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Food Discourse

N. Kamala

Edited by John Thieme and Ira Raja
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 384, Rs. 595.00


Inspired by A.K. Ramanujan’s essay ‘Food for thought’, the present anthology of South Asian Food Writing was whipped up to respond in part to fulfil his desire for a more diachronic study of food discourse though not trying to provide ‘the social history’ that he craved for. It is diachronic only in the sense it showcases the transformations of ‘traditional notions of food in … rapidly modernizing social situations’. So it does not cover a large swathe of historical study but confines itself to throwing its net around writings both academic and fictional about food, that greatest of signifying systems, during the last and the current centuries. Including writings by very well-known authors belonging to ‘South Asia’ or rather the Indian subcontinent, which seems to nowadays always embrace a good section of the very same diaspora, it does not limit itself to musings only in English but also has a few regional offerings from Hindi, Tamil, Bangla and so on in English translations. The ‘Introduction’ while being academic does not let jargon blur the reading or blunt our enjoyment of the editors’ take on food and the various manifestations of social customs that derive from it. Ranging from the land or the animal shed from where the raw materials come till the ultimate space for consumption, passing in between through the areas of preparation and the adjoining spices and condiments to season the food, this anthology looks at the way people think, dream about, and crave for or renounce food in ways that are similar (without being the same) but differently evoked in this complex geographical mosaic.   A.K. Ramnujan’s essay that makes up the prolegomenon to this book lays out the very metalanguage used to talk about food. Erudite and clear, his essay looks at passages from various Indian literatures, especially the Bhagavad Gita, the Bhakti poems, and Kannada literature to illustrate certain basic tenets of food in Hindu praxis. Raw food, cooked food, leftovers all indicate that what you eat is where you are in the social pecking order. The further you are away from the cooking areas the further down you are in social rank or caste. He illustrates the concepts of rasa, gunas, doshas of food characterizing their qualities and their use even in pharmacopoeia. Showing a typical meal sequence in a Tamil-speaking brahman family he illustrates the rasa system. What immediately strikes one ...

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