"Human or not, everyone has their own habits and tastes": Food, identity and difference in travel writing from Muslim South Asia

That India was experiencing a rise in vigilante-style violence linked to the emotive issues of cow slaughter and meat consumption came to widespread public attention in 2015.  A wave of ‘beef lynchings’ drew attention to the spread of a ‘food fascism’ directed at Muslims and Dalits. What one ate – beef or not – was being constructed as a fundamental marker of difference between religious communities, and caste groups too. In the communal discourse, the protagonists were undifferentiated and immutable: Hindus and Muslims have always been divided, and perhaps inevitably in conflict, because one worships the cow, while the other eats it. 

As a challenge to this politicised narrative, my paper will explore how food has been employed as a marker of identity and difference among South Asian Muslims in the modern period. To access more quotidian experience, the main sources are travel narratives, many of which were written by women, being that they were more occupied with the preparation and serving of food. 

What these writings reveal is the ways in which food was used at different historical moments and locations to differentiate, not just between Hindus and Muslims, but also between coloniser and colonised, men and women, old nobilities, a new middle class and ‘the poor’, and Muslims of different regions and locales. As one woman from Delhi indicated during a debate over ghee aboard a pilgrim ship to Jeddah in the early 1920s: "Human or not, everyone has their own habits and tastes". In other words, food may be a universal human experience, but it is also a means of differentiating self and other that is contingent on history.

a stack of old maps

Presenter: Professor Siobhan Lambert-Hurley

Wednesday, 23 February 2022 at 5pm


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