This week: The sexist origins of vegetarian Bengali cuisine, bakers in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war and finding a home in tea.
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This column often circles back to the theme of food. It’s probably because the appreciation of good food and drink is ubiquitous but discussions about its social, political, economic and cultural implications usually aren’t. Another aspect that makes food especially interesting to me is how emotional we can be about it – the food we eat, the beverages we drink are all woven into the very fabric of our lives, so it makes sense that most of us attach strong importance to them yet it can be hard to articulate exactly what makes chai so comforting to us or why we remain perpetually nostalgic about the food of our childhood.
‘The Sad, Sexist Past of Bengali Cuisine’
“When we ask where our food comes from, it’s usually more about the people and not what they’re feeling—their joys, their disappointments, and whatever mess exists in between. Sitting at the table and eating food from someone else’s hands affords you the privilege of not knowing the effort, be it minimal or extreme, it took to get to you. You’re relieved of the burden of even having to think about any of this; it’s hard to taste someone else’s grief.”
Mayukh Sen, a food and culture writer at Food 52, explores the rarely discussed history of how vegetarian Bengali cuisine came to be. For centuries, high-caste Bengali women were subjected to severe social and dietary restrictions once widowed, which forced them to come up with innovative ways of cooking vegetarian food.
Sen explains that “widowhood made a woman’s sex drive fickle and vulnerable. A woman’s libido was a site of such agita that she couldn’t be trusted to keep it quiet, and so her body needed to be governed.”
After her husband passed away, a woman’s culinary sphere shrunk to the bare minimum, if not less. Sen notes that this alienation wasn’t just meant to act as a ‘hormonal suppressant’ but some also believe that these dietary restrictions were imposed to ‘induce malnutrition, prescribing an early death sentence’ for widows. After her husband died, a woman would:
“…eliminate onion and garlic, alliums thought to conjure sexual energy, from her diet. She would stop eating red lentils for the same reason—these were, apparently, edible pulses as potent as aphrodisiacs. She would stamp out meat and fish, staples of cooking in Paschim Dinajpur, and stick to a rigorously strict vegetarian diet. She would be restricted to one meal a day, mid-day. At night, she would have puffed rice, khoi, with milk.”
Women like Sen’s great-grandmother, who was widowed at an early age, had no choice but to be resourceful with the scraps of food, all vegetarian, that they were meant to survive on. What resulted as a cuisine full of delicious dishes like “mochar ghonto, a dry curry made with banana flower, or echorer tarkari, a gravy prepared with jackfruit.” Their suffering gave rise to food that everyone could enjoy, and so effectively these widows’ families and communities accrued the benefits of their marginalisation.
Sen is careful to acknowledge that the experience and history he’s recounting is not the sole narrative of what happened, or even one that can be generalised for all widows in Bengal. This practice was specific to the sub-set of high-caste Hindu women, in the particular region that his great-grandmother belonged to. But as he says, “The specificity of this practice doesn’t negate its violence.”
The societal stigma against widows has receded compared to his grandmother’s days, but Sen spends some time thinking about what he and all those who consume vegetarian Bengali cuisine owe to widows like his great-grandmother:
“What remains, though, is a language of cooking that owes its brilliance to these widows. The pathways through which a cuisine assumes an identity leans on the vulnerable: It becomes easier to deny authorship to women like my great-grandmother when the world around them barely considers them people to begin with. If the world you inhabit already ostracizes you, how can you expect history to pick up the slack?”