Celebrating Dalit food through the prism of art

Digital art series, ‘Caste and Food’ draws attention to dishes popular among Dalit households, explaining how food acts as an identity marker

When her mother wasn’t looking, 10-year-old Manasi* would sneak into her kitchen for pre-meal helpings of her grandmother’s thecha and polish it off with bhakri.

The green chilli and garlic chutney, popular among Dalit households of Maharashtra, is an integral food memory for the now 25-year-old Mumbai-based independent designer. It is the next dish that she will be illustrating in her digital series, Caste and Food.

So far, the series (available on her Instagram page, @thebigfatbao) comprises 10 artworks of traditional Dalit dishes demonstrating food as an identity and social status marker.

“I didn’t plan a series as such. But this idea had been mulling in my head for quite a bit, especially last year. When the pandemic began and the lockdown was enforced, I began seeing a lot of aesthetic food-related Instagram posts. It got me thinking, that none of these ever includes the food that my community and I grew up eating,” says Manasi.

In describing foods such as lakuti (a curry based in rakti or coagulated blood, generally goat’s), bhoplyacha kees (a pumpkin preparation) and kakdiche gharge (cucumber pooris), she weaves together the personal and the political, based on both research and her own lived experiences.

Soaked poha (or flattened rice) mixed with molasses serves as a sumptuous meal 

Roasted jackfruit seeds, had best during the monsoon season 

“I witnessed my mother’s first hand experience of a battle at building a “negotiated taste” across two cultures in her inter-caste marriage,” Manasi writes in a post dissecting the gender politics of food. “She has now forgotten what her favourite crab curry tastes like.”

You can’t talk about Dalit cuisines without talking about the “economics of cooking”, she points out. “It is a calculated, optimal use of ingredients such as oil and sugar, which also depends on the kind of water we can get.”

In a post about jawaari bhakris, she shares how many Dalit communities consume grains that aren’t water dependent. Millets, a staple in Dalit households, are now touted as ‘superfoods’, a healthier alternative to wheat.

Jawaari bhakris, an essential part of Maharashtrian food, last long and are oil-free 

“Whenever there wouldn’t be vegetables in my house, we would just eat overcooked nachni with a bit of rice or ragi, salt and green chillies. It has a watery consistency so that the quantity is enough to feed a large number of mouths in the family,” she recalls. “Even now, whenever I’m sick or have an upset stomach, I prefer to eat that.”

Each dish she illustrates and writes about, is accompanied by a recipe she learnt from her mother’s side of the family. Since the dishes have Maharashtrian names, the recipes prompt a lot of her audience to share cuisines made in similar ways in their regions.

The chaanya, or sun-dried meat, in particular, gets a lot of attention. Iterations of the long vertical ribbons of crunchy, chewy meat, which can also be had as a snack, exist as idiyirachi in Kerala and uppukandam in Tamil Nadu.

“I am also trying to get in touch with my friends from other parts of the country and share their experiences and their cuisines as well, so I can document foods that my family doesn’t make,” she adds.

*Name changed on request, to protect privacy

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