Are we what we eat?
  rukmini bhaya nair

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‘FOOD’ is – and always has been – one of the most suggestive four-letter words in the vocabulary of cultures. If it is widely reported, for example, that Uma Bharati among our politicians loves a good spread, then it is also understood that this is not all she loves. We are meant to infer something of her essential character from the detail. Ambition, caprice, lust and various other emotive adjectives are all implicated – although not necessarily with any degree of truth – in that apparently bland description ‘food-lover’.

Or consider another case, which also falls within the public/political sphere. I understand that the President of India, superbly benign, still employs in his high office, an official poison-taster. Not to put too fine a point on it, the task of this poor unfortunate is to taste the President’s victuals before the great man partakes of them and to die, if need be, in the pursuit of his duty. But are there not more scientific ways to test food in this day and age? Yes, certainly, and I’ve little doubt that most people, if polled, would agree that ‘poison-tasting’ is a ceremonial continuation of a medieval and barbaric custom that any nation with a claim to being modern should abjure. Why then does it continue unexamined in our polity?

Well, the fact is that the metaphor of eating is so central to our processes of moral reasoning and so deeply embedded in our language and customs that it is almost impossible to excavate, and then to rationally assess its impact on our ‘sense of self’. When we unselfconsciously describe ourselves as a ‘vegetarian’ culture, for instance, are we not – despite all evidence to the contrary – patting ourselves on the back for being a wise and tolerant nation state, miles ahead of everybody else in our ecological awareness? Likewise, if fasting, a traditional means of displaying superior self-control, was fashioned by Gandhiji into a political weapon with a moral edge, did it not constitute an instinctive appeal to age-old cultural memory?

In this essay, I attempt to re-examine some aspects of that ancient instinct which propels all cultures to make food and access to food such an awesome instrument of political and social power. After all, upwards of 800 million people still starve in the world today, despite the fact that, contra-Malthus, food production is well ahead of population growth in the 21st century. And virtually all these malnourished and starving peoples come from Africa and Asia where an alarming 24,000 people die every day from hunger – three-fourths of this number being children. Simultaneously, the deliberate wastage of surplus among the rich nations of the world and draconian trade barriers continue to ensure uneven food and calorie distribution – all of which signal a more general inequity.



While these facts are well known, however, it is important to reiterate that they are not ‘facts of nature’ but emerge out of a political history of systematic exploitation. Africa was not always hungry, nor was America always well fed. Yet, there is no denying that today the figures at the lower end of the food-index attest to terrible disparities not only between America and Africa and between urban and rural populations but within the rapidly expanding world-metropolises as well – where the phenomenon of McDonaldization is most apparent. As Jorge Pina, quoting a report by the FAO, wrote in 1998: ‘In 2005, more than 50 per cent of the world population will be living in the cities and food insecurity will become an increasingly urban problem.’

Now at the beginning of the year 2005, when culinary aromas from every corner waft towards us on the wings of globalization, it might therefore be moot to reassess the social anthropology of food and the literal part it plays in governing our consumerist appetites and cruelties.



Cultural attitudes towards food and issues of human survival are, in short, as fundamentally linked in the trendy 21st century as they ever were and that is why it could be interesting to observe how food research in current socio-biology intersects with the classical insights of literature, anthropology and psychology. So, in the first part of this essay, my strategy is to consider certain theoretical aspects of the great food debate, while in the second half, I analyze cultural representations focusing especially on the figure of the Bengali Hindu widow and her unique relationship to food and cooking.

Beginning with psycho-biology then, some of the most exciting research now being undertaken in the area concerns the so-called basic ‘food-related emotions’ such as disgust, greed and sexual arousal. Indeed, food preferences, we might say, constitute a ‘red hot topic’ within what has been dubbed the ‘hot topic’ of emotion studies today!1

One man’s meat is indeed another man’s poison in this domain. In effect, conjoining an analysis of ‘human emotions’ with the analysis of ‘food typologies’ enables a return, in these milk-teeth years of the 21st century, to that hoary ‘nature versus nurture’ anthropological debate in a pointed fashion. Since food is very literally nurture, studying food sensations allows us to ask:

To what extent is our desire for, or conversely, the disgust we feel towards certain food/food habits innate, a part of our biological survival kits? In this connection, we might make inquiries such as: is it truly ‘instinctive’ across all cultures to reject food-items into which we have observed another person spit, or foods with a decaying shitodour, blue-hued foods or foods which feel gritty to the touch? And if so, what specific brain functions turn on these ‘revulsion’ or ‘greed’ buttons?



On the other hand, we might prefer to approach the desire/disgust food continuum via the cultural route. That is, we might begin with Levi-Strauss’ classic premise that food-emotions are just a learnt aspect of cultural conduct and member-shipping which, however, contribute powerfully to the creation and maintenance of social boundaries, kinship systems and power hierarchies. I quote below from an essay by Edmund Leach which comments trenchantly on the Levi-Strauss paradigm:

‘What Levi-Strauss is getting at is this. Animals just eat food and food is anything available, which their instincts place in the category "edible". But [amongst] human beings, it is the conventions of society, which decree what is food and not food and what kinds of food shall be eaten on what occasions… There [may be] very little overlap between the shopping list of an English housewife and the inventory of comestibles available to an Amazonian Indian, but the English housewife and the Amazonian Indian alike break up the unitary category food into a number of sub-categories: food A, food B, food C etc. each of which is treated in a different way, but at this level the categories A, B, C etc. turn out to be remarkably alike everywhere. They are in fact categories of the kind that appear in Levi-Strauss’ diagram’.

Leech adds: ‘And the significant thing about such categories is that they are accorded very different levels of social prestige. Some foods are appropriate only to men; other only to women. Some foods are forbidden to children; some can be eaten only on ceremonial occasions… Cooking is thus universally a means by which nature is transformed into culture and categories of cooking are always peculiarly appropriate for use as symbols of social differentiation.’2



Yet all this is familiar turf. The question is, nearly half a century down the line from Levi-Strauss, is not his structural representation of the food hierarchy now wholly outmoded in an era of mix-and-match fast food cultures?

The best way to answer this question, in my view, is to bring Levi-Strauss’ ‘universal’ hypothesis right up against the equally universalist claims of current socio-biological theory, as well as confront it with cultural paradigms with which Levi-Strauss was blissfully unacquainted. For instance, if there is indeed a hierarchy by which human cultures transform the ‘raw’ into the ‘cooked’, then it ought to be possible to connect this practice to a general desire-disgust scale of feelings, as 21st century socio-biological research on ‘food related’ emotions seems to advocate.

Alternatively, we might seek to reassess Levi-Strauss’ work by doing the opposite – that is, we might choose to look at his raw versus cooked dichotomy from the perspective, not of the latest, but of early theorizing about the emotions in a prototypically ‘non-western’ culture. Here, we could, for example, try to push the Levi-Straussian triangle far back into the unfamiliar terrain of the 1st century AD, when Bharata allegedly laid out the elements of the famous rasa theory. But before I attempt this exercise, let me remind readers that the word rasa itself is of gustatory origin. A term of great antiquity and mentioned in the Rigveda, rasa refers variously to the sweet, intoxicating juice of the sacred soma plant, the juices secreted by the body, to essences as well as to taste and thus literally drips with tropological significance.



Given this elementary reminder, we can now get back to the alimentary, so to speak. My initial suggestion in this regard is that, in cultures where cooking is a crucial quotient of ‘civilization’ a logical, and testable, conclusion with regard to the emotions follows. Raw foods served absolutely raw, and without garnish, should then evoke the greatest emotional revulsion or disgust (roughly corresponding to Bharata’s bibhatsa rasa). Such foods would include not only raw meats with the fur still on and the eyes still glazed, but also raw vegetables pulled straight from the earth.

Consequently, I’d argue that the social pressure from within a society might result in outcast groups like Hindu widows being pushed to the right hand side of Levi-Strauss’ triangle (the ‘boiled/rotted’ side). Foods which command the greatest emotional respect, on the other hand would be located on the opposite side of the map to the left (the ‘roasted/cooked’ side) where the ‘best’ most satisfying emotions would cluster and be associated with a certain type of food. In order to illustrate how this hypothesis of mine works, I will now apply Levi-Strauss’ analysis to the following anonymous 21st century extract – culled from the Internet – of an old Indian myth familiar to all of us, from Uma Bharati to President Abdul Kalam.

‘Krishna: (running towards Sudama) Oh, Sudama, where have you been all this time. I missed you. How are you?

Sudama: (with tears of happiness) Oh Krishna! (hugs him) I have been thinking of you all the time. How are you? It’s been so long. My eyes have yearned to see you…

Rukmini: I have never seen Krishna so happy before!

Krishna: Come here, my friend, please sit down…

Narrator: Krishna and Rukmini with great devotion and love wash the feet of Sudama and give him refreshments, while Rukmini fans him. All the courtiers wonder why Krishna gives such special treatment to a ragged old man.

Krishna: (teasingly) What have you got for me? What is that in your hand…

Sudama: (shy and surprised) Where… no…nothing…

Krishna: I know you have something for me… Give it to me. (Krishna takes the bag of puffed rice from Sudama) Ah… you got puffed rice for me? (opening the bag and eating all of it) This is so good! I have never tasted such good food in years.

Rukmini: (with concern) My lord, don’t eat everything now. It is not good for your stomach. Keep some for tomorrow.

Narrator: That night Sudama slept like a king in Krishna’s palace. Next morning he bade his friend an affectionate farewell. His heart overflowing with love, Sudama proceeded on his journey home.’

In this rendition, certain cultural features immediately come to the fore. They are: (a) the intense range of emotions depicted (sringara, hasya, vira, etc), (b) the connection between ritual, emotion and food, (c) the intertwining motifs of the ‘friendship’ between poverty and great wealth, (d) the role of the narrator, and (e) the supportive figure of the wife.



While space does not permit me to go into all the aspects I’ve listed of the Krishna-Sudama narrative, I want to draw attention to the most striking feature of this conversation from the food and cooking perspective – namely the part played by puffed rice. Such ‘puffed rice’ would naturally be assigned to the ‘good’ left-hand side of the Levi-Strauss diagram since it is ‘smoked’ and thus ‘uncontaminated’ by water – which seems to function as a universal structurally transformative agent in this context. That is, water or the presence of moisture can induce rotting in cooked food (i.e. food which has undergone cultural processing), even as it performs a cleansing and purifying role in its natural ‘non-food’ context, as when Krishna and Rukmini lovingly wash Sudama’s feet. Hence, in the diagram below, I – very tentatively – replace Leach’s western ‘oysters’ and ‘stilton cheese’ examples with the indigenous examples of emotional interplay just discussed – symbolized by a puffed versus boiled rice continuum.

In other words, I would argue from this particular application of the Levi-Strauss model that the puffed rice motif, which seems to play such a minor role in the story, turns out in fact to be central from an emotional and psychological point of view. It becomes a utopian emblem of love, brotherhood, and the transcendence of class barriers. Yet, make the simple move of substituting the smoked ‘puffed’ rice with ‘boiled’ rice and it is my contention you would get a very different narrative, a different mythology.



It is to that cultural narrative where boiled rice plays a large part that I move now. When she loses her husband, as we know, the traditional Hindu widow is transformed overnight into a living ghost, literally deprived of many of her human rights. Her hair has to be shorn, she must dress in the strictest white and she is allowed to eat only the most limited of vegetarian fare – epitomized by ‘boiled rice’. As a current text on the internet by Swami Nikhilananda (1994) kindly informs us: ‘Through these strict disciplines imposed on widows, the Hindu lawgivers constantly reminded them of the ideal of chastity, which is deeply ingrained in the Indian mind.’

Historically, the tough conditions imposed on widows ensured that they remained focal in many of India’s most crucial social reform debates, such as the ‘widow remarriage’ movement and laws passed against ‘suttee’ in the colonial period. Yet, shockingly, perhaps because of that ubiquitous ‘ideal of chastity’ cited earlier, India has the highest prevalence of widows in the world – between 35-40 million – most of whom are destitute, severely ill-treated and outcast. Gender discrimination, food taboos and emotional trauma thus conjoin in a dramatic fashion when we fix upon the figure of the Hindu widow. Radhika Sachdev writes: ‘The problem of India’s widows is not confined to Vrindavan, Mathura, Tirupathi and the other holy towns (ironically places of pilgrimage dedicated to the god Krishna, lord of carnal love) where widows have traditionally congregated. In every fourth household in India there is a widow. 50% of [these widows] are over the age of fifty… So many are the deprivations that a widow faces that the mortality rate for widows is a shocking 85% higher than it is for married women.’3



With this documentation as background, I return to the matter of the food taboos placed on the Bengali widow in particular – as a 21st century case study in the anthropology of fear and disgust. I have already outlined some of the notorious social aspects of the ‘inauspicious’ state of widowhood but I shall now try to link these affective clues to the actual food cooked and consumed by widows.

Bengali haute cuisine is, as connoisseurs know, elaborate and eaten in slow stages, beginning with teto (a bitter flavour) and culminating in mishti (a sweet taste), with a range of salt and tart tastes in between. Bengal also prides itself on its amish ranna or non-vegetarian cooking, for it is among the few parts of India where high-caste Brahmins have no qualms about eating meat and fish. But of course, a patriarchal system decrees that widows of all castes are forbidden spices, meat and fish, in Bengal, as elsewhere in India. However, my argument seeks to go beyond that apparent, if convincing, connection to be made between appetite and affect.



Specifically, I wish to ask: How does an individual Bengali widow deal with the Darwinian socio-biological catch-22 of surviving in a suddenly harsh and de-familiarized world following her husband’s death? And how do Bengali widows, as a group, escape from that corner of the Levi-Straussian triangle into which they have been so heartlessly corralled? And my answer, in brief, is that they contrive to ‘beat the system’ by exploiting the very food taboos placed on them – given that restrictions are placed on their eating, but not on their cooking. Their ‘survival strategy’ lies in turning themselves into an indispensable, if invisible, presence in the family kitchen.

Traditionally, the Bengali widow is offered a handful of uncooked rice and lentils as her meal for the whole day. The culinary challenge before her then becomes to transform this bare structure into something desirable and ‘civilized’ once more. So, the route out of her culinary imprisonment for the Bengali widow, my argument runs, is a classic structuralist one. It is to cleverly substitute the onion, garlic and all the spices she is no longer allowed with invisible elements from the spectrum of throwaway foods – ‘valueless’ vegetable scraps in particular.

My contention is that the appearance in the elaborate Bengali cuisine of lots of utterly delicious items made from vegetable odd-and-ends such as chorchori, chechki, etc. was, ironically, a direct, recuperative contribution of the brutally treated Bengali widows to Bengali cookery. Although I have not yet historically researched this hypothesis, I find that it receives enthusiastic anecdotal support from many Bengalis, as well as indirectly from Chitrita Bannerji’s perceptive 1995 piece on Bengali widowhood, where she writes that:

‘It is true that despite deprivations, household drudgery and the imposition of many fasts, widows sometimes lived to great old age, and the gifted cooks among them have contributed greatly to the range, originality and subtlety of Hindu vegetarian cooking in Bengal. A 19th C food writer once said that it was impossible to taste the full glory of vegetarian cooking unless your own wife becomes a widow. And Bengali literature is full of references to elderly widows whose magic touch can transform the most mundane and bitter of vegetables to nectar, whose subtlety with spices cannot be reproduced by other hands.’4



That is, despite – or because of – the severe food restrictions placed on them, it may be that the widows of Bengal contributed in a subterranean but spectacular fashion to a certain distinctive congeries of delectable niramish or vegetarian cooking in Bengal. The points made in the second part of this essay thus repeat in obverse the five cultural themes outlined in my earlier sections insofar as they are about: (a) emotional stigma and taboo, (b) ritual as well as ‘real’ restrictions on food and eating, (c) a fall into symbolic poverty, (d) the invisible cultural narrative of the ‘accursed’ widow, and (e) the recuperative measures invented by the widow.

Cooking in true subaltern style from the margins, with marginalia, my point here is that the chaste Bengali widow still manages to affirm her culinary prowess and her unrepentant love of life through this different and ‘against the grain’ gastronomic style. In doing so, she remains, as ever, an amazing emblem of India’s emotional and social inventiveness in the face of tremendous odds.

At the same time, the figure of the widow offers intriguing data for researchers into socio-biology, since she generally evokes a slew of negative ‘disgust’ emotions, as opposed to the feelings of wellbeing and ‘desire’ that the virtuous wife Rukmini stands for in the Krishna-Sudama tale. In simple structuralist code, that is: Wives = Wholesome Food, while Widows = Rotten Food. To end this section on Hindu widows, I would therefore suggest a light-hearted diagnostic. Just ask an unreconstructed Hindu sanyasin such as Uma Bharati – who belongs neither to the category of wife nor widow – whether she would prefer crisp mura-mura or boiled rice on a good day, and I will bet you my precious copy of Levi-Strauss that she would choose the former! So deep do the covert effects of our myths go – whether you happen to be a Hindu political icon, an anonymous Indian wife or a Bengali widow.



There are those who might, however, object that my narrow focus thus far on the culinary prowess of Bengali widows presents a distorted and old-fashioned view of the full range of Bengali cuisine – as well as of sub-continental food culture. To these critics, I offer a millennial parody that appeared in a leading newspaper. The column comments on Monica Ali’s much discussed, Booker-nominated novel Brick Lane but, revealingly, it does so through the medium of food and via the theme of the culture-wars so bitterly fought out today in down-market immigrant, ‘post-colonial’ restaurants everywhere:

‘Ei Monica Ali meichele aekebare chomotkar, no doubt. This Monica Ali is a singularly brilliant young woman, no doubt and I am saying this to you not as some baje-taje, useless-fuseless literary critic… I am saying this to you as one long-time genuine resident of Brick Lane, London, which has been my home in exile for so many years, far from my Sonar Bangla… What to do? I once tried, truly! I tried to start a bonafide Bangladeshi restaurant in London, where I offered typical Bangla delicacies like sorse maach (mustard fish curry) and chorchori (mixed fried veggies)… How you’re liking our typical Bangla ranna, I asked my customers. And they said: Where’s the bleeding CTM I eat when I always come here? Bring me my CTM ek bloody jaldi dum! That’s all that Bangladeshi restaurants, which are known as Indian restaurants, are ever allowed to serve in Britain. That blissful paean of praise to the palate which is true Bangla cuisine, debased into the mindless mantra of CTM! This is worse than divide and rule, this is deride and drool…But now, at last, thanks to Monica-di’s book, the Bangals of Brick Lane can emerge in their true colours. [So] I shall tell it as it is. No we do not spit in CTM. We would not dream of it… No, we do better, we snot in it.’5



One of the goals that contemporary research on the emotions has set itself is to examine the manner in which human communities creatively exploit the links between food structures, cultural categories and literary representation to resolve their existential dilemmas. It is this respect that the passage I’ve just quoted is well worth a glance, even if we only focus on that last satirical line.

‘We snot in it,’ remarks the Bangladeshi restaurant-owner, expressing the contempt he feels for that ersatz product – CTM, or Chicken Tikka Masala. Now, this sentence does indeed ‘tell it as it is,’ perhaps more radically than the author realizes, because it signals in so physical a manner that ‘innate’ emotion of disgust that socio-biologists are constantly on the lookout for. Simultaneously, the passage is about desire and identity in the most prototypical sense – about how food is a surrogate for ‘who we are,’ a cultural place-holder even when one is in exile and sundered from one’s kin. Furthermore, all this talk of multi-ethnic restaurant fare now brings us squarely back to that ‘hot topic’ of McDonaldization with which this essay began.



Food, this essay has argued, is a basic instinct – not just an antidote to hunger but a formidable locus of desire. However, this instinct is inevitably subject today to the market and various other complex forces of modernity, which could ‘transform’ the food landscape as we have known it down the ages. Companies like McDonald’s, for instance, now scientifically research consumer tastes and it might turn out that some of these preferences (like the widely shared lip-smack reserved for tomato ketchup) do have a component of the biologically ‘universal’. In which case, this could emerge as an area where the food-mart ties up potently with research in socio-biology – with we do not know what unforeseen cultural consequences. It seems improbable though that the delicate niche flavours created by the widows of Bengal would survive such a multinational assault in the long run.

Similarly, our newfound confidence in computers and our faith in the web as a failsafe means of assuaging what the cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett calls the ‘epistemic hunger’ of the human species might end up obscuring the real hunger that still afflicts large areas of the world.6 The seductions of the media today are such that sybaritic feasting in Dallas must always win over painful depictions of starvation in Dafur. And in our country – where malnutrition is chronic – television programmes on cookery far outnumber the occasional episode on undernourishment.



Meanwhile, a leading Indian newsmagazine highlights at the end of 2004, the efforts of e-choupal, a collaborative initiative between a corporate house and Indian farmers, with a headline that proudly proclaims: ‘Home to 600 million potential consumers, rural India has become a new destination for corporate India. This is set to redefine what farmers grow and what we eat [italics mine].’7

More fundamentally, though, this year-end prediction, if reliable, will also very likely redefine who we become in the not-so-distant future – which is definitely food for thought. Shiva, the Hindu god with a gilt-edged claim to being India’s first official poison taster, is said to have swallowed the poison that turned his throat permanently blue so as to save the world from destruction. Without such divine intervention, however, the indications are that it may prove blue murder for each one of us, from the President of India down, to negotiate in the unsettled years ahead, that moral vortex which swirls around – as it has throughout human history – the simple, everyday act of eating.


* A version of this essay was presented as a plenary lecture at the SOAS seminar on food culture held in October 2003.



1. See Dylan Evans, Emotion: the Science of Sentiment, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001.

2. Edmund Leach, ‘Oysters, Smoked Salmon and Stilton Cheese’ in Levi-Strauss, Fontana Modern Masters Series, Glasgow, 1970.

3. Radhika Sachdev, ‘Women in White: the Ill Treatment of Widows’, Women’s International Press (WIN), 2001, article on the Internet.

4. Chitrita Banerji, ‘What Bengali Widows Can and Cannot Eat’, Granta 52, 1995.

5. Jug Suraiya, The Times of India, October 2003.

6. Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained, Little Brown, Boston and London, 1991.

7. India Today, December 2004.