Food does more than assuage our hunger: sometimes, it nourishes the soul; at others, it deepens divides. It also keeps memories alive, and this role is especially evident when it comes to Partition.
At the CUSP festival in Chennai, organised by First Edition Arts over 31 January-2 February, journalist, blogger and founder of Delectable Reveries Vernika Awal delivered a talk on how food kept alive collective social memories, whilst documenting the cultural and culinary histories of Punjab.
Due to the rushed manner in which Partition occurred, followed by riots in independent India, many families — including that of Vernika’s — strongly believed they would be able to move back to their villages once normalcy returned. Families like Vernika’s retained the cultural influences of the Majjha region (Rawalpindi) while also imbibing those of the Doaba in terms of accent and food. “While Partition separated and created physical boundaries, they, the people of Partition, continued to share their culture across the border,” she explained. In refugee camps, food kept alive collective social memories, and a familiar meal in an unfamiliar place connected them to their culture. “[With this food] we are actually consuming geographies,” Vernika explained.
The rivers Ravi, Beas and Sutlej, flowing through undivided Punjab, nourished three distinct geographical cultures. And so, when Vernika’s grandparents left Rawalpindi, crossed the Radcliffe line, and moved to refugee camps in Jalandhar in the Doaba region, they carried with them their own knowledge and memories of their culture from Majjha.
‘Sanjha Chulha’ — a common name for restaurants now — trended during the days of Partition. Families in refugee camps came up with recipes like bread halwa using the limited ration of bread, sugar (and ghee if fortunate) during festivals, a common delicacy in the kitchens of poor families. A community once closely tied to its caste system, was compelled into sharing food from the common kitchen of refugee camps by hunger and poverty. Presumably it didn’t continue beyond refugee camps. People tend to bond, if only to survive hardships during disasters.
Punjabi cuisine evolved keeping hard times in mind. “Largely an agrarian community, they prepared their daily breads and salads out of grains and vegetables that were in abundance. Condiments in particular and some vegetables like onion were usually dried and stored, to be used during winter,” Vernika noted.
Finding herself at the crossroads of cultures, Vernika hopes that cuisines will help carry one’s culture forward. She observed that food is tangible, and not as complicated as art forms or literature. At the same time, there can be stereotyping around a community’s food — for instance, the idea that butter chicken and alcohol are staples of Punjabi fare — and for Vernika, it is important to avoid this. Vernika said, “Up to 65 percent of Punjabis are vegetarians. From an agrarian background, they do not even consume eggs. Butter chicken, dal makhani — these are not part of Punjabi kitchen. When it comes to dal, we prepare only maa di dal.”
It became evident in the post-colonial world that cuisines are prone to change, as “purity of cultures” was rendered irrelevant once mass production and the Green Revolution took over — in Punjab especially. With the Green Revolution, rice in the south and wheat in the north became a part of the staple diet, but people were originally doing well with millets and other low carbohydrate grains. Egg and meat chiefly support our protein demand.
After Partition, as Punjabi culture overlapped with the Ganga Jamuni culture, over a period of time, road side dhabas gave way to fine dining culture. Cuisines are time dependent. They change to assume table etiquette in days of prosperity and dress down in times of poverty.
Updated Date: Feb 05, 2020 16:28:05 IST