Mustard and Meat

Mustard and Meat

I have been watching the Netflix series Rasa, Rasoi aur Kahaniyan, which translates to Kings, Kitchens and their Stories. The series is about the astoundingly varied cuisines of India. The filmmakers weave a beautiful tapestry out of India’s regional histories and eating traditions. The dishes featured are always created from foods available locally and seasonally, and all are imprinted by the preferences, technologies, and customs of the successive waves of traders, warriors, regents and holy people who conquered, settled, or passed through. It is too complex and rich a story to easily summarize – I will have to watch it again, if I am to coherently absorb and remember the themes and threads – and anyway, it should be lingered over, savored as all of the depictions entice you to do with the food itself. The episodes move quickly and while ingredients and techniques are shared, recipes are not. It will take many close viewings and research to suss out the makings of the dishes presented. Oh, but I want to! I am tempted and tantalized even in my confusion. Notwithstanding the sensory and mental overburdens, a few ideas stick: that Persian traders reinvented the buried earth-bound ovens of their homeland into portable tandoors; that Kashmir is paradise on Earth and threatened; that Partition, despite the many reasons for it, forever changed the Punjab, its easy and free intermixing, coexistence, sharing, and accommodation undone by an imaginary line, nonsensical in every geographic sense.

Salmon Rushdie wrote eloquently of India in Midnight’s Children, and brings the country’s dense, intricate, and long history into understanding, however incompletely. (For no single text could ever plumb the depths.) Language is a revelation, too, in Rushdie’s work, the surnames and place names are as powerful, as aromatic and pungent, as the spices the Indies have long been famous for. I remarked upon this to a friend of Indian heritage – that it is no wonder the cuisines features every spice known to man, when every possible sound and combination of sounds is heard in the languages there. She recommended another author to me, Amitav Ghosh. Having read the second book in his Ibis trilogy, River of Smoke, I can enthusiastically recommend it to you, for another broadening excursion into a fascinating world.

Episode five of the series covers the Punjab, and it is within this episode I came to a better understanding of Hindu vegetarianism. Two important particulars underlie the (small) epiphany. The first is that caste is yet an important social stricture, especially in rural India. The second is that the ancient texts of India – the Veda – pre- and proscribe foods for health of body, mind, and spirit. Many cookery and eating practices are ultimately sourced in the directives of the Veda. Within the texts, foods are assigned properties, such as warming or cooling, and these properties suit them for varied seasons, situations – and people.

As Raja Rasoi tells it, mustard grows prolifically in the Punjab, and it is the base of a recipe familiar to worldly eaters and beloved by the Sikhs of Amritsar, Sarsoon ka Saag. Mustard greens are considered a warming food by the Vedic texts and so appropriate only in cool weather and climates, and for farmers and others who labor physically. Likewise, meat and poultry are foods suited for hard laborers, who coincidentally comprise the lower castes. Because the upper castes (especially Brahmin priests) don’t do such work, meat (and foods with similar properties) are off the menu for them. Accordingly, vegetarianism is not simply a spiritual practice (if it is one at all), it is a social distinction. Eating meat is a larger cultural brand that marks and reinforces status. It is, quite actually, beneath the upper classes.

India is so complex a country in its myriad regions, peoples, and histories, it can’t be revealed in several hundred of my words. Every idea I’ve mentioned here is abstruse and intertwined with a multitude of other understandings and knowledge. I can only hope to represent small bits fairly, and inspire you to investigate and explore a little on your own …


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