• 20
    • 2022

    Food For Folk

    Isha Bhattacharya

    What if the ghost shows up, even after I placed this garlic on my windowsill? How long will I have to wait if I try cooking Khichdi, five feet above the gas stove? Maybe the grapes were as sour as the ones I had yesterday? I wonder where I could find those rose-apples, the monkey and crocodile ate? 

    These are few of the many thoughts we dabbled with, in our childhoods as we listened to piquant tales that never once failed to invoke our gustatory senses. 

    India and its cuisine have an incredibly diverse history, and we are arguably a nation of hedonists with our choicest guilty pleasure being food. And for all our diversity, food and storytelling are two of the most common elements that unite us, and understandably so, our folklore reflects just this long-standing relationship we share with food. 

    Growing up, listening to these parables with flavorful descriptions of ingredients, aromas, and the sheer contentment it provided the characters in the stories, triggered in us a strange yet delightful craving for something we had only experienced verbally and yet wanted intensely.

    We also did not quite understand how food seeped into our consciousness at a tender age through our bedtime stories and shaped the way we relate certain emotions with our food. 

    Every food has its story and their cooks are no less than the sorcerers, wizards, shamans, and tricksters from magical folklores. They must be, for they are capable of incredible acts of transformation. 

    And, every kind of food not only has nutritional value but it also carries with it what one might term a psychological value, and folklorists and storytellers were well aware of it. They knew what can be hard to express with words, could be put across via food in their stories. And these stories served another imperative purpose, apart from keeping children entertained, it was a way to get them to eat.

    Moreover, through the medium of food, the storytellers provided a mirror to society. Where a light-hearted South Indian tale of a couple, willing to die for a dosa, would represent poverty, another would highlight the patriarchy prevalent at the time through the mispronunciation of the well-known South Indian dish, kozhukattai. Stories of genies that grant magical pumpkins and mountain gods who test their villagers by offering free dumplings, would depict the corrupt nature of man and his mistreatment towards those less fortunate.

    The popular Indian dessert Kheer has also been used countless times to symbolize greed just as Bengal's staple Ilish has helped portray moral and class divide. 

    The love for food throughout our subcontinent has been rather evident through our oral traditions. And, what better than a snippet from a folk story, to epitomize this relation. 

    What would you say, is common between a king, a mango and a bedtime story? 

    When a King walks into the street, the commoners move to the sides so that he can pass by unhindered. Similarly, even after a hearty meal, when you have a mango, all the other food in the belly simply moves aside to make space for it. Just as even after a long tiresome day, we always have an appetite for a bedtime story, as our days seem incomplete without them.