Thursday, October 23, 2008

Well I thought I'd better update before I get chastised again. Since I've been too busy to be creative, I'm taking the easy way out and putting a paper that I gave at a seminar recently. It might be fairly yawn-inducing, so feel free to skip it...just leave your paw-prints to let me know you've been here :)

PS:I can't figure out how to edit and re-arrange the photos anymore, because there are all these weird characters and little signs and squiggles in the edit page, where the photos should be.

PPS: The first photo is published just to let you know I have friends in high places!


The choice of food is a process in which nutrition produced by nature is transformed into food, a product of culture. People do not accept all possible substances as edible, but make choices. Culture defines how possible nutrition is coded into acceptable food (Levi Strauss, 1966). Ecological, biological, and economic conditions affect our choice of food, but it is the cultural understanding and categorization that structures food as edible or inedible. According to Levis Strauss, no culture is without language and cooking skills. Nourishment that is not categorized by language and culture as edible (i.e. food) is not acceptable.

Food items themselves can be used to mark an individual’s status as well as the boundaries of an ethnic or class group. Mizo society being casteless, the question of discriminating food practices on grounds of caste does not arise; however, economic status determines the diet of a family or an individual even within the same cultural context, as in any other society.

In his 1964 work, The Raw and the Cooked Lévi-Strauss explored nature/culture relations on the culinary level – namely, the way in which myth describes and explains the evolution of cooking techniques and rules, and the transformation of cooking into a cultural process – through the study of myth. The act of cooking is perceived by Lévi-Strauss as a type of anomalous category since food constantly crosses the boundaries of the categories nature and culture. Thus the cook is a type of cultural agent who links the raw product with the human consumer. His role is to ensure that the natural becomes cooked and undergoes a process of socialization.

In the classification of foods by Levi Strauss, he stresses that humans universally distinguish food in terms of “the raw and the cooked.” Cooking represents the human ability to transform nature. In his “culinary triangle” one point in the triangle – the raw – is contrasted with two other points – the cooked and the rotted. Cooking signifies a transformation through culture, but rotting is transformation by nature.

Forces of globalization have introduced variants to local cuisine, as well as hitherto-unknown menus to the Mizo table. Mainstream Indian cooking, replete with a variety of masalas or spices, is increasingly gaining popularity in the kitchen. Dishes of foreign origin, like hamburgers, sandwiches, noodles and momos (dumplings) are part of the everyday fare of the Mizo.

To understand the full impact of the differences brought about in cooking systems of the Mizos, one has to look into the food practices of the people before their exposure to different social and cultural elements. Traditional Mizo fare is cooked in a simple manner, typically boiled, stewed, smoked, steamed, or fermented. The only cooking oil available was when a pig was slaughtered and its fat preserved in the form of lard, which was then re-heated for frying purposes. Most families could not afford to kill more than one pig in a year, and with neither the means of preserving the meat nor the lard in modern freezers, families had very few occasions in which to eat fried or fatty foods. Preservation of meat as well as certain vegetables was done through the method of smoking. Although most households kept a few chickens and a few kept a cow or two, yet, meat was a rare treat reserved for special occasions such as festivals and weddings. Thus, most families made do for the most part with simple fare that largely consisted of a variety of green, leafy vegetables, prepared in the traditional method of bai or simply boiling it (tlak) without even the addition of salt. Even meat, including fish, for that matter, was usually served boiled. One simply heated water in a pan and added the food items, and left it to cook over the open hearth in the kitchen. Feasts and rituals necessarily played an important part in the cultural set-up, because of the role they played in establishing relationships between members of the community, manifested in events of food sharing and exchange.

With the forces of globalization becoming ever potent and more difficult to ignore, Mizos have adapted to and adopted practices in food preparation that were hitherto alien to them. Food is now spicier and richer; the increased intermingling with people from mainland India has resulted in openness to experimentation with other forms of food preparation. Furthermore, with the introduction of cuisine from the West as well as other Asian countries, food practices have been rapidly diversifying over the last few decades.

Another important impact of globalization is the mushrooming of eateries such as fast-food restaurants and hotels, which cater to an even more diverse palate, although international fast-food chains such as McDonald’s and KFC are yet to establish themselves in Mizoram. An offshoot of this relatively new phenomenon is the increase in the number of health problems related to bad eating habits, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart problems, obesity, and so on.

Food and ethnic identity: According to social theorists, identity is crucial to every human being as it gives sense to existence, formulates the relationship between oneself and the Other, and creates values and norms. Identity affects the way people perceive and construct their society, and it determines how they act, think, socialize, eat and work—in other words, it influences each aspect of their everyday lives. People do all this with reference to economic, social, cultural and political conditions, events and expectations, and by doing so, they influence the economic, the social, the cultural and the political (Scholliers, 5). Nowadays, the idea of homogenous identity is untenable—identities are multiple and they are a combination of various facets. The question is how food is related to identities and processes of identification.

Food and its link to identity has been one of the most fruitful topics of food studies to date. The significance of food for human life rests in its simultaneous contribution to the biological and the social, and it is also the act of incorporation that gives food its unique status. In view of semiotics, food functions as communication. It transmits messages about identities and social relationships, and it develops and transforms over time due to social shifts. It can also facilitate transcultural communication through food sharing across cultural boundaries, and through altering and re-creating food habits according to contexts. (Hinnerova, 36)

Food is a cultural practice through which people participate in attitudes and rituals of a group and these participations can be socially controlled as well as more automatic (Scholliers, 7). The link between food and identity is supported by the assertion that “the sentiments of belonging via food do not include only the act of classification and consumption, but also the preparation, the organization, the taboos, location, symbols, form” Identity is constructed and affected by a multitude of significations surrounding food practices.

According to Katarina Hinnerova, “Food is a way of communication—it conveys messages about social relations and social identities through which people construct and maintain social reality.” (Hinnerova, 35 – 36)

An entire food group referred to as Mizo Chawhmeh (Mizo food) exists. As stated earlier, cultural understanding and categorization classifies edible food into acceptable and unacceptable. Although Mizos eat a wide variety of food which is also consumed by people of all nations and cultures, they like to identify themselves through particular items that are most commonly used in the preparation of typical Mizo dishes. The constituents of what is largely grouped under Mizo Chawhmeh comprises of certain leafy vegetables, fresh, as well as preserved through smoking, such as mustard leaves (antam), pumpkin leaves (maian), the leaves of beans (behlawi), varieties of bamboo shoot (mautuai, rawtuai), fermented soya beans (bekang), fermented lard (sa-um), smoked beef and pork, fermented or smoked fish, and so on. Apart from the obvious pleasure derived by the taste buds from eating these items, they serve to bind people together by shared culinary preferences. To Mizos living outside Mizoram, Mizo Chawhmeh has a definite symbolic meaning whereby they can identify themselves as Mizos.

Continuity in the Midst of Change:
Not every aspect of Mizo food culture has changed; some changes are often very subtle and involve a change in the method rather than in the entire system. Mizo Chawhmeh, for instance, remains the preferred food, although methods of cooking may have varied over time. Feasts are still held on special occasions that involve the community, such as weddings, religious festivals such as Christmas and other important Church functions. People no longer squat on the floor and share food served on plantain leaves, but the spirit of communal merry-making is retained on such occasions. In earlier times, community feasts denoted special treats because of the fare which included meat and other delicacies, a menu the ordinary family could ill afford on a regular basis. In contemporary times, that, of course, is no longer the case. Most families can eat better food in the comfort of their own homes as opposed to the meals served in the feasts, and yet, people still make it a point to attend the communal feast if only to fulfill social obligations.

Another important aspect of the feasts is that while gender roles are clearly demarcated in the patriarchal Mizo society, with the woman in charge of the family kitchen, what is remarkable is that it is the men who have always been assigned the role of cooking for a community feast, a practice that is used to this day. This seems to imply an equality in status in an otherwise largely stereotyped and patriarchal society.

Other practices and beliefs related to food also persist. The egg, once a treasured food item reserved for the young, the elderly and the sick, retains its special status despite its easy availability. The Mizo custom of not partaking of the food until your elders have taken their first bites while dining together, is still considered an act of courtesy; so also the habit of politely refusing second helpings, and equally polite but firm insistence on the part of the host to the guest to take another helping.

Changes under Globalization: A pertinent question that may arise is whether globalization has hit Mizoram yet with full force, or whether the state is still relatively sheltered from such forces. Notwithstanding exposure to and adaptation of world trends especially via the media, Mizoram is yet to be deluged by “the process of developing, manufacturing, and marketing software products that are intended for worldwide distribution. ..” by which globalization is often defined. Be that as it may, there is no denying that change has occurred in the culinary practices of Mizos, with a whole generation of people who have grown up drinking coca colas and eating hamburgers, who can no longer envision a wedding celebration without a wedding cake, and who serve baked, roasted, sautéed, and grilled dishes along with dishes prepared in the traditional manner. On the other hand, Mizo food is also gaining recognition in small ways through this interaction. Dilli Haat in New Delhi, for instance, has a Mizo food stall where people have the opportunity to taste Mizo food. Similarly food festivals organized in different parts of the world have showcased Mizo cuisine. Hoinu Hauzel, a noted journalist, has published The Essential North-East Cookbook (2003) under Penguin Books.

Another phenomenon that is gaining increasing popularity is the packaged food. With changes in lifestyle, people have less time to spend in the kitchen; this, along with a more stable economy, have ushered in an era where pre-cooked meals and fast food offerings, mostly imported, but also produced by the domestic food industry, are becoming more and more the norm. A pre-cooked noodle snack called waiwai, for instance, is a favorite meal despite its high content of MSG and its doubtful nutritional value. Maggie Noodles are a variant of this. Other types of packaged food are processed meats like salami, ham, sausages, kebabs and the like. In the US, studies of food consumption in societies moving from agricultural subsistence economies to those dependent on markets and industrially processed food frequently find an association between prestige and the consumption of newly available, highly processed foods. This phenomenon is common in the transformation of Third World societies.

The very custom of eating out in restaurants, although not an entirely new concept, is becoming more and more a viable alternative to hours of slaving in the kitchen, at the same time that it fulfills a social role by offering opportunities to establish and re-establish social relationships. This is evidenced by the rapid mushrooming of eateries in the capital city alone.

Ironically major world cities have restored the highest prestige rank to home-made items. As a developing state in a developing country, such novel offerings to the palate are still welcomed and often act as a gauge to measure one’s social and economic status. Evidence of this is seen by the fact that most of the customers who frequent shops selling such packaged food items come from the upwardly mobile and economically stable social classes. Black tea, once drunk by the poor because of the high price of milk, is now ironically referred to as “the rich man’s drink”, because most food-related health problems which require a strict diet are suffered by the rich.

Remarks: Levi Strauss’ classification of food whereby he denotes the raw as less cultured and the cooked as more culturally advanced is relevant to a certain degree as far as Mizo food culture is concerned. From simple tastes, the Mizo palate has become increasingly sophisticated due to the easy availability of recipes and ingredients from Indian, Chinese, Thai, Burmese and even Continental kitchens. Certain traditional foods which may be classified as ‘rotted’, such as bekang (fermented soya beans), although still an integral part of local cuisine, are slowly losing popularity especially among the younger generation. However, if being cultured also implies a more advanced knowledge of nutrition, then this entire concept of sophisticated cooking methods and their equation to a more developed state needs to be questioned. My submission is that traditional ways of cooking, such as boiling, steaming, and eating raw vegetables are better for health, and that, ultimately translates into a more developed culture.

Finally if, besides other factors, identity is constructed and affected by a multitude of significations surrounding food practices, then the identity of the Mizo that emerges is an amalgamation of traditional as well as newly-acquired influences garnered from all corners of the world. Since identity itself is not static, it emerges as ever-changing and evolving under the impact of globalization.

Select Bibliography:
1. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mythologiques, vol 1. The Raw and the Cooked, tr. John
and Doreen Weightman (London: J. Cape, 1969)

2. Katarina Hinnerova. Food as a Transcultural Metaphor Food Imagery and Ethnocultural Identities in Contemporary Multicultural Women Writing in Canada. (Unpublished dissertation) Masaryk University of BRNO, 2007.

3. Peter Scholliers. “Meals, Food Narratives, and Sentiments of Belonging in Past and Present.” Food,Drink and Identity: Cooking, Eating and Drinking in Europe Since the Middle Ages. Ed. Scholliers, Peter. Oxford: Berg, 2001, 3-23.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

In the Hospital

As I write this, my aunt, my dad's younger sister, a widow with no children, lies in the hospital, in a coma, after a stroke that she suffered a few days back. It is terrible, this waiting, watching, this horrible awareness of our powerlessness. Her vulnerable self lies exposed for all to see. Shorne of her dignity, she lies with the essential, but ugly tube that gives her oxygen. She breathes in. She breathes out. And we watch through the long hours, with bated breath ourselves. Sometimes she half-opens her eyes, and I could swear she recognizes the worried faces of family members keeping vigil by her bedside. And then again, you can never tell.

I remember lines from a poem I wrote a few years ago:

In the Casualty ward,

Only the workers are casual.

Patients of every age and background lie in varying degrees of pain. They groan, cough, moan, snore, sleep. The younger ones cry sometimes. We almost envy them these involuntary sounds they make. At the bedside by which we sit, there is only silence.

I leave you with a poem that has been haunting me ever since this nightmare started.

Because I could not stop for Death - Emily Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity –

Saturday, October 4, 2008

One Morning on My Way to Work...

Now you know why I'm so bushed at the end of the day!