food-related practices were interpreted in
terms of Advaita philosophy, Vedic rituals and Ayurvedic elements, but their changing
ecological and economic materiality remained indeterminate.
The intellectual weight of this body of work has left its impress upon more recent scholarship.
For instance, a special issue of the journal South Asia discusses the persistence of vegetarianism
in contemporary India, examining its changing contours in the light of caste politics, gendered
norms within the family, and concerns about health (Osella 2008; also see Donner 2008). An
earlier study by Appadurai (1981) focused on ‘gastropolitics’ and how caste-specific practices
were calibrated to account for conflicting roles within the hierarchy of the household and its
wider kin, injecting more agency into Khare’s 1976 account of domestic dynamics. Manpreet
Janeja (2010) extended this approach by considering Muslim as well as Hindu Bengali
households, by analysing the place of domestic workers in the production of food demarcated as
properly bhadralok (upper-class), and by including food transactions outside the home in
restaurants and coffee houses.
These studies broaden and deepen the field of transactions that
Marriott and Khare explored, fruitfully bringing together the home and the world.
Khare’s focus on the household also provided a different vantage point from which to understand Indian society, in
relation to, but distinct from, the caste- and village-based perspectives that prevailed at the time.
Janeja’s work stands out for showing how physical spaces and kitchen appliances mediate the work of storing and
cooking food, thereby affirming or altering gender and class identities and notions of purity and pollution.
From caste to cosmopolitanism
In the 1990s, new forms of globalisation of the world economy, such as the time-space
compression induced by information and travel technologies that in turn enabled the accelerated
movement of capital and labour, led social scientists to look critically at how they constituted
their subjects (Appadurai 1996). The hitherto taken-for-granted boundaries of India were first
breached by historians who traced the transnational provenance of ingredients that had come to
be regarded as intrinsic elements of Indian diets (Achaya 1994, 1998). Chillies, maize, potatoes
and tomatoes were among the diverse items incorporated into cooking on the subcontinent.
Further research delineated not only the spread of new foods and drinks (such as tea), but also
the adoption of cooking techniques and recipes, including biryani and Bengali cheese-based
sweets (Collingham 2006). These studies emphasised that Indian food was a hybrid creation,
with native elements cross-fertilised by Mughal, Portuguese and British influences, themselves
the product of intercontinental lineages.
While acknowledging hybridity, other scholars focused on its denial by sections of Indian society
who sought to carve out an autonomous and authentic domain of Indian culture (Chatterjee
1993). Asserting an Indian identity as part of an anti-colonial nationalist discourse entailed new
modes of gendered domesticity that centred on food (Ray 2015; also see Banerjee-Dube 2016;
However, her aim of treating food itself as an actor (Latour 2005) is not achieved since her analysis does not
systematically address how the specific characteristics of particular foods affect the processes she describes.
Cookbooks and other manuals instructed the housewife about the ideals of
economic management and scientific nutrition, to be combined with older values of spiritual and
moral sustenance. Such texts and popular journal articles from 19th- and early 20th-century
Bengal have been extensively analysed to show how the making of nationalist subjects was
inflected by concerns about caste, class, religion and sexuality. In particular, (Hindu) bhadralok
food practices have been the locus of academic attention for their tense tango with colonial meals
and manners as well as their anxieties about maintaining a proper distance from Muslims and
lower castes. Agonising over bread and biscuits, which meats to eat, the warring virtues of
milled and hand-pounded rice, whether and when to use onion and garlic, was part of
adjudicating and policing social boundaries. At the same time, cooking was extolled as a fine art
that could only be practised by the housewife, and not by domestic servants, a strategy that
aestheticised middle-class female labour to set it apart from working-class toil and strip it of
economic value (Ray 2015: 123ff.). This debate on the ideal grihani (housewife) and other
discussions also indicate that the principle of purity and pollution remained central to the cultural
compass orienting food practices even as diets became more diverse.
A considerable literature details the nationalist Hindu bhadralok preoccupation with the
invention of culinary traditions that reflected their distinctive social location (Bourdieu 1984) at
the cusp of colonial modernity. However, there is far less discussion of the counter-trend
Utsa Ray’s comprehensive analysis (2015) is noteworthy for linking what people ate to changing agricultural
practices, such as the introduction of new crops by missionaries and the colonial government. In addition, she
places dietary changes in the context of wider social processes such as urbanisation and industrialisation, providing a
fuller framework for understanding the production and consumption of food.
towards embracing cosmopolitanism. While there is mention of elite Bengali households (and
royalty in other parts of the subcontinent) cooking Western food for male members and their
White guests by maintaining separate kitchens, information about how the rest of society
encountered and incorporated alien foods in their diets remains scant. Frank Conlon’s
pioneering essay on public dining in Bombay (1996) states that migrants from the hinterland who
migrated to the colonial city to work in the textile mills ate in caste-specific khanaval (eating
houses), but suggests that the freedom and desire to taste other cuisines remained confined to
white-collar workers and well-off people who could patronise Irani cafés and other restaurants.
Writing about the post-Independence period, Arjun Appadurai (1988) noted the rising numbers
of such urbanised professionals, especially that segment which moved from one city or town to
another because of transferable jobs in the civil services and armed forces. Cultural exposure to
different parts of the country, albeit from the standardised and contained setting of staff quarters
and cantonments, made middle-class women curious about the dishes they encountered in other
people’s homes. Cookbooks catered to them by cobbling together a ‘national cuisine’ by
compiling recipes from different regions (Ibid.). The workplace as a site that brings together
heterogeneous social groups, fostering camaraderie and conviviality across caste boundaries, was
the subject of Strümpell’s study among Rourkela’s public sector steel mill workers (2008).
showed how men who followed caste norms about commensality when visiting their native
village regarded the industrial township as a ‘modern’ place where it was incumbent upon them
to shed their parochial baggage. Such modes of inter-dining indicate that cosmopolitanism is not
simply the unwitting outcome of commodity flows and labour mobility, but is a value that is
Parry (1999) also shows that the ethic of equality that prevailed among work teams at the Bhilai steel plant
extended to sharing meals across caste lines.
actively pursued and embraced. For the accomplished cook, cultivating cosmopolitanism by
learning to prepare new recipes is as much a goal today as mastering the traditional repertoire of
one’s community that was once the sole definition of culinary virtuosity (Baviskar 2012).
Frank Conlon’s essay on Bombay traced the rise of the ‘discretionary’ diner, who ate out from
choice and not necessity. His observations about cosmopolitan restaurant-goers who seek food
that is different from what they eat at home, but which has been domesticated to suit their tastes,
remain insightful (Conlon 1996: 103-114). Thus the hugely popular ‘Chinese food’ served
across India in restaurants and street stalls bears little resemblance to its putative parent. One
would expect that sociological studies of restaurants would reveal that patrons who venture to eat
novel cuisines are also open to eating food whose social provenance is not known. However, in
the case of Udupi restaurants that serve south Indian vegetarian tiffin and meals, studies show
that the management is careful to assuage the caste-related anxieties of their patrons by
employing Brahmin cooks and servers who wear caste-marks on their foreheads so as to appear
upper-caste (Iverson and Raghavendra 2006; also see Madsen and Gardella 2012). This suggests
that, for many patrons, the purity-pollution matrix not only endures within the home but is also
extended to cover new sites and forms of food, often under the euphemistic guise of ‘hygiene’.
Cosmopolitanism is thus cultivated, but in measured, even mincing, modes. However, when
cosmopolitanism is perceived not as a civic virtue to be cautiously embraced but as a threat to
the body politic, hybrid foods may be caught in the crossfire. Solomon (2015) describes the
Staples (2014) describes how, for young people in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, eating out in restaurants is part of the
process of performing the middle-class identity they aspire towards, transcending caste by appearing educated and
modern. Also see Caplan (2002) on the gradual globalisation of domestic food in Madras from the 1970s onwards.
career of the vada pao in Mumbai, where the nativist Shiv Sena party has attempted to brand this
street food as quintessentially Maharashtrian, erasing its patently multicultural origins. The
desire to invent tradition and claim cultural authenticity is also noted in Shaffer’s lively essay
(2012) on dum pukht cuisine in Lucknow. Taken together, these studies show that the meanings
and practices that accrue around ‘outside’ food, or food prepared beyond the more manageable
boundaries of the home, are much more volatile than the conventional containers of caste-
village-family can hold.
At first glance, the mobile meanings of food are, paradoxically, the least evident among the
Indian diaspora. Nostalgia seems to be the chief motif in Indian migrants’ stories about food,
harmonising with the sense of exile that many experience in their transplanted home. The work
of memory is focused on fixing ‘how we ate back home’ and either mourning its loss or seeking
to resurrect its spirit by sticking to signature practices such as vegetarianism (Saunders 2007).
Preserving foodways thus serves as a key expression of ethnic identity in the face of a foreign
culture (Mankekar 2002). Krishnendu Ray’s study (2004) among Bengalis settled in the United
States complicates this narrative by showing how migrants negotiate between nostalgic notions
of food and the lure of novel modes of consumption, especially those that promise freedom from
domestic drudgery and gastronomic monotony. However, it is in studies analysing how Indian
food is adapted and incorporated into the diets of a non-Indian population that the full flavour of
globalisation is realised (Narayan 1995; Ray and Srinivas 2012). Buettner’s essay (2012) on the
cuisine epitomised by chicken tikka masala, the food brought to Britain by working-class South
Diasporic popular writers on food (see, for example, Banerji 2006) bring a refined elegiac aesthetic to their work.
Asian migrants which has now become its de facto national cuisine, carefully charts how the
changing contours of race and class have shaped this process of culinary inclusion from the
margins to the middle of a multicultural stage. The focus shifts from the cosmopolitanism of
Indian consumers to that of those who encounter Indian food in colonial and post-colonial
settings (M. Roy 2010; also see P. Roy 2010).
Dearth, deprivation and discrimination
A major area where the sociology and anthropology of food has been seriously remiss is in
studying the lack of food. India is home to the world’s largest undernourished and food-deprived
population. Hunger is an existential crisis, quite literally, experienced every day or for long
periods by almost 200 million people in India or 15.2 per cent of the total population (FAO et al.
Yet its presence in the Indian sociological literature is non-existent. There is no
study that comes close to Death Without Weeping, the compelling delineation of hunger,
violence and emotions in a Brazilian favela by Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1993).
Nor is there
These statistics are about ‘undernourished’ populations and are being used here as rough approximations to
account for hunger, a more subjective category than nutrition. The very fact that there is a large literature on under-
nutrition and malnutrition, but not on hunger, shows the absence of research that treats this widespread and acute
social phenomenon as a social fact and anthropological field.
Human rights activist Harsh Mander (2012) has tried to redress this gap by writing empathetic and detailed
accounts of how poor, old and infirm people cope with hunger. Literary critic Parama Roy also focuses on
representations of hunger and famine in her insightful assemblage of food writings (2010). However, most of the
extant information about the incidence of hunger, and especially on state practices to address it, is to be found in the
literature around the Right to Food (Drèze 2004; Shukla 2014), a field where economic policy and public
any work that equals the incisive political and economic analysis in Michael Watts’s account of
food, famine and agrarian change in northern Nigeria (1983).
That sociologists and
anthropologists of India have failed to engage with a social phenomenon of such scale and
significance is not only staggering but scandalous.
In their stead, we are compelled to turn to writers of fiction and autobiography, especially of
Dalit lives (Anand 2014; Valmiki 2003).
The accounts of particular Dalit castes, especially
those traditionally assigned to deal with household waste, show that hunger has been inseparable
from humiliation. Compelled by poverty to eat jhoothan (leftover food considered ritually
polluted by contact with saliva) or cheaper meats like beef and pork (that are proscribed for
upper caste Hindus) and then castigated for it—this vicious circle of logic continues to bind
Dalits in contemporary India. Indeed, beef is the centre of controversy today in a way that
demands sociological engagement. The recent violence against Dalits and Muslims in the name
of cow protection, and Dalit assertions about eating beef on university campuses, are only two
threads in a taut social fabric being unravelled and rewoven. That a hitherto stigmatised
practice—eating beef—has been revalorised and publicly asserted shows the distance that
Indians have travelled from the shackles of purity-pollution (Staples 2008). At the same time,
the upper-caste backlash against this indicates that dominant culture will not cede ground easily.
administration concerns predominate and where sociological and anthropological concerns with meanings and
actions do not figure.
For more recent, global surveys of the political economy of hunger and food, see Patel (2007) and Drèze, Sen and
Also see excerpts in anthologies on food by Roy (2004) and Thieme and Raja (2007).
While beef constitutes a dense node of meanings that demands sociological analysis, it would be
misleading to concentrate solely on this for understanding deprivation, discrimination and
collective assertion. In common with other poor people, Dalits rarely get to eat meat. Their
everyday diets are meagre, gleaned from minimum wages in cash and kind (Rege et al. 2009). In
addition, the experience of hunger incorporates emotional states other than humiliation and
social relations other than oppression. How people collaborate and conspire to cope with hunger,
how they act individually and collectively to deal with state agencies, with landlords and bosses
who employ them, with the varying needs and capabilities of different household members,
remains to be studied. Above all, we await an account of poor people not as organic machines
processing nutrients for bare survival but as cultural beings—people who inhabit a complex,
changing world, who bring to it tongues that taste and minds that aspire, embodied skills and the
power of abstraction, for whom food is not merely biological sustenance but is the stuff of
Among the many lines of enquiry that the sociology of food might pursue in the
future, this is surely the most urgent.
Bhrigupati Singh’s writing (2015) on the place of millets in the diet of villagers in Rajasthan reflects such as
understanding of food. On the changing meanings of millets and their incorporation into affluent, metropolitan
diets, see Finnis (2012).
Other important and under-studied areas of research include the study of gendered practices around food; the
increasing presence of industrial foods; food practices among non-Hindus; food, health and ecology. Also, since
food studies have so far focused mostly on well-to-do, urban social groups, it is important that less well-off, rural or
migrant people be brought into the picture.
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