Disreputable cuisines

Disreputable cuisines

The politics of street food in India
It is worth examining the enticing, perhaps even addictive, but disreputable flavours of the street – salty, sour, pungent, sulphuric – that reside in churan, aloo dum, dahi vada and puchka. Desire for such delectable morsels wells, centred on these objects of affection, in a network of social affiliation and antagonism. Street foods are the source of dread and delight for modern India's middle classes, indoctrinated to avoid and infantilise these tastes, yet unable to shake them off.
Yearning for puchka – balloon crisps filled with cold pungent tamarind liquor – and the anxiety of prohibition animates the little boy's face. He is worried that he might not get any, as his father steps up for his share. The lanky young man in the foreground looks back at the camera, his mouth full and barely containing the burst of piquant flavours, as he gingerly grasps the sal leaf. The intrusion of the cameraman provides a breather from the scorching pace of the puchka-walla.
Top: Paan-Wala. Bottom: Puchka-Wala. Photos: Krishnendu Ray
Top: Paan-Wala. Bottom: Puchka-Wala. Photos: Krishnendu Ray
One of the challenges of this street-side gastronomy is keeping up with the just-in-time service of the crispy, hollow puffs of fried dough before they are swamped by the liquid inside. The outer shell of the puchka, visible inside the glass container, is cracked open with the thumb, stuffed with a mash of potatoes and chickpeas, dipped into the blue earthenware pot brimming with herbed tamarind water, and served in the sal-leaf cone held together by toothpicks. Desire is a primary force here, drawing on the contingent composition of ingredient with palate, body, mind, hunger, texture, flavour and imagination to produce a vital, inescapable relationship between subject and object. All of this is evident in an intense cyber exchange titled 'Churan, Chaat aur Chutney,' between men and women who have improvised a form of haiku to talk about street foods:
all the above – straight after school ended / eaten on the way home / before the mom caught you at it.
The above lines instigated a number of responses including the following:
These are middle-class men and women from Indian cities and abroad boisterously recalling the memory of street foods – the robust, forbidden flavours so long abandoned and put out of mind – perversely echoing Marcel Proust's memory of madeleines (shell-shaped sponge cakes) as "unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful … poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest."
There is a haunting sense of loss of childhood among these recollections, and the loss of a past in a rapidly modernising Indian city, where streets are filling up with cars that are eliminating the pedestrian, rickshaw and bicycle traffic essential to the deliberate pace of street foods. A man from Almora, Uttarakhand notes:
Churans and chaats are the touchstones of boyishness or untamed femininity, offering the possibilities of lives lived differently – on one hand nostalgic and conservative, on the other, virile with heterotopic possibilities. The commensal sites where they are consumed, especially in small towns, are among the few places where unrelated middle-class boys and girls can be proximate to each other, and to those outside of their class boundaries – allowing a sort of exchange and inquisitiveness. Breaking some barriers and taboos animates these moments with unknown possibilities, for instance, of romance across class and caste lines.
For cultural theorist Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay, fuchka (puchka) provokes the memory of summer vacations and boyish crushes. "We were a big family whose branches spread out to remote mofussil towns of Bengal. I had a bunch of pubescent girl-cousins who visited us along with their uncouth brothers during the annual summer vacation," he tells us. On one of those days:
The puchka-walla is part of the informal economy, and as such lacks the legal protection to occupy the public spaces that he does. He inhabits the lowest spaces of commensality, even below the tea stall, the paan shop and the boiled-egg stand, because of the dual burden of impermanence and the feeding of illegitimate appetites. Writing on the politics of street food in Kolkata, Mukhopadhyay notes that street vendors like the puchka-walla crop up on every corner in defiance of "municipal law, petit-bourgeois prejudices and the unanimous disapproval of parents, police and pedagogues".

For cultural theorist Bhaskar Mukhopadhyay, fuchka provokes the memory of summer vacations and boyish crushes

In his work on Mumbai pheri-wallas (hawkers) Arvind Rajagopal, who enumerates more than half-a-million street traders in the city, points to the confrontation between "the majority who dwell and make their livelihood on the street, and the minority, who view the streets as but the circuitry of the formal economy in which they themselves work". Depending on their needs, such vendors are seen as offensive and illegitimate or convenient and normal by large sections of the up-and-coming middle classes. But "over half the population in Mumbai," Rajagopal points out, "are squatters, occupying less than two percent of the city's land; as such if encroachment is a problem that diminishes public space, it is also a solution to a larger problem of maldistributed resources".
In smaller towns however, the pressure on land is much less acute in places other than town-centres, allowing a more dispersed organisation. A bribe to the cop is what it takes to secure the puchka-walla's spot. Notwithstanding the illegality of his situation, his claim to the site is backed by an almost universal assumption of the legitimacy of such market exchanges, which are considered outside the rightful reach of the state. Even the policeman's bribe is accounted for as another market exchange between the more and less powerful. Sometimes, vendors are chased away in exaggerated acts of 'cleaning' and hyperbolic assertions of state purpose to uphold the law. At times, they are even arrested, in grandiloquent gestures of state power and privilege, only to be released and returned in a few days. Rajagopal tells us about a vendor who confidently asserts:
One of the main attractions of street food is that vendors provide an aesthetically holistic experience of food. As Rajagopal points out, "If food is being made, the smell of the oil, the condition of the utensils, the quality of the foodstuffs and the personal hygiene of the cook are all on display". Such direct access to the production process and the almost elemental form of market exchange are not possible at restaurants. Then there is the economic aspect. A customer observed that the same pulau that costs INR 200 (USD 3.7) at a restaurant costs him INR 10 (USD 0.2) at the vendor, without any difference in quality. The president of the Bombay Hawkers' Association, K Pocker, thus noted – Rajagopal tells us – "We do not sell branded products and offer cheaper products. We cater to the poor and weaker sections".
The puchka-walla has long been a normalised denizen of the street. The customer usually does not have puchka at home or at a restaurant. But street foods are numerous, ranging from roasted peanuts to bhel puri, from deep-fried vegetables in chickpea batter to kulfis, from cotton candy to roasted maize. According to Mukhopadhyay, in Kolkata much "of this huge repertoire [of street foods] is contributed by the non-Bengalis, Marwaris, Gujaratis, Punjabis, Tamils and upper-Indian Muslims [sic] living in Calcutta for generations". We have textual evidence of these foods on Kolkata streets from about the 1870s. Such transactions in taste happen across barriers of class, where the subject-object-subject encounter connects and separates babu, thela-walla, woman, man, child, defined oppositively.
Highlighting the tensions of such an event, Curt Gambetta and Ritajyoti Bandyopadhyay noted in their piece in the August 2012 issue of Seminar, "the street has for long been the object of anxieties about social miscegenation and mixtures of commerce, residence and community". Further illustrating this point, Mukhopadhyay comments:
Historian Utsa Ray has shown how middle-class Bengali men and women transformed the urban Bengali discourse on taste in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in cities like Kolkata, to produce a new desiring subject who valued domestic cooking more than street foods. That transformation inscribed middle-class home cooking as the only legitimate standard of authentic Bengali cooking, which could never be matched either by migrant, male Odia cooks (see below) or by street vendors. Good food came to be defined as the product of the servant-wife production complex, where the grihini (housewife) leads the supervisory cooking role, while the servant is instructed in batna bata (spice grinding), kutno kata (vegetable dressing), bashon maja (dish washing) and jhat dawa (cleaning up). Middle-class Bengali men and women endlessly complain that there is no good Bengali food outside the home, unlike French, Italian or Punjabi food. But the complaint is also a disguised compliment, about their own sophistication and the subtlety of the palate developed far from the maddening crowd of the poor and non-Bengali (Odia, Bihari, Marwari, Nepali etc) streets.

Depending on their needs, street vendors are seen as offensive and illegitimate or convenient and normal by large sections of the up-and-coming middle classes

Mukhopadhyay shows that there are signs of a 'civilising' process of Bengali desires by the end of the 19th century. Nationalist heroes such as Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay and Vivekananda repeatedly condemned tamarind and chilli consumption, associating them with uneducated rural women and the uncivilised bazaar. Although the marginalisation of these ingredients from Bengali cuisine during this period is not well documented, classic Bengali recipe books like Bipradas Mukhopadhyay's Pak-pranali (1987/1885-1902), Pragyasundari Devi's Amis o Niramis Ahar (1900), and Baisnabcharan Basak's Soukhin Pakpranali (1916) only contain some tamarind and chilli recipes in the sections for chutneys and pickles, excising their excessive use in good Bengali cuisine.
It is perhaps the repression of these ingredients in the dominant hierarchy of taste which produced their efflorescence as a subaltern counter-discourse of street-foods, a minoritarian tradition that escapes the dominating form of taste. Furthermore, street foods are paradoxically considered an element of the male domain and yet irresistible to young women, who for precisely that reason must avoid the lure of dustu khide (naughty appetite) to shore up the claims of decency.
Until recently, middle-class discourse about the virtues of Bengali cuisine hinged on the gendered and classed character of its construction, as a product of the affective labour of the housewife as a manager of various part-time and full-time servants. The popular Bengali writer Buddhadeb Basu celebrates the domesticated and uncommodified character of Bengali cuisine unavailable in the marketplace in the book Bhojan silpi Bangali, written in the 1970s but complied and published three decades later by his son. But the terms of normalised Bengali cuisine are now slowly shifting with the visibility of iconic home-cooked dishes, such as Ilish cooked in mustard sauce or doi mach, at high-end restaurants.
This story is often about culture against commerce. In India, as in early-modern Europe, commodification has been a threat to established cultural hierarchies and good taste, since anyone with money can now buy what was venerated. Commerce threatens normative cultures of class and gender established outside the marketplace. As more and more middle-class Bengali women work outside the home, have longer commutes and cook less at home, and with the decreasing availability of servants, we are witnessing the collapse of the servant-wife complex that has sustained middle-class Bengali conceptions of cuisine. The future of Bengali food may well be in the marketplace.
Circuits of masculinity
The puchka-walla is one of the stops along a series of passage points from boyhood to manhood. Class and gender often intersect with territories of religion and race, as high school boys head for Chinatown in Kolkata in pursuit of the Sino-Bengali chowmein, or to Nizamuddin in Delhi to relish street-side kebabs of dubious provenance, especially exciting for Hindu boys tiptoeing into Muslim neighbourhoods. The aroma of charcoal-grilled skewers on cold, smoky afternoons, under the shadow of the Dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya, provokes forbidden desires. In some ways these are stepping stones for democratic distancing from the enclosures of over-valued Brahmanic worlds. The boys breaking parental rules imbibe lessons of multicultural, democratic citizenship.
Of course eating kebabs or drinking alcohol does not necessarily lead to open-mindedness about other people and communities. But personally speaking, these exercises were crucial for my re-education on the street, away from the cloying classrooms of middle-class Hindu boys. In the language of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, there is a little 'nomad' in each one of us that searches for what is good for himself, not always necessarily against state-parent dietetics, but in some oppositional relationship to it, mostly by becoming unaware of what he has been taught. On the other hand, much of this appears to be a construction of boyhood transgressions, deeply encoded with modes of masculinity.
The next stop on this circuit is the paan-walla, who is a sort of organic street intellectual, narrating and policing the corner over which he maintains his vigil. When I was 11 years old, I managed to steal enough money from the change box, which my mother locked in an almirah, to treat my friends to a pack of cigarettes. We brashly asked for a pack of Wills "for dad". The paan-walla took our money and handed over the pack. Giddy with excitement, we made our way to the banks of the Mahanadi. Casting the plastic cover into the wind, I pocketed the rich silver foil that revealed the neatly stacked "bullets of jawani [youth]", as a friend remarked – inflecting modern, youthful masculinity. Coughing and laughing, nauseous but brave, we smoked the entire pack. It was essential to growing up and becoming a man.
When my father returned, he had a rare grimness about his visage. "The paan-walla said that he sold a pack of cigarettes to you. What did you do with it? If you tell the truth, nothing will happen," he announced. At first, I lied. Then I cried and eventually confessed; my mother was seething with anger. After my father left for work the next day, she locked the door and punished me, crying inconsolably. She said that I had become a rotten child and had fallen into bad company. My job now was to console her, crying and promising that I would never smoke again. That promise kept me from smoking for another eight years, and I never forgave the paan-walla.
The public
The paan shop is the junction point in the circulation of information about the neighbourhood. The mailman stops there to get directions. The plainclothesman from the CID stops by to ascertain the whereabouts of passport applicants. The street-side Romeos hang out there, teasing young women, chain-smoking and mouthing filmi songs and dialogues, while spitting tobacco-laced betel juice. Quickly switching their dispositions, they hide the cigarettes behind their backs in a pantomime of obsequity towards approaching older women, whom they address as 'aunts' and 'didis'. The fine lines between attention and affection, symbolic and actual violence are easily traversed at any minor provocation, perceived insult or flirtation.
Street corners are dangerous intersections for young middle-class women. That is where local dadas (bullies) accumulate and intimidate. Once, as a boy I witnessed a mob of young Odia men, many of them from the medical college hostel nearby and others from the paan shop, at our doorstep at dusk, baying with rage at the miscegenated marriage of a Bengali man (my father) and his Odia wife (my mother). They had been mobilised by rumours of Bengali assaults on Odia women on the Puri Express train the night before. Rage spilled quickly onto the streets.
Three Bengali families huddled in a building in a ghetto in Cuttack, next door to poorer East Bengali migrants. Screams of grown men and women mixed in the acrid smoke of the dark night. In the distance we could hear the police sirens. Miraculously, the doors held up against the assault of the mob, but there was rattling at the third-floor window. Panic spread as men cowered and shouted in fear. It was the next-door neighbour dangling from the water-pipe that connected his building with ours. Once we got our wits together, we helped him through the window. We later learned that the mob had entered his building, knifed his baby and thrown her from the second-floor balcony. His wife was raped, and he was bloody, beaten, and unable to speak. Finally, as the sirens got louder, the mob melted into the night.
Many returned to the paan shop the next morning to recount their side of the story. These are sites of masculinity, where homosocial love and energetic venom accumulate around shared comestibles. In parts of India, I am told, neoliberalism is depopulating such dangerous street corners once filled with idle young men with filmi imaginations. The angry man, or the desire to see him, persists in some form at other sites such as bars, tea stalls and train stations.
In parts of Southasia, paan is as important to the economy, politics, and culture as coffee is in Europe and America. Scholars such as Jürgen Habermas, Benedict Anderson and Wolfgang Schivelbusch have written eloquently about the coffeehouse and the bourgeois public sphere, where the very idea of the public was born in the 18th and 19th centuries, and where opinions were exchanged and policies debated among men. That is where newspapers were born. Modern literature, art and aesthetics were critiqued in journals exchanged at these sites.
Subsequently teahouses emerged, gathering the women excluded from the masculine, bourgeois domain of coffeehouses. Working-class men seeking respite built their own public houses that we call pubs for a reason. That in turn provoked female temperance movements, which proved to be a singular catalyst for women's suffrage. Notwithstanding the radical simplification that I am forced to undertake here, it is worth thinking about where the Indian polity would be without the paan shop. The public of the politician, the public of Bollywood, and the public that interpolates the local dada into various political projects may very well cease to exist.
Although never welcome at the paan shop without provoking male gossip, middle-class women were never excluded from consuming paan at home, or even chewing tobacco. This is in radical contrast to the case of cigarettes and alcohol in India, or chewing tobacco in the US. Paan chewing is often depicted both as a marker of female autonomy and courtesan sensuality, as can be seen in the 1981 and 2006 versions of the popular movie Umrao Jaan. On the other hand, we can glimpse into both its violent masculine possibilities and its dying generational distribution in the gilori (type of paan) scene in Maqbool (2003), where the villainous but doomed protagonist stuffs paan into the mouth of an unwilling camp-follower with a loose tongue, asserting, "gilori khaya karo gulfaam, zubaan kaabu mai rahti hai, take some paan young man, to keep your tongue in check". There is research to be done on paan and its connection to Indian publics; the production of gender, generation and sexuality in modern India and the place of extra-colonial transactions in trade and taste between peninsular India and Southeast Asia.

Until recently, middle-class discourse about the virtues of Bengali cuisine hinged on the gendered and classed character of its construction

Scholarly recoil from paan has obfuscated the link between Southasia and Southeast Asia, which echoes the pathways of dispersal of coconut, sago palm, certain yams and probably green chillies. Paan is chewed extensively in Indonesia, parts of the Philippines, and Southasia. It is used in Vietnam to grill meat; in Indonesia, Malaysia and Cambodia in soups and stews. It is most extensively used in the littoral of the South China Sea and the Bay of Bengal – analogous but spatially separated from the khat chewers of the Arabian Peninsula, and the mastic chewers of the eastern Mediterranean.
Many of the transactions in taste between Southasia and Southeast Asia, conveyed by paan, chillies and coconut, predate Western imperial interventions. These are extra-colonial links hiding in plain view as ubiquitous everyday practices, worth recovering in order to not let the last two hundred years of Indian history, with its Western orientation, overwhelm the rest of it. Paan-chewing is rampant in India, as rampant as tea and whiskey drinking. But the latter are clear products of British imperial influence on the Indian palate, through hierarchy, emulation, propaganda and advertising, while paan is decisively not a product of British imperial design. Yet, astonishingly, it has been ignored in most academic works other than those in the domain of public health, hoping to eliminate its use.
Metropolis and the provincial town
In the early decades of the 20th century, the devaluation of paid labour and commodification of cuisines sent Odia migrant cooks to Kolkata. They were wanted by upwardly-mobile Bengali households, but also disdained as a symptom of the decay of a proper household with the right gender roles. The Odia nona's (cook's) distant recruitment from Odisha allowed the fluid cover of Brahman claims, but he was scorned, as shown by the 1915 diatribe Grihashri, written by the prominent Kolkata intellectual Dinesh Chandra Sen. The Odia-Bengali relationship was primarily a city-country one, with all its attendant stereotypes, affective swings, and related violence.
Baleshwar (or Balasore) is one of those towns that send people to the big city. It is located about 250 km southwest of Kolkata, in northern Odisha. It is the seventh most populous city in the state, with the 2011 national Census listing 177,557 inhabitants. Baleshwar city, on the south-western side of the meandering Budhabalanga approaching the sea to the east, is the administrative headquarter of Baleshwar district. Until 1983, the area was classified as a 'No Industries District'. Although it has subsequently attracted investments in tires, plastics, alloys, paper and pharmaceuticals, it continues to be the administrative hub of a primarily agricultural area.
Neither of my grandmothers – one Odia and the other Bengali, each about 100 years old – who have lived in Baleshwar all their lives has ever eaten at a restaurant. Among my forty or so relatives who live in Baleshwar, only a handful have taken a meal outside their home. A number of them remember the meal at the Puri temple during a pilgrimage. Almost all of them have bought sweets – such as rasmalai, rosogolla, chom-chom – and savouries such as singara (samosa) and kachori, at the marketplace. They vividly remember the taste of dahi vada, aloo dum, churan, and chaat, relished as children on the way home from school, or as young adults. But they say that they have never eaten at a 'hotel', unless they have been out of town for college education or professional travel as physicians, engineers, agricultural scientists and administrators. These choices are etched on the streetscape of Baleshwar.
The town has hundreds of street-food vendors, thousands of paan shops and tea stalls, a number of eateries, six hotels, no restaurants, and no gastronomic guides – either in Odia or in any other language. The specificity of Baleshwar's gustatory location – all of it in oral form, hence unrecorded and ephemeral – can only emerge in comparison with the gastronomic discourse of its geographically proximate but culturally distant other. The city of Kolkata, with a population of over 14 million, has thousands of eateries, 238 restaurants (as counted by a newspaper in 2010) and a number of gastronomic guides published in English and Bengali. Kolkata is currently in the throes of the birth of the conjoined gastronomic twins – restaurants and reviews.

The paan-walla is a sort of organic street intellectual, narrating and policing the corner over which he maintains his vigil

It is worth paying attention to the small Indian town that 'no one' has heard of, because the place between the global and local is under-theorised. Megacities dominate the literature in urban studies and cultural analysis. Big-city gastronomes and restaurant critics can hardly imagine cities without restaurants, and hence tend to naturalise their own cities as ubiquitous to all forms of urbanism. Anthropologists and folklorists, on the other hand, have mastered narratives of non-urban locales.
In challenging those presumptions, we might take our cue from sociologist Charles Tilly's recommendation not to treat all cities as interchangeable sites for analysing modern life, and to be attuned to the power of place, without assuming that small towns are either scaled-down versions of the metropolis or stagnant provincial locales. It is important to analyse peripheral cities more closely and pay special attention to their gastronomic cultures, which have gone completely unstudied. The examination of street foods offers a particularly interesting new window into the social life of small towns.
Although academics consider street foods even more trivial than popular cultural domains such as movies, theatre, television, truck-, calendar-, matchbox- and rickshaw-art, it is worth spending time to make the street culture of a small Indian city legible to social analysis and cultural theory. That would allow us to pose questions about the gendering of public spaces, circulation of bodies through passage points of masculinity, bifurcation of class cultures, and hierarchies of taste outside the reach of consecrated culture.
This essay, then, has been a reflection on disreputable food and the migration of cooks and masalchis (kitchen helpers) from the country to the city, interrogating the mutually constitutive connections between reputable and disreputable gastronomy, metropolitan city and provincial town. Engaging with foods I have eaten and desired; books, concepts and scholarly traditions I have digested; and conversations with urban dwellers in India and abroad, I have moved through the nostalgia for a childhood palate, around the democratising potential of street foods, to the dark possibilities of mob violence – with paan shops as the social dynamos of innumerable mohallas.
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