Malvani and other Konkani seafoods – the potential loss of cuisines ?

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Malvan is a village located in the Sindhudurg district of Konkan subdivision in Maharashtra. Malvan is famous for Malvani non-veg cuisine (especially seafood) – which is a unique spicy cuisine that has managed to exert its influence well beyond the confines of Malvan or Sindhudurg.

The Malvani Masala is easy enough to make and has the important quality of hiding failures in cooking. As a result, Malvani cuisine’s popularity has grown in leaps and bounds these last few decades. Restaurants across the state & increasingly along the coast have taken up serving Malvani cuisine while serving other cuisines is reducing.

The broader Konkan region from Thane to Goa & Dakshina Kannada has multiple culinary traditions which were very vibrant (heresay :P) until a few decades ago. But increasingly the cuisines from Thane to Ratnagiri are bowing down to the Malvani cuisine. If these continue, one can assume that a lot of delightful and subtle tastes of Konkani seafood may become difficult to find. Even in one of the most famous restaurants in Ratnagiri – Hotel Amantran – the food is more Malvani – probably as that’s what most customers want. Efficiency and markets have that effect on food traditions all over not just in India. All these other cuisines – Saraswat cuisine, CPK cuisine, Cuisines of Diveagar & Ratnagiri, Cuisines of Alibaug are only preserved in families till now but will they be going ahead remains to be seen. After an initial love affair with Malvani food, we (my wife & me) have ventured into trying some of the other dishes to great success.

These include

Green chilly Coriander Surmai Curry
Raw Mango Kolambi Curry, Masala Pomfret, Masala Prawn Fry
Tirfhal Coriander based Prawn curry, Surmai Fry and Amboli (Rice Roti)

While a great number of Foodies – bloggers, authors, and chefs are working hard to keep the old cuisines alive – link ; link ; link , there isn’t much to worry about. Given the sheer size of the Indian population, India seems very resistant to such erasures of culture & food which tend to be happening around the world.

Going through old cookbooks one wonders how much culinary customs have changed beyond recognition since independence. The famous Marathi cookbook Ruchira refers to Marathi people as predominantly Jowar, Bajra, and Rice eaters. Wheat has firmly taken over Maharashtra now and Jowar and Bajra are reducing year by year (though Rice manages to hold on). Globalization and even the local spread of easy and efficient foods (pasta, bread, wheat roti) have reduced the diversity of food globally. How much of these traditions will we preserve going forward? This may appear as a trivial thing to many but it bothers me.

My main aim of writing this blogpost is NOT TO MAKE ANY POINT but to find more such stories and more recipes that readers fear might get hard to find in the future or be overwhelmed by some efficient popular foods. Please add links to Food recipes you want to share – especially Sea Food.

Maybe my fear of the erosion of cuisine is exaggerated, but my generation is not that great at conserving food traditions as earlier generations were IMO.

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Why Hindutva Worries me: Annual Onam debates

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This is first in the series of blogposts I plan to write about my worries with Hindutva.

Every year on Onam, social media witnesses flame wars between Hindutva and Anti Hindutva forces. The point of contention often is the Hindutva assertion that Onam is Vamana Jayanti and the counter to that is Onam is a secular harvest festival of Kerala. BJP handles have been tweeting their versions of Onam ever since they have been active on internet. The level to which both sides are unwilling to compromise on occasions of festivals – which ought to reflect human community celebrations, is petty. This year Arvind Kejriwal, flush with his success as modeling himself as a Hindu (or Soft Hindutva), took to twitter with this. It was met with a reply from Shashi Tharoor which in turn was countered by ever growing internet Hindutva – including the widely popular TrueIndology. One cant expect these flame wars to subside anytime soon, given the interest people have been taking in history & hindutva these days.

For decades, liberals have critiqued the Hindutva project as exclusionary. The Hindutva response is – wrt Abhrahamic faiths – if that only these people (religions) connected with the culture on ground and accepted native customs along with their own customs, we wouldn’t protest. For the Hindutvavadis, the said project was always Indianize (not Hinduize they claim) these monotheistic faiths, so that these faiths are more integrated in the larger Indian society. By that train of logic the Hindutvavadis should be happy if Keralites Christians & Muslims celebrate Onam as a Secular festival. Couldn’t this be held as a beacon of syncretic Keralite culture which the country should follow ? For most times, festivals evolve and change with times, their origins though not irrelevant, tend to become less salient as time goes on. The origins of Christmas are testament to the fluid nature of festivals. Onam in Kerala is a truly spectacular festival full of dances, food, music, boat racing and many things, not unlike Diwali. Across the world, harvest seasons have festivals and religious significance because of the underlying material importance. Do contested origins of festivals matter or the human community experience of festivals matters?  Nowruz (whether that is an Iranian mirror of Holi is something that interests me) celebrated by the broader Iranian people, after a millennium of Islam is a testament to the longevity festivals rooted in culture. The insistence of always getting sole ownership of the Onam story comes of as toxic chauvinism & deliberately exclusionary IMO. Yet every year, there are the same debates around Onam with Keralite Christians and Muslims abused for trying to own Onam in a way they have come to define it. (Ricebags and other demeaning words are often used). 

The apparently ironic way the Hindutva movement is becoming very much like its primary enemy is not really unprecedented. VD Savarkar, the foremost and most intellectual ideologue of Hindutva was critical of Muslims and Christians putting their religion above the country. Sadly during the negotiations of princely states, Savarkar himself campaigned for independent Hindu Travancore against the plans of Sardar Patel. It can be alleged he put Hindutva before the country at that moment – exactly what he accused Muslims of for all those years. Yet Hindutvavadis have no qualms putting Patel and Savarkar in the same tent – while claiming Patel and Nehru had irreconcilable differences.

These flames wars were merely part of twitter for a few years but now they’re penetrating larger audiences via whatsapp. While this may be a symptom of taking trivial social media more seriously than it deserves, the point I am arguing is beyond the flame wars of twitter. There is a deliberate and uncompromising framing of Hindutva underway – which covers a variety of tropes from calling Jains/Sikhs Hindus to soft diktats against celebrating Christman/Eid. I consider these manifestations of the nascent ideological moorings, troubling. In  a weird way at times, I hope Hindutva remains REACTIONARY and resists ideological framing, for I am more wary of deep ideological movements than mere reactionary ones.

While its not my argument that their might not be any deliberate maneuvering by the liberals in framing of the Onam as a secular festival – I dont know and I dont care enough to investigate. If the world Hindu is defined as broadly as some do, everything east of the Sindhu will be Hindu & most festivals will have some connection to traditional Hinduism/native religions. At end of the day what matters is Onam is a harvest festival for Keralites.

Post Script:

I personally have tried to indulge in the so-called Dharmic/Indic arguments for India (Harsh Madhusudan& Rajeev Mantri are publishing a book i am looking forward too), put they also indulge in unnecessary labeling IMO. I find the use of these labels – Dharmic/Indic – churlish at times.

As usual all comments short of abuse are welcome.

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Why Indian Americans are not the new Jews

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In the 2000s I would have arguments with some Indian American friends about the ethnic trajectory of Indian Americans in terms of their similarity American Jews, where I staked out the position that the analogy was superficial (e.g., on the Sepia Mutiny blog). To understand why the analogy doesn’t work, you need to know the history of American Jews first. Though Judaism in the United States goes back to small Sephardic communities along the eastern seaboard before the Amerian Revolution, to understand the Jewish community in the 20th and 21st centuries one needs to focus on the two Ashkenazi migrations from Central and Eastern Europe that occurred in the 75 years between 1850 and 1925.

The first wave was the “German Jews”, most of whom were Bavarian peddlers. Many of them scattered across the country, starting general stores and the like. Though numerically a very small migration, they founded many Jewish American institutions. There is a reason that the headquarters of Reform Judaism, which is of German origin, is in Cincinnati. This reflects the migration of German Jews along routes of commerce in the 19th century.

The second wave, and the much larger one, is the migration stream that issued out of the expanded Russian Empire, in particular Lithuania and Galicia. These are who the German Jews referred to as the “Ostjuden”, the Eastern Jews. This was a term applied in Germany to Jews from Poland and further east as well. The Ostjuden were often destitute. Those that fled the early 20th century pogroms may have had nothing but the clothes on their backs. In fact, in all likelihood, the richer and more assimilated Jews were the ones who remained in Europe.

America was the destination for the more marginalized.

Continue reading “Why Indian Americans are not the new Jews”

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Shaniwar Wada: The Palace Of The Peshwa

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Shaniwar Wada
The seat of the Maratha empire from 1730 to 1818, the Shaniwar Wada is a very important place in Indian history. Built by the Peshwas (Prime Ministers) of the Maratha King (Chhatrapati), this palace fort has nearly been destroyed completely by a combination of military attacks and fires through the centuries.

History

Under the Peshwai (leadership) of Bajirao I, the capital of the Maratha Empire shifted from Satara to Pune. Bajirao chose Pune for his seat because he found the climate and geography of Pune most suitable for the Peshwai. As both ceremonies – laying the foundation stone and a house warming – took place on Saturdays and the Wada was built in Shaniwar Peth, it was named Shaniwar Wada.

Bajirao I – the Great Cavalry General and Peshwa who build Shaniwar wada as the prime seat of Maratha kingdom. © Gaurav Lele

The main entrance of the Shaniwar Wada is called the Delhi Darwaza, so called because it faces the north and due to Bajirao’s ambitions of conquering Delhi. The building of Shaniwar Wada is thus a pivotal moment in the history of Pune, which has been the cultural capital of Maharashtra ever since.

After Bajirao I

Nanasaheb or Balali Bajirao, the son of Bajirao-I, was the longest ruling Peshwa at 21 years and saw the glory of Shaniwar Wada multiplied during his tenure. However, by the end of his rule, the Marathas had lost the third War of Panipat which resulted in the glory of the Shaniwar Wada being somewhat diminished.

Madhavrao I – Nanasaheb’s second son, his eldest son having been killed in Panipat – who became Peshwa after Nanasaheb, spent considerable time and resources fighting many enemies of the Peshwai, including his uncle Raghobadada), and was thus unable to undertake further constructions in the Wada.

Continue reading “Shaniwar Wada: The Palace Of The Peshwa”

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The Indo-Pakistan problem — To be or Not to be

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Wagah Border

THIS ESSAY WAS WRITTEN IN 2016 in the immediate aftermath of the URI ATTACKS with the aim of bringing some nuance in the increasingly binary discussions of Pakistan. Looking back at it in 2020 there are a few points in the essay I mildly disagree with but on the whole, I stand by my arguments. 


For anyone willing to read a shorter -TL-DR version find the link HERE:

Note: This is not a scholarly analysis of Indo-Pak question but an essay ((*mildly subjective)) on the question with references being presented for most of the essay. 


Every well-read Indian who has thought enough about the India-Pakistan issue will have faced Hamlet’s dilemma — “To be or not to be”. It’s fair to assume that national patience, with everything related to Pakistan, is waning very fast nowadays aided by the explosion of social media. Simply put — most Indians have had enough of this shit for 69 + years (the Idea of Pakistan being older than Pakistan). The leftist solution to the Pakistan problem has always been the Aman ki Asha narrative. The reactionary position of some of the Right-wing is to totally boycott anything related to Pakistan every-time a terrorist attack takes place in India. This position though backed by popular opinion at times like this seems to be no closer to a permanent solution to the problem. To come up with potential solutions for this problem, we need to discuss both these approaches and we also need to dig deep into the Nation-state of Pakistan.

 

Continue reading “The Indo-Pakistan problem — To be or Not to be”

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Endogamy and assimilation: Parsis in India

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The Guardian has a long piece about Parsis, The last of the Zoroastrians. The author is the child of a Parsi mother who married a white Briton. Though he brings his own perspective into the piece, I appreciated that he did not let it overwhelm the overall narrative. The star are the Parsis themselves, not his own personal journey and viewpoints.

In relation to the Parsis, there are two aspects in the Indian context that warrant exploration

– high levels of cultural assimilation

– high levels of cultural separateness

These seem strange outside of India, but they make sense within India. The Zoroastrian priests who migrated to what became Gujurat integrated themselves into the local landscape as an endogamous community. From a genetic perspective, the best overview is “Like sugar in milk”: reconstructing the genetic history of the Parsi population:

Among present-day populations, the Parsis are genetically closest to Iranian and the Caucasus populations rather than their South Asian neighbors. They also share the highest number of haplotypes with present-day Iranians and we estimate that the admixture of the Parsis with Indian populations occurred ~1,200 years ago. Enriched homozygosity in the Parsi reflects their recent isolation and inbreeding. We also observed 48% South-Asian-specific mitochondrial lineages among the ancient samples, which might have resulted from the assimilation of local females during the initial settlement. Finally, we show that Parsis are genetically closer to Neolithic Iranians than to modern Iranians, who have witnessed a more recent wave of admixture from the Near East.

The major finding is that most of the ancestry, on the order of 75%, of Indian Parsis is generically Iranian. On the order of 25% is “indigenous”, probably Gujurati. The fact that the proportion of mtDNA, the maternal lineage, is closer to 50% in both modern and ancient samples, indicates that the mixing with Indians occurred through taking local women as brides. Further genetic investigation in the above paper suggests that this was not a recurrent feature. In other words, once the Zoroastrian community in Gujurat was large enough, it became entirely endogamous.

And yet the Parsis speak Gujurati (or in Pakistan Sindhi and Urdu), and in many ways are culturally quite indigenized.

I bring this up because this portion of the above piece I’ve seen elsewhere:

The small community of Iranian Zoroastrians is even more liberal, allowing female priests, and there are also nascent neo-Zoroastrian movements in parts of the Middle East.

I have read repeatedly that Iranian Zoroastrians are more “liberal” when it comes to the issue of religious endogamy. The term “liberal” indicates innovation. But if you look at the historiography it seems clear that though Zoroastrianism was strongly connected to Iranian-speaking people, it was not exclusive to them. Zoroastrianism was cultivated and encouraged by the Sassanians in much of the Caucasus, and it spread into Central Asia, even amongst some Turkic groups, before the rise of Islam.

Zoroastrianism was not aggressively proselytizing but before 600 A.D. neither was Christianity outside of the Roman Empire. This is not a well-known fact due to the religion’s gradual diffusion to non-Roman societies, such as Ireland and Ethiopia, but before Gregory the Great missions to barbarian peoples were not organized from the Metropole but were ad hoc (the Byzantines eventually began centrally organized missionary activities after 600 A.D., but they were never as thorough or enthusiastic as the Western Christians). Our understanding of Zoroastrianism then may not be clear because the religion went into decline during a transformative period in world history when the religious boundaries and formations we see around us were still inchoate.

The major takeaway from all this is that strenuous Parsi arguments for the ethnic character of Zoroastrianism are a reflection not of their Iranian religious background, but their Indian cultural milieu. Zoroastrian “traditionalists” in India are actually Indian traditionalists, who have internalized an innovation to allow for integration into South Asia. And, I would argue some of the same applies to Indian “traditionalists,” whose cultural adaptations to the “shock” of Turco-Muslim domination resulted in the strengthening of particular tendencies within Indian culture that were already preexistent.

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Belief and Reclamation

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For eons, ascetics and wanderers would journey to the sacred snow-clad Himalayas to test the fires of their belief. Where the skies met the earth and the heavens met the material world, humans met enlightenment; and their discoveries would cascade down the subcontinent. These beliefs would be ossified by ritual and rite, and a culture would engulf the land between the great Himalayas and an endless ocean – India, that is Bhārata.

And it is this legendary journey from the foothills of the Himalayas to the tip of the subcontinent that a civilizational epic takes place – the Rāmāyana. On August 5th, 2020, the ancient song of Valmiki will echo in the villages, in the cities, in the deserts, the fields, the jungles, the mountains, the waters, and especially in the minds of those who believe. A civilization will enact its long-awaited reclamation.

Continue reading “Belief and Reclamation”

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Food between cultures

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Recently I read a piece on Indian cuisine from a “woke” perspective, Reclaiming Indian Food from the White Gaze: The same food I was teased for as a kid has become trendy and divorced from its cultural origins. Now, I’m using my cookbook to change the narrative. Obviously I disagree with the ideology interlaced throughout the piece, but the author is a pretty good writer, and a lot of the illustrations and experiences “ring true” to me. You could strip out a lot of the jargon like cultural appropriation and gaze, and the piece would be a fine read.

For example, the point that white women cooking “exotic” food is “trendy” and marketable in a way it isn’t when immigrants or nonwhite people do seems likely, and something I’d rather like explored more.

That being said, the implicit idea that people “own” culture and that the boundaries are sharp and strict seems to me wrong-headed ultimately. Synthesis is as old as human-kind…my family’s cuisine includes red chilis, potatoes, and tomatoes.  Just to give one example.

I’d be curious what Indian readers think, as the piece is obviously inflected by an Indian American lens.

Addendum: I’m from the far east of Bengal, but shrimp is my favorite food.

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Indian Matchmaking

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The Juggernaut has the usual predictable take. Racist, classist, colorist, heterosexist, etc.

Myself, I don’t take these shows as illustrations of how the world should be, but how it is. Anthropology.

When I was younger I was very opposed to an arranged marriage. My parents had an arranged marriage, and I found it to be regressive and backward. Now that I’m older, and married with 3 children, I have more moderate views. Many of my friends have not settled down, and they are not happy about it. Finding a partner can be hard. The dating scene can be Darwinian and brutal. It’s not really that edifying.

I don’t come with any answers. Rather, I think we should give people more grace whatever path they take.

The Western romantic vision of a nuclear family where the parents are an island in the world is the path I took. But I’m far less self-righteous about it than I used to be. If there are negative things about arranged marriages, and there are, we should focus on those things, rather than the whole institution. In some ways, dating apps are now becoming the new matchmakers in any case.

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Life is a great test

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Being Asian American is often about tests. Doing well on tests. That’s what Asian Americans are supposed to do. Two conventionally liberal (“woke”) publications have stories about test-prep, testing, and Asian American academic life.

First, in The Juggernaut, Why Test Scores Can Be a “Proxy for Privilege”. To be franky, I did not like this story, because the conclusions were already there to begin with, and the author was just figuring out how to buttressed the preexistent argument. For example:

Mettu, for example, is well aware of her advantages as the daughter of educated, middle-class Indian immigrants who could invest in her college preparation. She recognizes that few students enjoy such privilege. That is why Mettu sympathizes with efforts at higher education institutions across the country to downplay — or altogether eliminate — test scores as a criterion in admissions. “In terms of equal opportunity,” she said, “it is a good shift.”

That’s the general gist. “Actually, testing is bad for the underprivileged.” Even though standardized testing actually emerged as a way to get around the unfairness of recommendations.

Meanwhile, Refinery29 has a much better story, An Interview with an Asian student at Stuyvestant. Since it’s an interview, most of the talking is given over to the student. That results in more candor and less canned conclusions:

How do students talk about the lack of Black and Latinx students?

When the news came out, it just wasn’t a big thing in Stuy. No one cared about it. We saw it in a random newspaper and everyone was just like, okay. We’re used to places writing about us. I remember one time, one of the chairs broke during one of our theater productions, and that made headlines. Everyone was like why?

Honestly, we were more vocal about school shootings. There was a whole walkout, a lot of us missed class for it, and we went to city hall. We were way more vocal about guns. The reason that Stuy is Stuy is that we’re the smart kids who do well on tests. NYC has LaGuardia, which is for people who are good at dance or music or singing. We have other schools with different talents that anyone else with those talents can get into. I think that’s one of the reasons that everyone in Stuy thinks the SHSAT test should be there, because if the test wasn’t here, what’s the point of Stuy then? What’s the point of even being here?

One thing to note: well-off white New Yorkers send their kids to exclusive private schools like Dalton. Stuyvesant is populated by children of working-class immigrants by and large.

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