Wasting food could be considered criminal. But should people be punished for serving excessive food at parties to prevent such wastage?

Members of the Dawoodi Bohra community have had to grapple with this unexpected question over the past month, after a new edict by their religious leader made it mandatory for Bohra caterers to serve only a limited quantity of dishes at weddings and other events. The rules, however, apply only to meals served in Bohra community halls. According to people within the community, those not complying with the new food norms have been made to personally apologise to the clergy and pay hefty fines.

A small sect of Shia Muslims hailing predominantly from Gujarat, the Dawoodi Bohras are known for their rich, meaty cuisine and sumptuous wedding meals served in multiple courses on thaals – large metal plates around which at least eight people sit to eat. A typical Bohra party meal often begins with ice-cream, and includes two desserts (called mithaas), two courses of meat starters (called kharaas), two types of salad, a curry with naan, soup and a main course of biryani or pulao. Dry fruit, paan and cold drinks are accompaniments.

But Bohras are also known for the strict control that the religious head, the Syedna, has over almost all aspects of the community’s life, and according to some members, the new edict is a reflection of that.

No wastage

The farmaan (edict) was issued about six weeks ago through announcements in Bohra mosques, and text messages sent to community members by the religious administration. It asks caterers and party hosts to serve meals with only one dessert, one starter and one salad instead of two each, in addition to curry, naan, soup and the main course.

“The kharaas has to be one single food item – platters of multiple varieties of tikkas and kebabs are no longer allowed,” said Firoze Thandlawala, owner of Mumbai’s Thandlawala Caterers, one of around 50 Bohra catering services in the city.

Health and hygiene is also a major focus of the edict, which states that food must be cooked in minimal oil, in hygienic conditions. According to some caterers, officials from the Bohra religious administration also now conduct inspections of their kitchens.

“This is an excellent decision by the Syedna, even though the rules apply only to meals served in Bohra community halls,” said a staff member of a prominent Bohra catering service, who wished to remain anonymous. “I have worked in this business for 27 years and I’ve seen how much food gets wasted because people want lavish meals with many more courses than they can eat.”

Thandlawala is among many caterers and community members who have welcomed the edict because of their faith in the Syedna. “Maula [the Syedna] is always right,” said Thandlawala. “Besides, if people stop having lavish wedding meals, poorer clients will not feel so pressured to have big feasts themselves.”

A form of control?

This is not the first time that the Bohra leadership has attempted to improve the community’s food habits. In the past decade, there have been farmaans asking Bohras to refrain from deep-fried food, and to caterers to stop serving aerated soft drinks. This time, however, the imposition of the new rules seems to be rather severe.

While most Bohras believe the edict on limited food is a good way to prevent wastage and an excessive display of wealth, some have been alarmed to receive WhatsApp messages about the punishments that certain caterers had to face when they violated the rules.

“I can confirm that two caterers from Mumbai were made to go to senior clergy members and officially apologise for serving two sweet dishes and two kharaas at a recent function,” said a Mumbai caterer, who asked to remain anonymous. “What’s more, they were forced to travel all the way to Khambat in Gujarat to make their apology, because the clergymen in question happened to be in Khambat at the time.”

Community members also reported receiving messages about other punishments that Bohras from various parts of the country had to face for violating the food edict. These ranged from paying monetary fines to having to clean the local mosque for three days.

Despite several attempts, Scroll.in was unable to reach the spokespersons of the Bohra administration.

The edict and punishments have been a subject of intense discussion on Bohra WhatsApp groups, with one section perceiving the penalties as a form of control. “The new food rules work very well as advice for preventing wastage and eating healthy,” said a Bohra homemaker from Gujarat. “But punishing people in this manner is a bit too much.”

The homemaker added: “People should not be treated like they are in school. This community follows everything the Syedna says anyway, so why do they need to impose the rules in this manner?”

Other Bohras see the penalties in a more positive light. “The purpose behind the food edict is very good,” said a Bohra teacher from Ahmedabad, who also requested anonymity. “But I don’t think people will actually follow it until they are made to fear certain consequences for violating the rules.”