No place at the table

Indian women, food, and eating

Devotees make chapattis (bread) at a community kitchen in a Gurdwara (Sikh temple) on Baisakhi festival in the northern India city of Chandigarh
'Because love is labour, love is misery, love is oppression. Food, in the hands of women, could mean chaos. It signifies change, remaking, refiguring, reshaping,' writes Saumya Kalya [Ajay Verma/Reuters]
'Because love is labour, love is misery, love is oppression. Food, in the hands of women, could mean chaos. It signifies change, remaking, refiguring, reshaping,' writes Saumya Kalya [Ajay Verma/Reuters]

For Nina*, dal (stewed lentils) tastes like defeat, preparing it feels like a lost cause.

“Sometimes, there is ‘too much salt’, sometimes there is ‘no salt’, so much so that salting is very stressful for me,” she says, recounting the harsh words her cooking receives from her husband of 27 years.

Last month, he picked up the brass dish of dal and flung it across the room.

The idea of a woman being harassed and even assaulted by her husband in India is not as shocking as it should be and, according to a 2021 canvas by the National Family and Health Survey, about 45 percent of women and 44 percent of men surveyed felt it would be justified in one of seven circumstances.

Among the seven? Not cooking properly, which 14 percent of women and 10 percent of men surveyed thought would justify spousal abuse.

“The kitchen to me is a prison sometimes,” Nina says. “But if I am with my children, it's the warmest place where they sit with their friends, door locked, talking to me and loving each other.”

Nina’s day starts just after dawn; laundry is done, groceries readied and the house tidied before the cooking begins at about 7am. For as long as she can remember, she has made a hot breakfast for four people, but recent stress at work meant the family has had to resort to grains of cereal instead and Nina can see the resentment building.

"Food has to be made at regular intervals or he gets 'headaches' for the rest of the day, whether I am at home or not home, whether I am tired or not, after travelling or childbirth."

But food was not always a source of agony. Before marriage, Nina enjoyed cooking for others and herself. It was a ritual; no act of finding a recipe or procuring ingredients was mundane. She experimented, she reused, and she nourished. Food was something she longed to write about - how it made her and underscored the wisdom of her family.

The kitchen can be more than a place where “tradition” is guarded. Some women are remaking rituals around food as they explore their own relationships with it.

The Great Indian Kitchen

A view of Khushboo's hands at the stove as she prepares food
Does a power imbalance exist around stoves, among vegetable peels, and over kitchen sinks? [Rashi Arora/Al Jazeera]
Does a power imbalance exist around stoves, among vegetable peels, and over kitchen sinks? [Rashi Arora/Al Jazeera]

The Indian household has carefully moulded rituals and traditions around food, its preparation and consumption. This is no trivial matter: There’s a long list of ingredients, spices, magic masalas (spice mixes), ways of tadka (tempering), and wisdom absorbed by watching mothers and grandmothers in the kitchen.

By the time Vasumathy* was 10, she realised cooking is more labour than love. She had spent hours standing by her mother’s side in the kitchen, little nose barely reaching the marble countertop. Her fascination with her mother’s precise, sharp hands as they dropped finely chopped tomatoes into soaked rice was tempered with the realisation that, no matter what, others in the family did not receive the food with love.

“My mother would cook and was criticised when things didn't turn out right,” she recalls. The curry was too spicy, the viscosity was not quite right.

“It was a thankless job. And the expectation that the woman should learn to ... has to, make three meals [a day] and feed her family, the expectation was too much for me. I think ... that turned me away from cooking.”

Cooking was a chore, unglamorous and repetitive.

a white plate with blue spots sits on a green background. On it are two slices of toast with jammy eggs, mushrooms and herbs
Eating becomes political because it raises questions of when, what and where women eat [Courtesy of Boba]

The reality of kitchen work in an archetypical traditional Indian home is beautifully shown in the Malayalam movie, The Great Indian Kitchen. The dining table bustles with plates of banana chips, puttu (steamed cylinders of rice flour and coconut), sambar, chutney, and rice, but cooking is not glamorised.

The Wife, trying to fit into the traditional role expected of her, is caught in the tedium of cooking and cleaning, dirty vessels, clogged drains, and leaking taps while the men eat, practise yoga, and peruse their mobile phones outside the kitchen.

She only eats alone, when they are done, pushing aside food scraps the men spat out of their mouths to make space for herself on the tablecloth.

This depiction of traditional Indian gender roles shows there is no space for the Wife (and by implication the Mother or Daughter) who nurtures her family with food yet eats last because she neglects to nurture herself. The kitchen she is relegated to is an arena for unpaid labour that devalues her work and precludes her from a social identity beyond the family.

An Indian labourer prepares food
Indian women often expend more calories than men, labouring in fields. Here an Indian labourer prepares food outside her hut in Siliguri, northeast India [File: Desmond Boylan DB/TC/Reuters]

Eating becomes political because it raises questions of when, what and where women eat. When men’s needs are prioritised, food is unequally distributed and women come last - despite the fact that “in many contexts in India women may end up expending more calories than men” in doing heavier work, Sreeparna Chattopadhyay, a cultural anthropologist who researches sexuality, gender, and families in South Asia, notes.

This discrimination results in poor physical and mental health. A 2021 study showed that in women between the ages of 18 and 65 in three Indian states (Jharkhand, Bihar, and Maharashtra), less autonomy due to eating last was a factor contributing to poor mental health.

Moreover, even if they want to, women who live in some vegetarian households cannot eat meat, since it implies impurity; a poor vegetarian diet and no animal protein leads to not just anaemia but micronutrient deficiencies that affect women's health as well as children they give birth to.

So if food is a communal affair in India, traditionally consumed at home and prepared by the women who eat last and eat leftovers, how can they navigate something they never learned to see as theirs? Perhaps by taking up space. By choosing what to eat, where to eat it and the company - if any - they choose to share this food, women can take the space the traditional family denies them.

Table for one?

A closeup of a takeout container of fish and chips with Boba's hand grabbing the battered fish to start eating
Boba found the 'space to relish my food on my own terms' [Courtesy of Boba]
Boba found the 'space to relish my food on my own terms' [Courtesy of Boba]

What about the women who are not in a traditional family unit? Women who live alone or work long hours?

Boba*, 21, recalls that the “kitchen at home was a prison and will probably always be”. Her father would step into it only to “mansplain” things to her mother, which made cooking a stressful experience. The insults were hollow aches, hurled loudly some days, whispered across the table on others.

Even eating was fraught with conflict: Boba lived with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and dealt with weight issues, so her parents decided starvation was the way to go.

Every Monday, she was to eat only fruits. Every evening, she was to go to the gym. Some days, her mother would slip some shaan khaosue, a noodle soup with a coconut milk base, into her room.

Her idea of the kitchen changed when she moved out and took charge of her own. There was an induction stove, a single skillet, a spatula - everything she needed to feel uncaged. “Cooking for myself gave me a sense of freedom and a creative outlet.”

The stove is a canvas of trial and error; she mixes things that aren’t usually paired together. Eggs and toast with a side of pineapple cucumber salad - the hot, tender yolk against the sweet and tart of the pineapple. “If you cook for yourself, you’re free to feed yourself well - unlike my mother's limited portions at home.”

Food can be messy, can come with fuss, Boba thinks as she looks out of her balcony at a pani puri cart on the street. Perhaps nothing is as messy or as delicious as pani puri, a deep-fried street food that has to be eaten whole without spilling the fillings and chutneys in the crisp, puffy mini-breads.

An Indian street food vendor sells the common street snack Panipuri, fried puris with an assortment of fillings, as commuters walk past in Mira Road, on the outskirts of Mumbai
A pani puri cart on the street - pani puri is also known as gol gappa [File: Divyakani Solanki/EPA-EFE]

But when she craved those fragrant morsels, she had to ask someone to go with her. You cannot share a pani puri, eating it is a solitary, one-bite act but she, like many women, had grown up believing women don't eat out alone, they have to exist in public in the context of a group.

The pervasiveness of this idea “hinders one's ability to associate with food at an individual level”, Boba muses. “I always had trouble going out to eat by myself,” she says.

Then one time, about two years ago, Boba got stood up at a restaurant. “I was a little mad and decided to go all out and ordered a lot of food. I genuinely enjoyed not having to share my food and not having to make awkward small talk.”

Then she started going out alone, to lunch, dinner, dessert. She had found the “space to relish my food on my own terms”.

There's still a social and cultural stigma around women eating alone. It implies their agency and independence; the act of eating is meant for the nourishment of the self and not for anyone else. Moreover, it changes how society perceives female bodies, which are celebrated for their aesthetics and not for their functionality and strength. When women eat alone, they reduce eating to both a function and an indulgence - meant only for themselves.

An overhead shot of a bowl of seasoned fries and two notebooks set up on a bed as Labanya studies and eats
Labanya began eating in the most private, personal spaces she had when she left home [Courtesy of Labanya]

For Labanya*, 24, eating with family meant eating under a suppressive gaze. “My father is very strict about our eating habits ... We all have to eat dinner together because of him.”

He is vegetarian, so the dining table only carried vegetables and pulses for dinner. Occasionally, he would ask what they had for breakfast, a tone of questioning that bordered on interrogation.

Any “fuss” would be met with punishment, which would be carried out over the dining table too. “We were punished because of food, but we were rewarded with it too.”

If she did any kitchen work or helped her mother, she would get sweets as a bonus for good behaviour.

Any insistence on eating together was like a flesh wound, reminding her of the restrictions she faced as a child. She felt controlled by food; plates and spoons were strings, dictating when to eat, how to eat, and what to eat.

The antithesis was to eat in the space most intimate to her. When she went to college, she abandoned tables and dining rooms for the comfort of her bed. “I would rather order food than eat in a restaurant. Even if I go out, I would take the food and eat it somewhere quiet, with trees maybe.”

One day, she hopes to have a house of her own, with a kitchen of her own. Where no one can come.

Food and community

Akanksha stands on a stool in front of her pantry cupboard, lifting onto her toes to reach something in the top shelf
[Rashi Arora/Al Jazeera]
[Rashi Arora/Al Jazeera]

During the pandemic, Akanksha, 32, translated her love for eating and cooking into starting a tiffin service for migrant workers in Pune who were stuck far from home. Her kitchen was divided into two zones: one for cooking and the other for assembling dal, roti, rice, and a vegetable stir fry into aluminium foil-cushioned tiffins.

Food has been central to her makeup. As a young girl growing up in Vashi, a suburb of Mumbai, relatives would come set themselves up at the dining table, vying for her mother’s biryani. When she moved to Scotland for higher studies, she started a blog of recipes for homemade Indian food. Soon, it morphed into a service where she sold dishes to people living away from home but holding onto the nostalgia of a familiar taste.

While providing different communities with meals during the pandemic, Akanksha ate with different people, in different places. Not only was the kitchen undone, but the dining table, too.

Arguably, socialising through food, outside the setting of a family and home, has always existed. Sikh gurudwaras have langars - kitchens where people are served food free of charge regardless of their social identity. There are community kitchens offering food relief during times of war and peace, preparing food on roads, in government shelters, or in public spaces. This offers an alternative to the dominance of the Indian family kitchen, which in most middle- and upper-middle-class households are enclosed spaces that alienate the maker from the rest of the household.

Akanksha standing at her stove, measuring and pouring
The kitchen can be undone at the hands of women [Rashi Arora/Al Jazeera]

Community-based food cultures can be a bridge to a world outside the confines of the home as shown by a study of the experiences of women working with community kitchens (a micro-entrepreneurial venture) in the state of Jharkhand during the lockdown.

These “Didis”, mostly married women without formal jobs, were empowered by adding value to their families and to the community. One woman movingly told the survey conductors: “I thought I would be confined to remain as a wife and mother forever. We women are not allowed to go to big cities and work like the men do. I had no freedom ... By being the Didi I feel so proud, as I am able to give back to this community where I belong and for which everyone gives me respect. My involvement in household decisions has increased and overall this gives me a sense of self-esteem.”

‘Ritually polluting’

Sri Vamsi looks on as his guests serve themselves from food laid out on the mat
'For marginalised folks … food plays an important role in bringing the joy of eating,' Sri Vamsi Matta says [Courtesy of Vivek Muthuramalingam]
'For marginalised folks … food plays an important role in bringing the joy of eating,' Sri Vamsi Matta says [Courtesy of Vivek Muthuramalingam]

In India, caste is just as linked to food as gender - a marriage of prejudice and social hierarchy built on a “fear” of contamination.

Women from Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe communities may work as house help, but there is anxiety around letting them touch the family’s food. Students in Uttarakhand last year refused to eat food cooked by a Dalit woman. She was fired from her position as a school cook.

“When you look at caste in terms of food, where you eat and with whom you eat is a way of narrative,” Dalit activist Sri Vamsi Matta said. He recently arranged a food performance called Come Eat With Me, inviting people to share stories of their favourite foods and their understanding of caste, while cooking and eating together. Histories and stories of oppression were shared over chicken patties.

“If you look at food as one mode of oppression, we talk about sadness. But there is an important aspect of food that is joy,” he says. “For marginalised folks ... food plays an important role in bringing the joy of eating.”

Vamsi cooks in his performance space, and others bring dishes to share there. Community has always been central to Dalit eating traditions, and Vamsi says it is essential to breaking down the patriarchal walls that fossilise the family and oppress women.

A photo of a line of pots holding the different curries and rice that will be eaten by Sri Vamsi's guests
Dalit activist Sri Vamsi Matta hosted a group for a meal as part of his performance, Come Eat With Me [Courtesy of Vivek Muthuramalingam]

Deepa Tak, author of Isn’t This Plate Indian? Dalit Histories and Memories of Food, writes of a song about Dalit foods. The song’s lyrics describe rakti (congealed goat blood with oil, salt, and red chilli) and malida (pork fat mixed with roti and jaggery), saying they are more delicious than the sweet, round laddus of privileged castes. Regardless of who’s right, he argues, the food created by Dalit women shows resourcefulness and ingenuity.

Is the kitchen solely a source of disadvantage for women? Well, the lack of one can be the same, says Simi Malhotra, a professor of culture studies at Jamia Milia Islamia University.

Women working in unregulated industries or who are unhoused are cut off from this space. Others can access someone else’s kitchen - domestic help and cooks - but can never call it their own. The kitchen becomes a privilege.

Simi recalls Virginia Woolf's construction of the kitchen: while it is resonant of aeons of suppression, the space “can itself be the separatist subversive site for female creativity, as a 'room of one's own' as it were”. Cooking can carry a patina of tranquillity, a meditative ritual.

Grief and sandwiches

Khushboo sits with her daughter on her lap, each eating their meal out of a red plate
Khushboo, shown here with her daughter Arianna, picks the traditions she wants to take forward as she navigates loss [Rashi Arora/Al Jazeera]
Khushboo, shown here with her daughter Arianna, picks the traditions she wants to take forward as she navigates loss [Rashi Arora/Al Jazeera]

Khushboo, 41, comes from a Sindhi family in Kolkata, a vibrant culture with vibrant food. She compares her Sindhi curry and her mother’s: the ingredients are the same: potatoes, bhindi (okra), besan (chickpea flour), gavarfali (cluster beans), but the spice is left to the hand and instinct.

Khushboo speaks animatedly about her mother’s dishes - aloo took (spiced fried potatoes), dal, fish curry - which had friends and neighbours hooked. There was meticulous preparation behind it; be it one guest or 50, lists of ingredients were prepared days ahead, and the kitchen routine firmly established.

“I can’t follow a recipe; if you give me a method ... it's very likely that I won't.” Her experimentation reads like a knee-jerk reaction to her mother’s precision. “It all depends on how I'm feeling,” she says. She doesn’t let anyone into the kitchen. Cooking is her space, her time.

Khushboo was never a foodie – until she met her husband, who came from a Gujarati family whose foods were alien to Khushboo.

“I never tasted something called a papad ki sabji [papadum curry], or a sev tomato sabji [tomato curry with fried chickpea noodles]. I had never even heard of these things, forget making them.” Over the next few years, she was introduced to the flavours of Gujarati food.

A meal set out, rice with herbs, fried potatoes, dal, and salad, each in a red bowl
Khushboo's mother made dal and aloo took that the neighbours all raved about [Rashi Arora/Al Jazeera]

Then, when her husband passed away at the end of last year, food tethered her to his memory. Especially one experiment, which they dubbed the “cushion sandwich”.

“It’s a sandwich we made as a family,” she says, looking over at her eight-year-old daughter Arianna.

It’s simple enough; vegetables stacked on top of soy patties, slices of cheese in between, and drops of chilli oil on top. “It's literally just that, but it's a combination that we invented.”

The first time she made the sandwich after his death took something from her. “I hated cooking in the first two months after he passed away.” Every move in the kitchen carried grief.

There is healing through food; most caregiving rituals surrounding death and birth are anchored in preparing and sharing food. Mourning becomes a negotiation. Khushboo now negotiates with food to make room for grief that is permanent and definitive.

In January this year, about four months after her husband’s death, Khushboo called her friends and family over. She prepared the mix of soy flecked with spices and kneaded with water - a familiar rhythm - and made 45 burgers.

“Because that was something he loved, and I wanted everyone to have it. He's gone, but he's left his love of food with us.”

Khushboo drops sliced potatoes into a pan to prepare the fried potatoes
Khushboo was never a foodie, until she met her late husband [Rashi Arora/Al Jazeera]

Food’s role in bereavement can be less benign. In Bengali cultures, widows are expected to give up eating meat, chicken, garlic, and onions - foods considered heat-producing, linked to an increased libido that would make widows “dangerous”. Deprivation “disciplines” the female body further, breaking an already fractured relationship with eating. Small wonder that Indian women are some of the most anaemic in the world.

But, ask anyone about Bengali vegetarian cuisine and they will tell you the innovation has come from the hands of widows who used their ingenuity to make delicious food out of scraps. In an article, titled Are We What We Eat?, author Rukmini Bhaya Nair wrote of how widowed Bengali women “beat the system” by substituting the taboo onions, garlic and spices with vegetable scraps.

“Their ‘survival strategy’ lies in turning themselves into an indispensable, if invisible, presence in the family kitchen,” Nair writes.

Unlearning, relearning

Payal at the stove, cooking by feel because she lost her eyesight
Food was once a safe space for Payal, who grew up dreaming of being in the kitchen [Courtesy of Payal Kapoor]
Food was once a safe space for Payal, who grew up dreaming of being in the kitchen [Courtesy of Payal Kapoor]

Payal Kapoor had to reinvent her relationship with food after losing her eyesight in a fire at age 22, in 1992.

Food was once a safe space. She grew up dreaming of being in the kitchen, cooking marmalades and luscious curries. “I was this person who loved her food, who loved to cook for people.” When she first lost her eyesight, she couldn’t fully face her grief.

“I was simply existing at a point in time,” she says.

But grief is like freshly kneaded dough. Swollen and smooth, it can be made into anything – rotis, sheermal (sweet flatbreads), kokis (flaky flatbread with onion and spices) – it can be transformative.

Payal was alone in her blindness. Flavour is felt through more than one of our senses, seeing food is as important as tasting and smelling it.

Then, one day her mother handed her a pile of beans and a knife and asked her to start cutting. Payal was used to not looking at vegetables while chopping, so she managed, and that helped her start somewhere.

“I cannot describe the experience. It made me feel like, yes, I was still alive.” There she sat with a bowl of sliced beans and the detail, the sensory input, broke her cycle of fear.

Payal smiles up at the camera with a thali in front of her, about to begin eating
Payal found a new way to build a relationship with food, its preparation, and eating [Courtesy of Payal Kapoor]

She unlearned all she could, finding a new way to build a relationship with food, its preparation, and eating. She formed a community, guiding other people restricted in the kitchen by their visual impairment. She had blogs and webinars and sent cooking advice through WhatsApp. By April 2020, she had started a podcast, answering everything from how to identify spices to what kind of equipment can be used safely. Grief lingered, but there was also kindness and community.

Dal is considered mourners’ food in some cultures. Salma Husain and Vijay Thukral, in their book Pull of Pulses: Full of Beans, say it is because lentils are round, wheel-shaped, like mourning which makes its way through everyone’s lives. Also, the lentil is smooth and silent, just like the mourners “who do not open their mouths in greeting”.

Making dal is an act of mourning for Nina. She grimaces at every stroke. “I wonder why, but I cannot stop myself from pleasing others by trying different ways each time.”

It almost sounds like a love poem to food. Because love is labour, love is misery, love is oppression. Food, in the hands of women, could mean chaos. It signifies change, remaking, refiguring, reshaping.

Khushboo is in the kitchen, preparing food, while her daughter sits at the other side of the counter talking to her
[Rashi Arora/Al Jazeera]
[Rashi Arora/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera