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Constructing Class Through Food

Sucharita Sengupta

By Utsa Ray
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2015, pp. ix 274, Rs. 695.00


If we are what we eat, then there is a steady stream of archival material emanating from our kitchens that must necessarily be taken seriously, sociologically speaking. Food, at the first instance, is all about nutrition and sensory perceptions. However, for the attentive listener, food is also the story of who we are as a people. If that sounds like a pithy line, the reader is encouraged to pick up a copy of Utsa Ray’s thought-provoking text, Culinary Culture in Colonial India: A Cosmopolitan Platter and the Middle-Class. Ray sets out to document the fascinating story of how the middle class in Bengal attempted to distinguish itself as a coherent social class through the medium of food in colonial India.  The colonial encounter was a defining moment for Bengali society in more ways than one. It is perhaps, natural to be on the defensive when unknown forces are creeping into a hitherto familiar terrain, clashing with ideas held precious and making changes therein. So it was for Bengalis, who developed a love-hate relationship with foreign food, introduced in Bengal as part of a complex web of global agri-capitalism. These were plants, fruits, vegetables, grains and other foodstuffs introduced into the country from foreign shores. But with it came new recipes, cuisines, cooking methods, cultivation, manufacturing and storage methods. The emerging middle class sought to distinguish itself from the lower classes and the peasantry by being at the forefront of adopting new culinary cultures, thereby projecting their own habits as forward and modern. It was implied that the peasantry was somehow ‘un-modern’. They conveniently ignored the fact that cultivation of foreign crops was to begin with, an exercise taken up by this very peasantry, sometimes under pressure from a colonial administration hellbent on introducing their own version of ‘scientific’ agriculture in India, but sometimes out of choice.  Global influences in Bengali cuisine pre-dated colonialism. ‘Mughal’ styles had already impacted Bengali food, and several popular dishes that are an integral part of Bengali cuisine hinged on liberal borrowing from the repertory of the Muslim kings of North India. A glance through some of the earliest Bengali cookbooks will attest to this fact, although the dishes were modified as per local, Hindu, dietary flavours and preferences. Over time, quintessential English desserts such as custard, puddings and toffees made their way into Bengali cookbooks. These recipes underwent modification too. The book lists a ...

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