At a key moment, Hacker decides to deliver a rousing speech defying the EU and defending the “great British sausage”. His popularity soars especially when, as part of a carefully set-up, behind-the-scenes deal, the EU agrees to accept the term “British sausage”. This victory comes just as the prime minister resigns and gives Hacker the push he needs to grab the position. The Minister is now Prime Minister — all thanks to a sausage.
Yes Minister was always very insightful about how politics functions, and this was a lesson in the value of food in political messaging. Politicians know that reaching into the kitchen always helps in delivering a message that, literally, connects at a gut level. This goes back to ancient times, as can be seen from the Roman leader who pacified citizens with promises of “bread and circuses” (food and entertainment), the French king Henri IV who declared he wanted every family to have a chicken in the pot or the British who used the metaphor of the Roast Beef of England to signify the prosperity of their Empire.
Indian politicians gave their own twist to this. Most notably Mahatma Gandhi made not eating a form of political protest and, when he did eat, might not have been above sending a message. While negotiating with Viceroy Lord Irwin, for example, after the success of the Salt March — food, again — he had his English follower Miraben come and serve him dahi and dates. When the Viceroy expressed curiosity, Gandhi happily offered him a taste and noted, in a remark that would resonate with the deeply religious Irwin, that this was “the Prophet’s food”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi also seems to have used not eating — for example, fasting during his dinner at the White House — to help build his image of impressive self-discipline. Lalu Prasad Yadav showed his mastery of political sloganeering, if not foretelling, by quipping “jab tak rahega samosa main aloo, tab tak rahega Bihar main Lalu”.
The Hindu nationalist movement built itself on cow protection and its appeal to the many meanings of milk in India. For an example of food in negative imaging, there’s that constant use of pasta to disparage Sonia Gandhi’s Italian origins.
Bone to pick with
Food metaphors connect with everyone, since everyone must eat and most people have been hungry and know how hunger can charge their emotions at a primal level. Perhaps this explains why food is being drawn into battles that pit countries, communities and regions against each other.
Take a familiar food, add an accusation of appropriation, infuse with the indignation of alteration, mix it up with anger at someone else profiting and you have a potent dish to feed old resentments.
This is what has driven the wars over the origin of hummus and falafel. Both have become symbols of Israeli cuisine, made by Israeli restaurateurs across the world and packaged and sold by entrepreneurs with Israeli roots — to the bitter resentment of Palestinians who see this as yet another way to steal their heritage. Further to the north, Turkey’s long-standing insecurity of where it stands, Asian or European, Muslim or secular, has come out in battles over food like coffee, kebabs and baklava, fighting over their origins and the best way to make them with Greece, Syria and other neighbours.
Similar battles have taken place across the world. Peru and Chile have battled over the origin of pisco, the potent grape spirit that both countries make. Australia and New Zealand have fought over who invented the pavlova, the meringue and fruit dessert. Nigeria, Senegal and Gambia got drawn into a dispute over the origin and right recipe for jollof rice, the spicy dish that these countries share with other West African nations like Liberia, Ghana, Cameroon and Sierra Leone. It is a subject perfect for social media agitation, and Twitter users in these countries duly stoked the cooking fires.
Bengal vs Odisha
In most of these cases the battles generally remain on social or mainstream media. Where commercial interests are involved, for example, with packaged hummus, there can be court cases about whether a copyright to the recipe exists. But the Odisha Police have taken these food fights to a startling new level with the criminal charges levelled against columnist and social media activist Abhijit Iyer-Mitra who made derogatory remarks against Odisha culture, including over the origin of the rosogulla. The Inspector-General of Odisha Arun Kumar Bothra later said that Mitra was arrested for his remarks on Sun Temple and Odisha culture, and not rosogolla.
This rosogulla dispute has been simmering for a while, being recharged by actions like Odisha’s declaration of July 17 as Rasagola Dibasa (day) or attempts on the part of both Odisha and West Bengal for Geographical Indication (GI) status for the sweet. This status, which assigns a place as the origin of a food, has been used to inflame these food disputes, and it did so here, despite attempts by the GI registry to use the Yes Minister trick by recognising “Banglar Rasogolla”, meaning the Bengali version, leaving open the possibility of recognising an Odiya version as well.
It’s in this situation that Iyer-Mitra, who seems to be attempting to build a career as a professional provocateur, tweeted “There is no such thing as a Odia roshogolla.” He also noted that there is no good rosogulla left in Bengal, thanks to the policies of the state’s governments, but the authorities there didn’t rise to the bait. They did in Odisha. He was arrested for the second time, after an earlier charge over making fun of the architecture of the Sun Temple at Konark, which led to Iyer-Mitra having to make an unconditional apology to a House Committee of the Odisha Assembly.
It’s hard not to see this as something of an over-reaction, but it also raises the question of what makes the authorities in Odisha so touchy. And that has to be understood in the context of the region’s sense of being dominated and exploited by other people, particularly those from Bengal. This is largely due to geography. Calcutta’s growth through the 18th and 19th centuries sucked prosperity from all of eastern India and this included food and the knowledge of how to make it.
Swapna M Banerjee’s Men, Women & Domestics, a study of how middle-class identity in colonial Bengal was developed through interactions with servants, has a fascinating story that shows both how this exploitation worked, and was also subtly subverted by Odiyas. She notes how Bengali Hindu households faced a dilemma as they grew more prosperous-the amount and variety of food they had to cook put a strain on the women who were cooking.
The answer was to hire outside cooks, but caste became a complication. A lower-caste cook could not be accepted since this would lead to caste contamination for the eaters. But the traditional solution for rich families of hiring high-caste Brahmin cooks ran into a shortage of cooks, not least because few Brahmins wanted to take on the job. So, Calcutta households looked to Odisha.
Some servants had long come from there-Odiyas had something of a monopoly on jobs as palanquin bearers across India. In Rudyard Kipling’s Kim when the boy and the lama meet the rani from the hills who becomes their benefactor, she is being carried on her journeys by Odiya palanquin bearers. Odiya Brahmins started coming to Calcutta to work as cooks. Soon demand for Odiya Brahmin cooks was outstripping supply. This is when one Jagadananda, the head of an association for palanquin bearers in Calcutta, hit upon a neat idea. With the help of a Brahmin he set up a school of sorts to turn his low-caste palanquin bearers into high-caste cooks. Along with basic recipes they were taught “the gotras, dharmashastras, teaching them the names of a few saints and sages, making them learn some slokas, getting them used to wearing the paita (sacred thread)…” Soon Jagadananda was producing hundreds of Odiya “Brahmin” cooks a year and could boast that “there are not as many Oriya Brahmins in Orissa as they are in Calcutta”.
The story is a marvellous commentary on caste restrictions and flexibility, but also shows how culinary links came up between the two regions. It was essentially an exploitative relation and one that led to stereotypes of Odiya cooks being unclean, unskilled and lazy (much like most cooks were labelled across India). It isn’t hard to see the roots of Odiya resentment in this characterisation.
All this has got compounded by the processes in which a “cuisine” gets labelled as such. This involves documentation and publishing in cookbooks, propagation through articles and distribution outside the region through the diaspora, first in household cooking and then restaurants. In all this, Bengali food has easily taken the lead. It had some of the first cookbooks published in India. The thriving Bengali media scene reproduced and popularised recipes and the large and culturally assertive community of Probashi Bengalis, those living outside Bengal, have helped create an identity for Bengali cuisine.
Odiya cuisine has got left behind, and it is not alone in this. As the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai noted in his essay “How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India”, this pattern has been replicated across India: “Thus Telugu food is being progressively pushed out of sight by Tamil cuisine, Oriya by Bengali cuisine, Kannada by Marathi, Rajasthani by Gujarati, and Kashmiri by Punjabi.”
Some of his examples can be questioned-Marathi food is more overshadowed by Gujarati-but the processes are the same, and so are the resentments. Maharashtrian resentment over Gujarati domination is another long simmering issue, as is Kannada resentment over Tamil domination, and again this takes culinary form in irritation over how the distinctive rice-based cooking of Udupi is casually classified as “Madrasi”. Udupi restaurants may have accepted the label in the early years when they were establishing themselves, but today they are ready to distinguish themselves both in cookbooks and other food media, and also in restaurants.
Understanding the reasons for the resentments doesn’t mean condoning how Odisha is dealing with it. Beyond the principle of free speech, there’s also how counterproductive it is in practice. Odisha has managed to make a free-speech martyr out of Iyer-Mitra-particularly ironic given his vituperative attitudes in general-while damaging the state’s own reputation.
Consider how much better the cause of promoting Odisha’s cuisine could be served if, rather than pick fights with Bengal and prosecute people like Iyer-Mitra, the state pursued a more positive path. There is so much it has to offer a food world that is eager for new traditions and ingredients to discover. The state has such a range, from the seafood of its coast, to the fish of its brackish estuaries and freshwater rivers, to the plants of its tribal heartlands and, above all, the temples of Puri that represent a huge trove of culinary knowledge.
Some years back, a researcher at the Centre for Indigenous Knowledge Systems in Chennai told me of a project to document Indian rice varieties in the Puri region. They had learned that one of the temple offerings involved a regular supply of fresh paddy. For this to exist round the year, there has to be an exceptionally wide variety of strains that would ripen at different times, but all carefully grown near the temple. It was an excellent example of the hidden food riches of Odisha that really require proper publicity, instead of wasting time prosecuting something as inconsequential as a tweet.