food fight

Food feuds in India: Not just the rosogolla, the sambar also has dodgy origins

Food cultures predate modern identities, so get ready for a whole host of claims.

West Bengal and Odisha have of late been engaged in a rather unusual fight – over the rosogolla and its origins. On Wednesday, West Bengal managed to get geographical indication status for its version of the sweet. An indignant Odisha has promised to get the same for the variety it produces.

According to the World Trade Organisation, a geographical indication tag credits a product as having originated from a certain region or place.

For most Indians, the dispute over the origins of this rather common sweet made from cottage cheese might come as a surprise. The Bengali rosogolla is popular across the subcontinent and often seen as an example of Bengaliana. Yet, in matter of foods, and more widely culture, the mixing up of origins is hardly uncommon.

Take the sambar, for instance. The hearty lentil broth is stereotypical of Dravidian and specifically Tamil culinary culture. Yet, there are multiple reports that attribute a Marathi origin to the dish.

The rosogolla is claimed by both West Bengal and Odisha. (Credit: HT)
The rosogolla is claimed by both West Bengal and Odisha. (Credit: HT)

The sambar story

The Marathas entered South India as part of the army of the Bijapur sultanate. Shahji, the father of Shivaji, led the Bijapuri army to conquer large parts of South Karnataka and even forced the king of Thanjavur, in Tamil Nadu, to submit to the sovereignty of the sultan.

In return for his services, Shahji was awarded large jagirs, grants of land, in Karnataka (including Bengaluru) by the sultan. When Shahji died, his son Venkoji inherited the land in Karnataka. Soon after, a skirmish within Tamil Nadu drove the king of Thanjavur to flee to the sultan’s court and seek his protection. The court ordered Venkoji to help the king get back his throne. Sensing opportunity, Venkoji went to Thanjavur in 1674 but seized the throne for himself. This Maratha kingdom went on to rule the east coast of Tamil Nadu till the middle of the 19th century when the British took administrative control.

Tamarind versus kokum

The Maratha kingdom in Thanjavur gave rise to a small population of Marathi speakers in Tamil Nadu. This allowed for a cross-pollination of cultures. One such instance was the introduction of the mridangam, a twin-faced horizontal drum, in Carnatic music, writer Lalitha Ram told The Hindu.

The other loan was arguably more significant: the sambar, which has spread across the subcontinent.

The Marathi people make a sour dal called amti, flavoured with kokum, a tart ruby-red fruit found in the Western Ghats. The rest of the subcontinent uses tamarind as a souring agent.

But there was no kokum in Thanjavur. And so many commentators, such as Nandini Vitthal of the Thanjavur Marathi community, believe the tamarind was used to flavour the amti, giving rise to the sambar.

According to Vitthal, the dish was named sambar by the Thanjavur court in honour of Sambhaji, the son of Shivaji. But there are doubts about this story. Venkoji and Shivaji were half-brothers who never saw eye to eye. As a result, the Thanjavur Maratha kingdom retained its independence from the other, larger Maratha kingdom founded by Shivaji. Give this background, the nomenclatural tribute story wears thin.

Not just in India, across the world too countries have fought over the origins of certain foods. The hummus is claimed by both Lebanon and Israel. (Credit: Paul Goethe / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)
Not just in India, across the world too countries have fought over the origins of certain foods. The hummus is claimed by both Lebanon and Israel. (Credit: Paul Goethe / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0)

Food nationalism

There is nothing new about the fuzzy origins of Indian foods. Indians – never world champions at history writing in the first place – did not really bother noting down the details of everyday life, such as food. Today’s Indian Instagrammers, who religiously put up images of the meals they eat on the photo-sharing platform, are therefore radically different from their ancestors.

It is not unusual for multiple communities to claim a certain food or dish. If sambar were not enough, Tamilians might be aghast to know that even the origins of the idli are debated. Food writer KT Achaya attributes the steamed rice cake to the Indonesians. Given that Achaya has – with an admirable sense of culinary nationalism – rejected numerous allegations of the foreign origins of Indian dishes commonly thought to have come from other lands, this is a damning accusation.

And this is not limited to India. Lebanon and Israel have fought bitterly over the chickpea dip, hummus. And feta, a salty cheese made from either goat or sheep milk, is claimed by both Bulgaria and Greece. These disputes are not just limited to national pride. They come with significant monetary benefits, given that determining national origin helps a country market its products better.

The rise of language-based identities is fairly recent and comes in the wake of the invention of mass media such as newspapers. Food cultures, naturally, predate this. As a result, food rarely sticks to modern borders and community lines. So, while the Thanjavur Marathi community might claim to have invented the sambar, it is quite difficult to award ownership of what is now a dish found across the subcontinent. Similarly, while the modern rosogolla may have been invented in Kolkata by the KC Das brand of sweet shops, there is too much shared by Odisha and Bengal for us to make a clean claim on where the sweet actually came from.

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