Assamese food and the politics of taste

ZILKIA JANER

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WRITING about the food of any particular place and community is never a simple matter of objective description. How we describe and evaluate a cuisine depends on our own individual taste, which is inevitably mediated by pre-existing concepts and ideas. It is commonplace to say that food and taste are deeply related to identity. However, identity is not a given, but rather a constant process of struggle and negotiation between how you perceive yourself and how you are perceived by others. What we eat is related not only to who we are but also to what we want to be. When our food is criticized it is hard not to think that ourselves, and the communities that we belong to, are being criticized accordingly.

Food talk and judgment are part of the larger process, not only of identity construction but also of the creation of cultural hierarchies, which are used in the legitimation of unequal power relationships. As a food studies scholar with an interest in the decolonization of culinary knowledge, I write about what food judgments reveal about global cultural hierarchies. In this article I will analyze how Assamese food is talked about in Indian print and electronic media, and what it reveals about India’s internal sociocultural hierarchies.

The recent events at Osmania University, in which a beef eating festival ended up in violence, have spurred a wider discussion about what has been termed as ‘food fascism’ in India. Many Indians whose dietary habits do not conform to what is perceived as the norm routinely face intolerance. Even though India is a multicultural country, when it comes to food habits Hindu vegetarianism is presented as the norm, and at times this contested norm is violently enforced. Reactions to the food of others can be quite visceral, but they are also profoundly ideological, as they reflect and normalize the established political and socioeconomic order of religion, class, caste and ethnicity. Being put off by an unfamiliar food is normal, but feeling entitled to use a difference in taste as justification for exclusion and violence is the result of specific histories of power.

 

India is not unique in its use of food as a political and socioeconomic marker. Let me be clear: humans are omnivores and can safely eat all kinds of animal and vegetable matter. All cultures have established which foods they consider acceptable and which are to be avoided, and they have assigned elevated status to some and low status to others. These cultural values are the result of local histories and have no universal validity. Even inside a same culture, such values vary according to time period and region. However, more powerful groups have always presented their food preferences as a universal rule and used them as a badge of superiority that entitles them to impose themselves over those who eat differently and are, according to their logic, inferior. ‘Food fascism’ in India could be understood in this context as a way in which the struggle to define the boundaries of Indian cultural identity and citizenship is enacted.

To illustrate how culinary judgments are related to geopolitical power, let’s take a look at two foods that are controversial in western countries: foie gras and dog meat. Foie gras, the enlarged liver of forcefully overfed ducks and geese, is a delicacy in France. The production of foie gras is deplored by animal rights activists and its production has been banned in over a dozen countries. Nevertheless, in France foie gras is protected by law as a part of the cultural and gastronomic heritage of the country.

Many foie gras menus and festivals take place all over the world under the banner of sophisticated gourmet culture, in spite of local production bans. Foie gras diners might face occasional protests outside of restaurants, but rarely in a violent way. The historical status of France as a colonial power and as the international arbiter of good taste, although waning, still prevents foie gras eaters from being characterized as primitives that need to be taught how to eat by all means necessary. The foie gras controversy is an internal dispute in the West, conducted in a respectful manner.

 

In contrast to the foie gras controversy, dog eating is framed in the ‘East vs West’ and ‘primitive vs civilized’ discourses. A dog eating festival is unthinkable and would be illegal in western countries, and any dog eating happens in a private, unadvertised way. In the West, the population at large, and not only animal rights activists, see dog eating as a sign of barbarism. Countries like China, where dog meat is one among many other options, have not been able to defend their dog eating practice as a part of their cultural and gastronomic heritage. China banned dog meat from Olympic restaurant menus in 2008, in deference to western visitors. China also cancelled a 600 year old dog eating festival in response to social media protests, and is considering wider bans of dog meat, even though nobody thinks they will be effective.

It would be unthinkable for France to ban foie gras in tourist restaurants, much less to consider banning it altogether. The difference here is that, unlike France, China does not have enough international political and cultural clout in the current global power configuration to confidently assert its values. China might be rising in the global economy, but the dog eating ban is one of many ways in which the Chinese are tacitly accepting the supposed superiority of western culture. In their bid for equality, many peoples have decided to suppress any marks of difference that more powerful peoples have used to denigrate them. A fear of the consequences of being declared a barbarian by the West is enough for many to conform to western views, whether it makes sense or not. There is no reason to believe that eating dog is worse than eating beef.

 

To further illustrate how geopolitical power affects the standing of a nation’s cuisine, we should note that India does not have the power to shame the West into not eating beef. On the contrary, many westerners see Hindu beef avoidance as a taboo that has not allowed Indian cuisines to become modern. Jairam Ramesh, speaking at the United Nations in 2009, suggested that stopping beef consumption would stop the single most important cause of carbon emissions.1 

This environmentalist message is sound, considering that aside from carbon emissions, industrial beef production is responsible for the wasteful and unsustainable use of water, fuel and land resources. However, his comment did not make headlines in the West, where beef eating is at the centre of many culinary cultures. Instead, it alienated many sectors in India who are beef eating and who saw his comment as the affirmation of Hindu vegetarian rule. Ramesh’s judgment on beef eating was radical and ineffective in the West, but controversial and conservative in India. The values and meanings associated to any particular cuisine or food are clearly contextual and related to specific power structures.

In the following pages I analyze how Assamese cuisine is presented in India, and argue that the reception of Assamese food in mainstream India has been shaped by the subordinated position of Assam in India’s political and cultural order. I conclude with a discussion of how Assamese cuisine could be presented from a global perspective that attempts to be free from the baggage of national and international cultural hierarchies.

 

Interest in foreign and Indian regional cuisines has grown exponentially in India in recent years. The new ‘food explorers’ are open to new taste experiences, which they constantly seek. As part of this general trend, Assamese food is no longer as unknown in the rest of India as it used to be. However, when looking at how Assamese food is talked about in cookbooks, blogs, online restaurant reviews and television shows, Assamese cuisine is still framed as the food of an exotic and primitive place. Even those who seem to appreciate the flavours of the cuisine – including Assamese writers – have not shed this problematic frame. The core of the frame is that Assamese food is radically different from other Indian cuisines, particularly because of a perceived lack of spices, which is understood as a rustic simplicity that borders on the primitive.

A Delhi-published recipe booklet, entitled Seven Culinary Tastes: Northeastern India Recipes, sums up its assessment of the food of the entire region as follows: ‘As a cuisine experience however, the North East is significantly different from other Indian cuisines, like the rest of its history and culture.’2 This publisher did not bother to differentiate the many cuisines of Northeast India, and grouped them together according to what apparently unifies them: difference from the rest of India. The book contains what seems like a random set of recipes with little or no commentary, which provides no insight into the structure and logic of the different cuisines it pretends to introduce. Rather than facilitating an understanding of the cuisines of the region, the book furthers the sense of chaotic difference.

 

The idea that Assamese food is radically different is also prevalent on cookery shows. Aditya Bal, in his ‘Chakh Le Academy’ show, referred to the episode in which he cooked two Assamese dishes as ‘a very, very intriguing session’ and introduced Assamese cuisine as ‘a cuisine that we have not cooked before in this entire series’ and as a cuisine ‘unlike any that you have tasted before.’ He gets excited when the academy students confirm that they have never been to the Northeast, which tells us that the show aims to present recipes that will be perceived as new and exciting.

Nevertheless, the recipes chosen for preparation in the episode are neither particularly exotic nor particularly Assamese: pumpkin ambal and cabbage kofta. These dishes would certainly be recognized and eaten by most Indians in one way or another. The apparent contradiction between the discourse of difference and the actual familiarity of the food could be seen as a trait of ‘foodie’ discourse all over the world. ‘Foodies’ tend to see themselves as more open to new dishes than they actually are, and they select and transform dishes from other cultures according to their ingrained sense of taste.

 

The producers of the show obviously chose recipes that wouldn’t be too challenging for their audience, but they missed the opportunity of showing some of the many distinctive dishes of Assam. Distinctiveness and radical difference are not the same. Assamese food contains many distinctive techniques and dishes, but it also shares many important elements with other Indian cuisines. The insistence of books and television shows on presenting Assamese food as something totally outside of India’s cultural core underscores the troubled political relationship between Assam and mainland India.

Cookery books and shows would be both more interesting and more helpful if the authors took the trouble of learning enough about Assamese and other so called ‘exotic’ cuisines to be able to present them as full cultural systems on their own right. After reading books and watching shows like the ones I have commented upon, our knowledge of Assamese cuisine is no better than it was before, but the sense that Assam is alien to mainland India is reinforced. This makes neither good cooking nor good politics.

In more specialized cookery books and blogs, written by people with more in-depth knowledge and appreciation of Assamese cuisine, the most salient way of describing the cuisine is by its supposed lack of spices. On this point, both writers who talk about Northeastern food as a whole and writers who focus on Assamese cuisine seem to agree. In The Essential North-East Cookbook, Hoihnu Hauzel declares: ‘On the whole, Northeastern delicacies are simple to the point of being bland and are cooked without oil or spices.’3 And the website Online Sivasagar.com explains: ‘Assamese dishes are less spicy than any other Indian dishes, but carry richness of taste and health.’4 

 

The first comment seems to take the universality of the desirability of spices for granted, and food without spices is considered simple and bland. To go back to my earlier point about the global politics of taste, I have not seen Indian food writers categorize western food as simple and bland because they do not use spices. Instead, Indian food writers by and large see their relationship with western food as one of apprenticeship. Why Assamese food is not afforded the same right to its own logic of taste is explained more by politics than by merit.

The second comment asserts that Assamese food has value in itself, but still felt like it needed to acknowledge and compensate for the lack of spice by specifying that it does have ‘richness of taste and health.’ Both comments start from the premise that spices are the trademark of Indian cuisine, so a cuisine without spices risks being found lacking in taste if not in Indianness.

What writers and commentators mean by the lack of spice in Assamese cuisine requires some analysis. The introduction to the Assamese section of The Essential North-East Cookbook informs us that, ‘Unlike most of the hill tribes of the North-East, they may use oil but this is kept to the minimum. They are health conscious and use spices only when they prepare non-vegetarian dishes.’5 However, the vegetarian recipes that follow do contain a variety spices. The sour colo-casia leaf curry recipe calls for coriander, black pepper, cumin and turmeric powders, aside from other flavourings like garlic, ginger, onion, mustard oil and lime juice.6 If we look at any Assamese cookbook or eat at an Assamese household or restaurant, we would certainly be consuming spices.

The idea that Assamese cuisine uses few spices comes from the presupposition that other Indian cuisines that use more spices are the desirable norm. A more balanced way of describing Assamese cuisine compared to other Indian cuisines would be that while many Indian cuisines are known for combining numerous spices to create layered flavours, Assamese dishes fully exploit the different flavouring capabilities of a single spice or a few spices at a time. This, of course, does not prevent the Assamese from also cooking and enjoying food with a larger variety of spices. In the same spirit, blogs and cookbooks on Assamese cuisine should show other Indians how to appreciate the Assamese approach to spices, rather than suggesting that the cuisine is somehow lacking.

 

I argue that Assamese cuisine is distinctive rather than radically different from other Indian cuisines, and that it uses spices differently from mainland India. My objection to the narrative of Assamese cuisine as almost spiceless and totally different from other Indian cuisines responds not only to its lack of factual accuracy, but to the subtle way in which it serves to present both the cuisine and the people as inferior. The way in which print and electronic media talk about Assamese cuisine treads on a slippery slope in which difference is transformed into simplicity and simplicity is transformed into primitiveness/inferiority.

This can be observed in the foreword that Victor Banerjee wrote for the Assamese cookbook Ambrosia… From the Assamese Kitchen: ‘The unique aspect of Assamese food is its simplicity and clean tastes. There is a charming rusticity to almost all the recipes. The smells and aromas in the kitchen, when you cook Assamese food, have a primitive charm that is typical and distinctively Assamese.’7 Banerjee was no doubt intending to be complimentary, but his language reveals unexamined biases. He grants that Assamese cuisine is distinctive, but such distinctiveness is characterized as charmingly rustic and primitive.

 

The author of the cookbook, Jyoti Das, makes it even more clear that such adjectives describe not only the food but the Assamese themselves: ‘Like the simple Assamese, the food of Assam is rather simple and bland; with little or no spices at all; yet it is delicious.’8 The fact that Das is Assamese and that she has devoted so much time to writing excellent Assamese recipes in her books and website, makes this quote even more remarkable. Even a confident Assamese author like her continues to see herself and the cuisine to which she has devoted her writing as ‘simple and bland.’ Her book is meant to prove that Assamese food is delicious, but this is hard to achieve once it has been framed so negatively. Luckily the recipes speak for themselves if the reader can get past the framing and decides to try them: the food is indeed tasty and interesting.

The narrative of Assam as different-simple-inferior is so strong that even those most interested in raising the profile of Assamese cuisine do not seem able to shed it. Everybody I have quoted here might just be repeating existing language, without noticing its negative implications. Continuing to use this language perpetuates questionable Indian hierarchies of taste and culture. Hopefully the views of Assamese cuisine as simple – if not ‘primitive’ – is a thing of the past. There are some indications that change is happening.

 

The increasing number of ‘food adventurers’ in India is related to the wider availability of restaurants, cookbooks and ingredients. Internal tourists often look for new food experiences and metropolitan restaurants offer food festivals that showcase the food of specific regions. The ‘food adventurers’ that have come into contact with Assamese cuisine have enjoyed the experience and have been spreading their enthusiasm over the internet. Reviews of Assamese restaurants like ‘Paradise’ and ‘Delicacy’ on Tripadvisor’s website have an average of 4.5 stars out of a possible maximum of five stars. Independent bloggers have raved about their experience at Assamese restaurants in Guwahati and in Assamese food festivals. The reviewers generally write with a sense of discovery and satisfaction, even though they keep on describing the cuisine as simple.

A food blogger on an entry entitled ‘My Assamese Food 101: Restaurant Hopping in Guwahati’ concluded his review of his first encounters with Assamese cuisine as follows: ‘I loved the simple flavours of Assamese food, use of methods like steaming and smoking, and above all conservative use of chilli. Since my tolerance to chilli-heat in food is less than that of a typical ten-year old in Delhi, I am hooked to this cuisine which I knew nothing about merely six months back.’9 This reviewer admits he liked Assamese food to the point of being hooked on it, and he recognizes that the cuisine contains special techniques. Nevertheless, he still uses the idea of simplicity and the low use of chilli as the main traits of the cuisine. The language used to describe Assamese cuisine does not match its actual complexity and tastiness, even when reviewers rave about their experiences with the cuisine.

What would a new, non-biased, language to talk about Assamese cuisine look like? All cuisines need to be understood on their own terms, and not in terms of what they lack when compared to an arbitrary standard. It would be ridiculous to define Mughlai cuisine as a cuisine that lacks beef, pork and pastries, for example. Assamese cuisine has a lot to add to gastronomy in India and beyond. The distinctiveness of Assamese cuisine comes not only from the wide variety of local ingredients but also from the techniques and flavour profiles that they have perfected.

 

Assamese cuisine uses a wide variety of rice, fish and greens. Many dishes have been developed to exploit the special characteristics of a specific variety, and sometimes one or more spices are added to enhance them. It is the expertise in cooking and the connoisseurship in tasting that transforms what to outsiders might look like only three ingredients into a rainbow of possibilities. The same can be said for the appreciation of wine in France, or for the use of pasta and cheese in Italy. Cooking techniques like smoking, fermenting and cooking in banana leaves and bamboo hollows are far from simple and add another dimension of flavour and aroma.

The fact that these techniques have been practised by many peoples for centuries does not make them simple. On the contrary, today fewer and fewer people know how to control the processes of fermentation and smoking in a way that is safe and enhances flavour, and we depend instead on additives and preservatives that require no skill to use but do not deliver the same complexity of flavour.

 

Smoking and fermenting techniques add as much flavour as spices would, making the use of spice masalas unnecessary in many Assamese dishes. Smoked duck, fish or pork, for example, are already tender and fragrant and need very little else to be transformed into complete dishes. Other dishes are flavoured with raw mustard oil and fermented bamboo shoots, which give a distinctive taste that many associate with Assamese cuisine. Perhaps the most distinctive element of Assamese cuisine is khar, which is a category of dishes with an alkaline flavour. Just like Japanese cuisine introduced the world to the taste they call ‘umami’, food connoisseurs would be delighted to learn about the khar taste.

The previous paragraphs are only a brief example of how we could start to understand and enjoy Assamese cuisine without reducing it to being different and simple. This is not only a matter of changing the language but also of changing the condescending attitude with which the food has been presented. This is also not only a frivolous matter of food and taste. It is about respecting and learning from the human diversity in ways of being, knowing and enjoying. Nationalism and globalization should not interfere with everybody’s right to be both different and equal.

 

Footnotes:

1. Chetan Chauhan, ‘Green at Heart? Avoid Beef: Jairam’, Hindustan Times, 20 November 2009. http://www.hindustantimes.com/News-Feed/India/Green-at-heart-Avoid-beef-Jairam/Article1-478225.aspx

2. Seven Culinary Tastes: Northeastern India Recipes. Prakash Books, New Delhi, 2008, p. 7.

3. Hoihnu Hauzel, The Essential North-East Cookbook. Penguin, New Delhi, 2003, p. 7.

4. http://onlinesivasagar.com/lifestyle/

5. Hoihnu Hauzel, op cit., pp. 39-40.

6. Ibid., p. 45.

7. Victor Banerjee, ‘Foreword’ to Jyoti Das, Ambrosia… From the Assamese Kitchen. Rupa, New Delhi, 2008, p. xxii.

8. Jyoti Das, ibid., p. 1.

9. Siddhartha, ‘My Assamese Food 101: Restaurant Hopping in Guwahati’ in Culinary Yatras. 14 June 2011. http://experts.chefat large.in/siddhartha-singh/2011/06/14/my-assamese-food-101-restaurant-hopping-in-guwahati/

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