The battle over biryani: A look at foreign influences on Indian cuisine

When repeated reference to Biryani, one of India’s most popular aromatic delicacies, was made by the BJP to denigrate people holding sit-in protests against the controversial citizenship law in the Muslim-dominated Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, during the recent elections there, it brought under focus how food has been used in India to make political statements and to divide communities.

It’s a different matter though that people did not eat out of the hands of BJP’s anti-biryani campaign, which was actually directed against the anti-citizenship demonstrators in a Delhi outskirt. The Shaheen Bagh protesters were largely Muslim women, some of whom came to the protests with children in arms. They were provided homemade food, including biriyani, and tea and given water by locals and also by Sikhs who opened langar in their tradition of serving free meals to the hungry in Shaheen Bagh.

“BJP is working with zero tolerance towards terrorism. But (Delhi chief Minister Arvind) Kejriwal is busy sponsoring and offering biryani in Shaheen Bagh,’’Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath said, while addressing a rally at Badarpur constituency for Delhi elections. A BJP spokesperson also commented that Kejriwal was giving the protesters at Shaheen Bagh Rs 500 a day and feeding them biryani. Some even described Shaheen Bagh as a mini-Pakistan.

The reference by BJP, almost in the same breath to biriyani and Shaheen Bagh protests, was seen to be aimed at branding the protests as a sectarian Muslim-only agitation, since biriyani is primarily viewed, although erroneously, in popular perception as a “Muslim food” because it originally came to India from Persia or modern-day Iran, a Muslim country/region.

“Popular imagination around food can be very evocative and it immediately creates the sense of othering. The symbolic association of food with communities is nothing new and in the case of Shaheen Bagh, that association was sought to be created. There are symbolic associations with fish as well as with cow meat and these can immediately create conflict and unrest,” Ishita Dey, a New Delhi-based food anthropologist with an interest in food, labor studies and forced migration, told this correspondent in a phone interview.

Dey, who visited the Shaheen Bagh protest site, said, while food can be used as a means for solidarity as well, which was seen during the women’s protests at Shaheen Bagh, eating food is a political act and is not just about survival, but is also about dignity.

“Food is a marker of social stratification and food clearly divides us. What we have seen in the comments on Shaheen Bagh and biriyani is a sort of divisive policy for communities,” Dey who is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at South Asian University in New Delhi, said.

BJP’s anti-biriyani campaign ultimately did not work in favor of the party as Aam Admi Party candidate Amanatullah Khan won against BJP’s Braham Singh in the Okhla constituency that includes Shaheen Bagh, the epicenter of the anti-CAA protests.

That BJP’s biriyani reference was not an apt metaphor to describe Muslims is borne out by the history of the delicacy that has been embraced by Indians as their own, and by the fact that in today’s India it is as much delectable a food for Muslims as for Hindus and members of other religious communities, despite its arrival in India with the advent of the Islamic culture.

At New Delhi’s India Gate, during anti-CAA protests in December, some Muslims distributed free vegetable biriyani, prepared without meat, as the protesters that included people from other communities.

Many wonder if biriyani is sought to be associated with Muslims because of its origin in Iran/Middle East, what would happen to a number of other food and dishes in today’s India whose origin are foreign, but are immensely popular in India.

“What would much Indian cuisine be today without the New World crops of potatoes and tomatoes,”Audrey Truschke, a professor in the Department of History in Rutgers University said, in response to a question by India Abroad.

Food historians and experts say generations of foreign arrivals, conquests and also assimilations over the centuries have helped India develop a unique culinary repertoire, using new spices, condiments and even vegetables in which influences of Persians, Middle Eastern Jews Arabs, and even Europeans, not to talk about the Mughals, could be traced.

“Biriyani is a dish that is truly pan-Indian and illustrates the multi-cultural richness of India. Thus, it is inaccurate to relegate it to one community,” Chitra Divakaruni, author of most recently, “The Forest of Enchantment,” which is a retelling of the Ramayana in Sita’s voice, told this correspondent.

Pritha Sen, a Gurgaon-based development consultant who writes about regional cuisines, wrote in Readers Digest on Feb. 11 that, “The biryani has emerged as a symbol of who we are — a people shaped by the intermingling of many cultural and culinary traditions, a people who have withstood divisive forces, tempered by the multiple assaults on our syncretic traditions across generations.” She noted that people, despite everything, have embraced external influences and assimilated them as their own to create a composite culture that is Indian.

“Biryani today is an integral part of the pan-Indian culinary repertoire. It does not belong any more to any one community or region, even though there are gharanas of biryani that are zealously guarded as biryani chains across India’s cities and malls become ubiquitous … What we saw yesterday — the ecstatic and spontaneous celebrations over biryani — was a push back that had to come. A push back against the taunts about biryani being distributed in Kashmir, and definitely against Yogi Adityanath’s reference to this hero amongst Mughlai dishes,” Sen said, adding, that “This is not an identity based on religion but one that has been created, over centuries, through the intersection of a shared heritage and culture.”

It was not just biriyani but also the innocuous poha (flattened rice flakes), eaten by millions of Indians from Kolkata to Gujarat to Maharashtra, that also became a bad food recently —”Poha is the new beef’ as The Print noted in a headline — after BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya said at a recent seminar in support of the CAA in Indore that he suspected there were some Bangladeshis among construction workers at his house because they were eating poha. The flattened rice, which is also called chiura or chire, is not foreign in origin, and is widely consumed in Nepal and Bangladesh in addition to India.

The battle over biryani: A look at foreign influences on Indian cuisine

Lunchtime at the food cart operated by Kabir Ahmed and a partner in New York, April 5, 2017. Chicken biryani, flecked with fried onion and cilantro and garnished with half a hard-boiled egg, is a popular meal for $6 (drink included), and while Ahmed would like to raise the price, he worries that would drive away customers. (The New York Times)

Experts say a third of the food consumed by Indians today are foreign in origin, including some of the most popular food that have become part of the staple diet in India, but did not originate in India. These include the gulab jamun, that is said to have been brought by Persian invaders when they came to India, vindaloo that has come from Portugal, onions (from West Asia), potatoes and tomatoes (from the Andean region in South America), chilies (from Central America), mustard seed from the Mediterranean region, garlic and apples from Central Asia, among others.

Saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, which is used in many dishes in India, both for coloring and fragrance, is a native of Southern Europe and cultivated in Mediterranean countries, particularly in Spain, Austria, France, Greece, England, Turkey and Iran. In India, it is cultivated in Jammu & Kashmir and in Himachal Pradesh, according to Spices Board of India, an Indian government agency.

Similarly, asafoetida (hing) is distributed from the Mediterranean region to Central Asia. In India it is grown in Kashmir and in some parts of Punjab. The major supply of asafoetida to India is from Afghanistan and Iran, according to the Spice Board.

The widely-popular mustard, which is now cultivated in India, also has foreign origin. According to the Spice Board, the yellow/white mustard is indigenous to Southern Europe, whereas brown mustard is from China introduced to Northern India. The black mustard is endemic in the Southern Mediterranean region.

Michelin-starred chef Vikas Khanna has noted that India’s first taste of foreign flavors came with the Greek, Roman and Arab traders who used many of the important herbs and spices, and most importantly, saffron.

According to Khanna, another important influence from a different culinary tradition was from Arab traders who introduced coffee. The Arabs also left an indelible mark on Kerala’s cuisine now known as Kerala Muslim (or Moplah) cuisine. Syrian Arab Christians fleeing persecution at the hands of the Muslims took refuge under the King of Kerala and also left a heavy influence on the cuisine of Kerala.

Some believe that it was the Zoroastrians who first brought Biryani to India, before the Mughals made it popular.Khanna also noted that Hindu refugees from Afghanistan brought with them a style of an oven, which led to an entirely new stream of dishes — tandoori.

Noting that there is no concrete record of the food habits of the Indus civilization, Khanna said with the coming of the Aryans around 1500 BC, Khanna , who has written 25 books on food, cooking, and food heritage, says in an article quoting literary sources that food was simple as the early Aryans were semi-agriculturist, semi-nomadic people. As they began around 1000 BC to settle down in the fertile Gangetic plains their food became more complex and elaborate.

“Frequent allusions to animal sacrifices and to the cooking of meat, roasted and boiled, meant that the early Aryans were non-vegetarians. As the agrarian economy grew, cattle and other domesticated animals became more useful in agrarian and related food production activities,’ he notes.

“It became increasingly expensive to slaughter animals for meat and this was the beginning of vegetarianism in India. With the rise of Buddhism and Jainism in the 6th century BC, the doctrines of non-violence took religious connotations and meat eating became taboo in the Aryan culture,” Khanna wrote in a post on Cuisine and Diplomacy on the Ministry of External Affairs website in 2014.

Despite biryani being sought to be associated with Muslims, few perhaps are aware that a Hindu temple in Tamil Nadu offers mutton biryani as prasad to devotees, a tradition that is said to have continued for 84 years. The Hindu.com in a report in February 2019 said Vadakkampatti, a small village in Thirumangalam taluk of Madurai district, hosts an unusual annual temple festival where biryani is served as prasad, not just to devotees but anyone who walks into Vadakkampatti on Jan. 25 every year.

It said the cynosure of the three-day festival is the humble Muniyandi Swami temple that stands in the middle of the village, where over 2,000 kilograms of rice and mutton are cooked in huge cauldrons overnight.

“It’s not just the people, but also Lord Muniyandi who is a fan of our biryani,” a local resident identified in the report as Santhakumar, was quoted as saying. Pushpesh Pant, a noted food critic and historian, whose book, “India: The Cookbook” (2011) was rated by The New York Times as one of the best cookbooks of the year, throws new light on the biryani, saying that that references to kebabs and biryani were also made in epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata.

“One very specific shloka in the Ramayana says that Sita’s favorite dish is rice cooked with meat. And the technique of meat cooking on charcoal has existed in our Vedas and Mahabharata texts as well, though the concept of tandoor came much later,” Pant, a retired professor of International relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University, was quoted as saying in a 2017 article in Deccan Herald.

In India, most food-related prejudices have their roots in the caste system, said Saumya Gupta, assistant professor of history at Delhi University’s Janki Devi Memorial College, according to a Jan. 8 article in Indian Express titled: “Is your Food Indian?”

The anti-CAA protests at Shaheen Bagh that created a community bond with people from different communities coming to the aid of the demonstrators with food and tea led many experts like Dey to observe that although there is “resistance to partaking of food” between different communities because of the “rules of inter-dining, specifically prohibitions around exchange of water and cooked food” protests like Shaheen Bagh have challenged that concept. The anti-CAA protesters, she told Al Jazeera newspaper, were subverting such ideas, thereby challenging the divisive rhetoric of Prime Minister Modi.

Truschke told this correspondent in response to a question that perhaps the BJP is afraid of the maxim: ‘You are what you eat.’

“Although, I would say the joke is on them since Indian cultures have been forged through interactions with and contributions from Muslim individuals and communities over the centuries.

“Amit Shah should know a little something about this unavoidable reality, given his surname. Even those, who seem to hate India’s multicultural inheritance, still embody it.”

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