Aggressive, inaccurate and unfair: How Odia food writers weaponise their culinary roots

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Their approach generally refers to a long and glorious past, emphasising the inherent superiority of the cuisine, which almost blames the outsider for not having discovered it earlier

Most cuisines in India are centuries old, but food writing is not. Writing that goes beyond documenting recipes is still new or as yet absent in many regions and ethnicities. Objective analyses of Indian food as a whole goes back only a few decades. So, what we have now is a long history of food cultures, but a just-emerging field of academic food writing.

It is vital that these new explorers understand that food is inseparable from culture, culture from identity, and identity from politics. A turbulent political landscape can have an insidious effect on how markers of identity — which food is — are approached. This is also true of cultures coming to terms with their new-found identity. Food becomes a device through which identity is entrenched and muscle added to the skeletons of stories that have never been told.

Odia food is going through this phase today. A simple and aggressive story is seen as a quick and effective way of making up for a history of neglect. This approach generally refers to a long and glorious past, emphasising the inherent superiority of the cuisine, which almost blames the outsider for not having discovered it earlier. This approach is not about better understanding, but dominance, and the weapon is marketing.

The mother cuisine

At a webinar on Odia food organised by the Odisha Tourism Development Corporation, a prominent writer on the region’s food used all these tools of cultural hegemony. First, she claimed that Odia food is 8,000 years old. That is simply incorrect. The first archaeological reference to cooking from the subcontinent is from Harappa, around 5,000 years old. So, the basis of such a claim is confounding. However, roots in the ancient is a familiar argument of cultural emasculation. This, in a way, lays the basis for claims that everything that came later can be traced to this ‘mother’ cuisine. The intent of the argument is ‘purity’.

The fact is, no cuisine is a water-tight entity. Academic study should look at influences, interfaces and cultural transactions that occurred via trade, immigrants and invaders among others. Odisha has trade relations with Southeast Asia. Did that influence the steamed pithas? How did the Marwari settlement impact the food of Cuttack? What did the Odia cooks who went to Bengal bring back with them? Such questions, sadly, have no place in this hegemonic tale about puritanism.

Pakhala, a popular dish.

Another point that is emphasised is that Odia food could be the solution to the global search for health food. In an earlier panel, a well-known Odia food writer claimed that pakhala is rich in iron, going on to make similar fallacious statements about other foods. Such airy claims need to be scrutinised. As a region that is less integrated with global consumption patterns, Odisha is yet to bear the full brunt of the Western fast-food culture. While the rootedness and diversity of Odia food are undeniable, there is no easy way around research. There is no path that can skip the painstaking documentation of dishes and practices that make up a cuisine. This is the time to study how Odisha eats and how that is being impacted by larger forces. Loud claims, not based on facts, only feed chauvinism. And they make the work of future food writers that much more difficult.

Beyond the temple

Finally, it is time Odia food writing went beyond the Puri temple. The dominance of coastal Odisha, particularly the temple, is not just lazy, it is unfair to the rest of Odisha. It overlooks the diversity of Odia cuisine — the influence of Bengal in the north, of Andhra in the south, and the unrecorded foods of western Odisha. For example, the trademark dalma that is made synonymous with Odia food is non-existent in many western parts of the State.

This shortsightedness is neither innocent nor accidental. The Brahminical dominance in Odia food discourse consciously avoids any references to tribal cultures or their influence on temple cuisine. It is not surprising that panellists speak at length about the number of temples in Bhubaneswar and their rich food varieties. Or that the temple, claimed to be the fountainhead of Odia food, sits on its archives like a cult, deprecating and suspicious of external eyes. For coastal Odisha, the region that most Odia food advocates come from, the tribes, the Dalits, and the people and foods of the forests are alien.

An honest effort at understanding can either be driven by curiosity with an aim to steadfastly document food history, or it can be agenda-driven and constantly sanitise it. Odia food, and for that matter, Indian food, is at that critical juncture where it has to decide which path it wants to take.

The writer farms on his balcony, complains vocally about issues that bother him, and eats his way across the world.

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