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Diversity of Food in a Multicultural Society

Updated on November 24, 2020


Food is the critical and the essential fact of living. Oxford English dictionary defines food as any substance that people or animals eat to stay alive. But food has various other function than just retaining its biological significance. Food bears social connotations and it is never neutral or rational composition of nutrients. Though, lately, natural sciences have stressed the nutritional and biological importance of food but food associates itself with culture, economics and politics of the region where it travels. Food acts as the marker of cultural, communal and regional identities. Discourses and narratives surrounding food are also common in many expatriate communities.

India is a land of diversity which is most visible through the varied food habits of its inhabitants. The multi-cuisine nature of the country has never paved the way to construct a national cuisine and thus, food within the territories of India has always been known by different names like Gujarati cuisine, Punjabi cuisine, Bengali cuisine, Kashmiri cuisine, Tamil cuisine, Marathi cuisine, Telugu cuisine etc. Indian food has travelled abroad with the transnational migration Indian communities which began during the colonial era as indentured laborers to different plantation areas across the colonies and later as highly skilled professionals or knowledge workers mostly to the developed nations. When Indian food traveled abroad it acquired a national identity, though it retained its regional exoticism, it appeared under the category of Indian cuisine. With the passage of time, Indian food embedded itself in the culture of the region where it traveled and thus initiated the evolution of a hybrid culture or multicultural society.

Changing Contexts of Food

Food changes meaning with the shift in political and social context. In ancient Hindu India, food was embedded in medico-moral economies and eating was not associated with sensory pleasure. With the advent of Mughals, food became a product of consumption and display and the administrative book of Mughals “Ain-i-Akbari” dedicated a separate section for recipes which had different prescriptions for the court food and peasant food. Thus food became an integral part of the politics of administration. Transnational migration of communities assigned a discursive identity to food. Emigrants initiated discourses about food and associated it with either living in India or living outside. Food became a metaphor to fill the void or to gratify the sense of lack created by staying away from home. Food also changed its meaning to the marker of communities and signified the religious, moral as well as ethnic identities. Lately, scholastic disciplines involving studies about food have emerged and food has also become an item of exhibition where it also performs a communicative function.

Interaction between Food and Indian Diaspora

Indian trans-migrants use discourse on diet as a way to maintain connections with the homeland. These communities actively engage in shifting meanings of what they eat to emphasize their connections with each other and with India through their narratives involving food. They associate vegetarian diet with living in India. The use of “authentic” Indian ingredients become symbol of Indian identity through discourse. The life in the foreign-land needs continuous adjustment including adjustment in the gastronomic habits. This creates an imagined aura surrounding the authentic home food that is only accessible in the homeland. The gastronomic adjustments lead to innovations resulting through hybridization. For example, Daal Puri, which grew out of limited culinary combinations possible on a staple diet based on weekly rations given to the indentured labourers, has become an essential item on social occasions irrespective of ethnicity in Trinidad and is sold as a fast food in shops naming it as ‘Bus(t) Up Shut’. The meal among the old Diaspora, which continues even today among the communities of Indian origin in the Caribbean, Fiji, Mauritius, Suriname, evolved out of the weekly ration resulting in a uniform indenture cuisine throughout the colonies.

Discourse about food also paves the way to distinguish between the discourse and practice i.e. between the being and the imaginary. Thus food is associated with the creation of fantasy about the homeland as described by Zizek. The trauma of separation is reflected through the discourses about gastronomic adjustments. It creates an imagined reality about the home and differentiates it from the lived reality outside. Eating Indian food at home especially on weekends become an essential part of the lifestyle. Such trauma gets expressed through various representations, for example, Mira Nair’s ‘The Namesake’ contains many sequences that shows the central characters eating Bengali cuisines at home. Discourses about food lead to production of textualized culinary repertoires through cookbooks written by middle class expatriate women. Indian food is always embedded in rituals. Every religious ritual or social occasions like marriages are marked by extravagant feasts reinforcing the Indian identity in the host land. People converse about food in social gatherings and these conversations provide the space to share the nostalgia about home. Food stands for the home. It serves as a connecting link and an escape which consoles the expatriation. Diasporas fantasize about food and people with enough resources, sometimes try to merge the fantasy with the lived reality by maintaining dietary exclusiveness. Food among diasporas indicates the negotiation of identities thus the host land and the motherland enter into a relationship of mutual reinforcement through diasporas. Indian Diaspora constantly tries to replicate or reconstruct the memories of the homeland through various cultural or religious practices where food plays an important role. Durga Puja is an important festivals for the natives of West Bengal in India. The Bengali communities abroad celebrate the ritual with equal vigour and distribution of ‘Malsa Bhog’ in the pandals marks the cultural authenticity of the celebration.

Indian food also generates good business, particularly in developed host lands. The rise of Chicken tikka masala as ‘Nation’s favourite dish’ in Britain testifies the popularity of Indian cuisines. There are streets flooded with Indian restaurants that claim to serve ‘authentic’ Indian cuisines which are not exclusively meant for Indians and they usually attract the host population. Thus the Indian Diaspora contaminates the cultural spaces in the host land and food initiates the formation of a multi-cultural society, if not in its true sense, at least through eating practices. Walter Benjamin says in the essay ‘Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, the aura associated with art is lost when it is reproduced mechanically and its originality faces doubts. Similarly, the aura surrounding ethnic Indian food, as imagined by the diasporas, is lost when it is reproduced in the foreign land. The question of authenticity and originality thus gets associated with Indian food abroad which every Indian restaurant boasts of. Food in the homeland is ought to be original and the need to prove its authenticity becomes irrelevant. Art bears meaning according to the context and so is food. Globalisation and flexibility in the export and import policies has lead to the shipping of a lot of Indian finished food products to various countries where Indian diasporas have settled. Indian bhujia, pickles, chutneys, bhelpuri, etc. are exported for the consumption of the diasporas. The economic interest surrounding food has also resulted in the organisation of various food festivals. Historically, the Indian food business traces its roots to the sweet shop which was started in the lanes of UK. It was mainly the women who owned and worked in these sweet shops as an extension of the domestic kitchen.

Food, in the diasporic context, has a communicative function. It communicates the identity of the community to ‘other’. The cosmopolitan and global Indian Diaspora which celebrates differences communicates its exoticness to the more ‘subtle’ West through food along with various other markers. Eating as a performance connects several communities which otherwise differ in ideologies or in linguistic variables. It plays an important role in cultural imagination. Food gives a way of not only ordering a week or a day but of living inside history, measuring everything that is remembered against a chronology of cooks. Culinary nostalgia of Indian Diaspora is expressed through several representations. Many literary works by diasporic writers as well as visual representations through films reflect the emotion associated with food. Migrants preserve their ties to a homeland through their preservation of and participation in traditional customs and rituals of consumption, they are adamant, entirely passionate about such matters as the eating habits of the motherland. In Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, ‘The Interpretation of Maladies’, she mentions about Jhalmuri, a popular street food in Kolkata. Also, in her second novel, ‘The Namesake’, she begins the narrative with Ashima, craving for a snack sold for pennies in the streets of Kolkata. The movies of Gurinder Chhada also portrays elaborate dining scenes in Punjabi families subconsciously depicting her culinary nostalgia through representation. Interestingly, most of the popular cookbooks on Indian cuisines are written by expatriate Indian women. These books stress on the construction of a national cuisine as diasporas become more Indian than the natives in the motherland.


Any Diaspora, settled away from the homeland tries to connect itself to the motherland through various modes and practices. It recreates the memories of home and constructs a myth around it. Food plays an important role in constructing the cultural imaginary. Food shapes and re-shapes the identity of diasporas and distinguishes between the imagined reality and the lived reality. Indian Diaspora also lives through discourses about gastronomic realms and uses it to fulfil the sense of lack created by expatriation. They generate narratives about food which are passed on to the successive generations as anecdotes. Food signifies a metonymic homeland. The flexibility of culinary realms and also the political economy surrounding it creates a hybrid culture which is also triggered by business. Representations of diasporic communities through television soap operas and diasporic films adds to the popularity of Indian cuisine generating billions of dollars as annual turnovers from the restaurant business. Food occupies an emotional corner in the minds of Indian Diaspora and thus food becomes a philosophical base in the lives of the diasporas.


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