Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra
Title: Turmeric Nation: A Passage Through India’s Tastes
Author: Shylashri Shankar
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
Shyalashri Shankar is an academic whose third non-fiction, Turmeric Nation: A Passage through India’s Taste, won a woman author’s award in India called the AutHer Award (2021). This book is a detailed and rich journey through India’s multiple cuisines and culinary cultures divulging interesting facts like Aurangzeb was a vegetarian.
In the literature of food writing, we have both advocates of diversity, food fusionists as well as food fashionistas. Shankar’s approach is fairly eclectic and informed, drawing on the anthropology and sociology of both food and the cultures they originate from. Professing to write a “food biography” of India, she also realises that such a task is both “challenging and daunting”, given the magnitude and diversity of the task involved. She describes Indian cuisine as layered and pluralistic, where there is no one cuisine which can be described as ‘Indian’. Her book proceeds to map these regional diversities not only in food and food cultures, but also cooking styles.
Giving veritable gastronomic glimpses into the fascinating world of the great Indian kitchen, Shankar explores food histories of ancient India dating back to Harappans, while keeping a keen eye for networks of customs, habits and styles of living. From time to time, the cuisine has absorbed new methods of food processing and cooking and been hospitable to new and foreign influences. At the same time, it has at times exerted injustices since the sociology of food is shown to be intricately linked to the that of the caste as shown in the section on Dalit foods. Shankar rightly refuses to mythify or romanticise food, instead she refers to social anthropologist James Laidlaw’s notion that nowhere in the world are food transactions socially or morally neutral, and that the politics of and around food are probably the sharpest in South Asia.
She draws from the theories of ethnologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who, she argues, analysed different cooking techniques to put forward an influential structuralist idea of the raw and the cooked. Food, according to this theory, is a medium between nature and culture. The activity of cooking performs a process of civilising nature.
Shankar asks more fundamental questions: Did our ancestors determine the way we eat? What is the DNA of food preferences? Which is a better diet — vegetarian, non-vegetarian or paleo (what Is paleo)? Does food have a religion? What food creates ardour and desire? What are the transgressions and taboos on certain kinds of foods? What is the purpose and function of certain rituals around food — for instance, the logic of feasting and fasting? As Shankar takes us on this fascinating journey of culinary exploration, we see the emergence of a rich map of cultural anthropology.
Turmeric Nation is an ambitious and insightful project which answers these questions, and then quite a few more. Through a series of fascinating essays—delving into geography, history, myth, sociology, film, literature and personal experience—Shylashri Shankar traces the myriad patterns that have formed Indian food cultures, taste preferences and cooking traditions. From Dalit ‘haldiya dal’ to the last meal of the Buddha; from aphrodisiacs listed in the Kamasutra to sacred foods offered to gods and prophets; from the use of food as a means of state control in contemporary India to the role of lemonade in stoking rebellion in 19th-century Bengal; from the connection between death and feasting and between fasting and pleasure, this book offers a layered and revealing portrait of India, as a society and a nation, through food. It takes us on a fascinating culinary journey through the length and breadth of the subcontinent.
The proof of the pudding, many might feel, is in the eating. Why such a learned dissertation on food, gastronomy and culinary traditions? Is it ultimately to map unity, diversity, and work towards an idea of syncretism? Either ways, the book is worth keeping on our shelves and stocking in libraries, swelling the corpus on food studies which is now studied as an important part of Cultural Studies in many universities. The book ultimately gives us much food for thought as it theorises the practices of cooking and eating across Indian cultures.
Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.
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