Food politics

Dr. Hormila G Zingkhai
Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology St. Joseph’s College, Jakhama  

For someone who loves to eat, my keen interest in food and gastronomies has been vividly burgeoning as I tested my taste buds with the different cuisines prepared by my friends from all walks of life. As much as I enjoyed savouring the different flavours of food, the question of ‘why do we eat what we eat?’, ‘what has inspired us (our ancestors) to cook the same food in different ways?’, ‘why is the same food considered as a delicacy by some but not by others?’ was first instilled in me by my Professor who taught us Sociology of Symbolism and discussed with the class about ‘Food as a Symbol of Culture’ and ever since it has been a constant thought that presses every time I pop something into my mouth.  

Food is most commonly taken and understood from the nutritive point of view. In addition, we associate it with our sensory characteristics of tastes and smell. Food is defined as “(any) material consisting essentially of protein, carbohydrate and fat used in the body of an organism to sustain growth, repair vital processes and to furnish energy; also: such food together with supplementary substances (as minerals, vitamins, and condiments)”. Thus, food as a substance of human sustenance and its association with the bio-physical and sensory qualities of human being is the most basic aspect of food.  

However, food itself has various connotations. Among the various connotations, the conceptualising of food as a symbolic substance emphasising on the cultural and social aspects of food is one of the fundamental way of understanding food in our life. Food, its preparation, provisioning and consumption pattern signifies more than the mere process of food intake. For instance, in Claude Lévi-Strauss’s (1966, 1968 and 1970) ‘Culinary Triangle’ food is classified according to the binary of cooked/rotten, between which the midpoint is raw. Accordingly, cooked food can be thought of as raw food that has been processed by culture in some way and rotten food is the raw food that has been transformed by natural means. Thus, cooking of food can be identified with the more progressive culture.  

The selection and availability of food within a culture is to a large extent determined by the ecological factors. Thus, the intimate relation that our Naga forefathers had with the surrounding environment aided them to hunt and fish according to the seasons and procure food for nutrition, for medicinal use etc., and such practices have shaped the Naga cuisine and have an influence in our food habits till today. But again the impact of environmental changes in our food chain can be felt by the substitution of indigenous ingredients with some other alternatives and the reason for this is the unavailability of that particular plant or ingredient in the surrounding areas.  

The way food is processed and cook is in consonant with the progress within the society. To cite an example, one wonders why the Naga food is mostly fermented or dried. One of the explanations can be that during the yester years our forefathers did not have technology to preserve the surplus food, so drying and fermentation was the only possible way for it. Moreover, they have to travel on foot and carry their food along and since fresh food gets stale easily, dried and fermented food was the best option. As such, this practice has become part of the food culture.  

Food is also gendered across the societies; acquisition of food- hunting and fishing by the males, foraging and collection of wild leaves and vegetables by the females, consumption and association of various kind of food such as meat, wine or specific food with males and vegetarianism with females, serving the male members first, the eldest male member seated at the head of the table during meal are instances that indicates the gender identity and relationship.  

Food is further linked to status and privilege. Even a simple meal at the table indicates a social structure. For instance, during Naga marriages, the precise portion of the slaughtered animal is cut and given to the relative who by virtue of his/her relationship with the family. Thus, the offered food is not simply the sharing of the feast but an elucidation of the kinship relation.  

Food is one of the most visible and important symbol of identity and difference, uniting the members of a community and segregating them from others. This inclusion and exclusion is observed not only in why and what they consume, but also how they prepare and serve. It also takes the form of “our food” and “their food”.  

Food is also been tacitly used as an instrument of biological and social suppression. For instance, during wars destruction of food supply is a tactic to weaken the enemies physically and morally. Denying of food is an instrument of suppressing the weak by the strong. To dominate the food chain is one of the major factors in economics. Most of the restaurants, cafeterias in Nagaland are flooded with Chinese, American or Korean Cuisines but there are handful of places where indigenous Naga cuisines are served. This is an evidence of how popular culture slowly dominates our society at the cost of our culture. However, the most precarious way is to suppress culture and identity through food. The restriction on beef all over India is one such mechanism.  

A German saying goes “Man ist, was man isst” (You are what you eat), thus, food is our identity, our culture as well as a marker of difference. Consequently, in all cultures, a closer look at what and how people eat takes one directly to the core issue of identity and who they are. The more their eating habits and practices are understood, the more clearly we know their political, religious, economic and social systems. Anishe, Axone, Kolar, Aanphal, Chekijang, Mechinga Chutney, Bamboo Shoot, Ayimchu, Galho, Muodi etc., are all part of who the Nagas are.We should, therefore, learn to preserve our food and food habits as it is synonymous with upholding one’s identity besides,we can capitalise and enhance our culture and identity this way. In a story narrated by Fr. Benny Varghese (Administrator, St. Joseph’s College, Jakhama) during the recent flood in Kerala, people from different backgrounds, Hindus, Muslims, Christians stayed and ate together the‘food’ provided because they have to ‘survive’, as such, the main identity and culture of mankind is “surviving together”. Thus, the gastro-politics of the hour should be food as sustenance and a marker of one’s culture and identity that sustains the survival of mankind not an implicit divisive tool.