“Why does the food shown in television shows and newspapers always look tasty? Is that food never burnt, stale, spicy, salty, or tasteless?”

“Why do they call it ‘baingan’ bharta when baingan is the only thing you make bharta from?”

It is easy to be waylaid by wry statements like these when reading Shahu Patole’s Marathi book Anna He Apoornabrahma (Food is an Incomplete Creation, 2015). Indeed, even the book’s title is a delicious play on a popular Marathi proverb repeated to children to prevent them from wasting food: Anna he poornabrahma, or food encompasses all of creation.

Patole, an officer with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, is not interested in the idea of purity of food. Instead, he wants to document the culinary traditions and food history of two Dalit communities from the Marathwada region in Maharashtra: the Mahars and the Mangs.

In the book’s introduction, the former journalist describes his disagreements with the idea that vegetarian food is pure or satvik (righteous) and that meat is impure or tamasic (sinful). Later, in the book, Patole analyses religious texts for Dalit food traditions.

“I am 54 now, no one else is going to write this book after me,” said Patole, who belongs to the Mang community. “My kids, or the future generations, don’t know any of this. I used to always think that someone should write it but no one else did, so I have written it.”

Over the last few months, Patole, who lives in Aurangabad, has been working on a new edition of the book. “I am looking forward to the day I will be done with this,” he said, adding that he does not plan to write any food books in the future.

In an interview with Scroll.in, he spoke about his reasons for writing the book, his research, and shared the recipes he enjoyed the most. Excerpts from an interview translated from Marathi:

Onions being roasted for Yesur, a spicy masala. Courtesy: Shahu Patole

What compelled you to write this book?
In the media, there was nothing being written about our food. By this I mean, traditional Dalit food. While there were mentions of different Dalit food items in our literature, there was nothing about it in detail. No-one had made a compilation, so I decided to make one.

Did you have to undertake any research?
There was no research per se. I know – and have cooked and eaten – all the recipes in the book. All Dalits know about these food items, because they have eaten these all their lives, so I am not writing about anything new.

I also looked at Hindu mythological texts where the four varnas have been mentioned along with what each should eat. We come under tamasic, perhaps even below that. A common proverb in our religious texts is that you become what you eat. But most people do not have a choice in what they eat and yet certain qualities are associated with each food group. I have tried to bring together all these different ideas in my book.

“What does the person who does not belong to the small number of upper caste population eat on a daily basis? What kind of dishes have been constant in this cuisine? What are the special kinds of food that they cook during festivals? What are the treats they offer guests who come to visit? Why don't they [writers and host of cooking programmes] ask these simple questions?”

— Anna He Apoornabrahma

Why do you think these food traditions were not documented until now?
A part of it is that people wanted to hide their caste. They felt ashamed and thought, “Why should we tell people what we eat?”, or they held the belief that “it is wrong to eat what I am eating”. In our culture and traditions, the belief is that vegetarian food is better than anything else, so that also hindered them.

“When it comes to marriage, whether the boy or the girl belongs to the upper caste, the ones whose caste comes higher in the caste hierarchy, it is that food culture that flourishes in the house. It happens automatically. Because the one who belongs to the lower caste has an inferiority complex about their food culture. “

— Anna He Apoornabrahma

Did you feel you had to document this tradition because people were forgetting it?
You cannot exactly call it a tradition... This food practice wasn't something great that people would consider it a loss if it was forgotten. No-one really felt the need for it to be preserved or felt sad that it was disappearing. If people are forgetting it, then let them forget it. I just wanted it to be recorded somewhere.

In an article, you wrote that you don't often eat this food.
In old days, you could not afford to buy live animals and slaughter them. As a rule, these two communities (Mahars and Mangs in Marathwada) had to clear away carcasses of animals, and they would eat the flesh. If there was a festival, or if there was a sacrifice of an animal, that was the only time you got live or halal meat. And we ate what we had to eat, because that was what was available. Now, you can buy meat from shops and so on.

“... The story of Dalit food has for long been defined by a lack of it, or at least, lack of flavours determined by Hindu scriptures. The recipes and stories in my book are mostly about food found in Marathwada, and are not representative of Dalit food in Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu or, say, Bihar. This is the food my parents ate and their parents ate, and I, too, sometimes eat. It is an acquired taste, especially one that has been acquired due to centuries of discrimination.”

— Anna He Apoornabrahma
Mutke, a fried snack that Patole writes was made in Dalit households using beef fat because they could not afford oil.

Somewhere in the book, you say it is difficult to describe a food item – "only if you had it in front of you, could you know exactly what it is”. Was it tough to write for a reader not from your community?
No, not at all. Usually, people know it by some other name, so I don't have to explain it.

At the same time, what I am talking about is personal. This is my language. These words cannot be found in any dictionary. It is the language that is spoken in each location. Even I didn’t know certain words before I wrote this book.

“Undwar (Mesentry): There are no synonyms for this word in a Marathi dictionary. Once the layer of skin is peeled from the animal's stomach, there is another part inside. In it, the part responsible for digestion is undwar....

If the animal has been dead for very long, or if it has died from indigestion, then its stomach will be completely swollen. When the undwar of such an animal is unstitched (here to unstich means to tear, albeit very delicately) there is a terrible smell. (There is a proverb about this. If someone has passed gas that is particularly smelly, people say, Who's farting as if an undwar is being torn apart? Or if there was a fight among women, a swear would be thrown out: You undwar unstitcher. The wise should be able to deduce the meaning of this swear.)

Ganna: Known in English as trachea, there is no separate recipe for this organ. The colour is exactly like the white of a washing machine or a wash basin. Even if you completely cook it with mutton, it crunches (just like in an advertisement for papad) while you bite it. The sensation is exactly the way you feel while eating cucumber.

Pekat (Lower back): The meat you get from an animal's back. (Recall the phrase I'll give you a kick in the backside.)”

— Anna He Apoornabrahma

The last section of the book is devoted to quoting religious texts like the Dnyaneshwari...
All the saints have written about what food one should eat. Their opinions are based on extracts from the Gita. I didn’t want to criticise them, their opinions might have been correct for their times. So I undertook my own research. I went back to the Gita and decided to look for mentions of my community. What did we eat, what was being said about our food and preparations?

From this research, did you find anything that went against the contemporary belief that vegetarianism is the right food practice?
It is not a contemporary belief, by any means. This belief has persisted for years and yet the practice of meat-eating hasn’t died out. Meat eaters continue to outnumber vegetarians. The fact that you have to promote vegetarianism means there is something fishy somewhere. What one should eat is each person’s personal decision. Yet, vegetarians believe they are doing something good while meat eaters think they are committing sin. The idea that sin and virtue is tied to our food is part of our culture. Now what can you do about it?

There is often a stock list of food items that come under the umbrella of “Maharashtrian food”, which is available in popular restaurants in Mumbai. Is there any difference between the preparations you mention in your book and that kind of food?
Food culture varies in different parts. In each location, it is based on what is available, what the farmers are growing there. And then it also depends on who makes it: which class or community does the man or woman who is cooking the food belong to?

There is no one rule that it should be made in a certain way. For example, we didn’t know about nutmeg, so we didn’t use it while making puran poli [a popular Maharashtrian sweet made for festive occasions]. Similarly, every community has a different food culture. So while writing about my community’s food habits, I decided to make a micro portrait not a macro one. That is why I have restricted myself to only two communities.

Other people can write about their own communities. People are free to point out mistakes in my version, although no-one has yet done so. In fact, if someone tells me that I have got my facts wrong on so-and-so recipe, I would welcome the feedback.

Shepu (Dil) and moong sabji with Jowar Bhakris; Courtesy: Shahu Patole

Your approach to food differs from contemporary books, and the one that exists on the internet and social media...
See, let me explain it like this. Let’s take the subject of chaturmaas [a four-month holy period according to the Hindu calendar]. Whom does this period place restrictions on? Those who do not engage in any strenuous physical activities. If a farmer or a labourer does nothing for four months, then they might also follow the ritual. So these traditions exist only for those people who do not earn their living through physical work. For those who do, even religion does not place any restrictions.

Second, in the places I mention in the book, the woman worked constantly. She had to clean the grains, collect wood, bring water, make food, and also go to the farm and work with her husband. Then she had to fetch the kids from school and begin cooking dinner. When will she have the time to develop new recipes?

“That's why in her cooking, there were no directions like these: ‘How much to take of what ingredient or put a pinch of such and ingredient for taste.’ How much is the quantity of the item at hand, how much water should be used, what are the limitations and what will be required, should salt or spice be used sparingly, these were not the questions she faced. That's why, while giving recipes for vegetarian dishes, the emphasis was more on her experience. Even if the preparation is the same, if the quantity of a single ingredient is increased or decreased, there is a lot of change in the taste. In these castes, the food that is being made or has evolved, have come out of necessity and not out of fun and experimentation. So every woman made food differently and each dish would have a different flavour. So no one used phrases like ‘This is exactly like how my mother would have made it.’”

— Anna He Apoornabrahma

There has been a debate around beef in recent years. As someone who currently works with the government, were you afraid or did you feel you would face problems?
I am glad you asked me this question. I wrote this book a year before the beef ban happened, so I wasn’t even thinking about it.

Patole's favourite recipe:
I like all the food items mentioned in the book. But if I had to choose it would be dal vanga [a mixture of dal and brinjal].

Recipe: Fill a pot with water and place it on high heat. Once it begins boiling, add toor dal to it. Then add diced or roughly chopped brinjal. As the mixture begins cooking, add some crushed garlic. Once the dal is fully cooked, add red chilli powder, turmeric, powdered peanuts, coriander, salt and a little jowar flour. Take it off the stove and mix everything together. Place the mixture on a low flame and once again bring it to a boil. Serve dalvanga with a few jowar bhakris.

Note: If you have fewer brinjals than dal, then increase the quantity of the dal. If you have dal in smaller quantity, then use more brinjals. Based on how many people are eating, you can increase or decrease the quantity of water.

Alternate recipe: Instead of toor dal, you can use moong dal or dalga [a food preparation that is a by-product from the process of making dal].

— Anna He Apoornabrahma