Indian immigrants and their food heritage

One can still speak of Indian food of the Indian immigrants as a tangible and an intangible heritage despite various admixtures and borrowings, for it is these borrowings which have enabled the food heritage to survive in a changing world

By Sada Reddi

The heritage bequeathed to us by Indian immigrants has an inborn resilience, partly because it embodies some eternal values that are not only practical but also relevant to the needs of the population in the 21st century. It is often forgotten that this heritage has provided large sections of the population with the strengths to build an autonomous life as individuals, to safeguard certain ways of life which they consider worthwhile but also as communities to withstand the onslaught of colonization and westernization. Any heritage comprises so many aspects of culture and encompasses both the tangible and the intangible — artefacts, values, norms, techniques, ways of life — which one generation has passed to the other and which have been adopted as well as adapted to meet various needs: physical, social and even psychological. Many aspects of Indian cultural heritage have been intensively discussed and commented upon; there is one aspect which still requires more attention from anthropologists and historians, the food heritage. It is this aspect that we shall briefly consider because although we know very little about it, we hope that it may motivate others to research and enlighten us more on this theme.

Food culture of immigrants

It may be surprising that food which is a basic need of any human being for survival has been under-researched in the history of Indian immigration. Right at the outset, it is perhaps appropriate to remind ourselves that an Indian food culture had been established in Isle de France in the eighteenth century by Indians who lived and settled here , from Pondicherry and Chandernagore. Many of the vegetables and spices from India were already available in the island as they had been introduced and acclimatized by the inhabitants or imported by traders. Describing the food of the free inhabitants which constituted not only people of mixed parentage but also Indians, Baron d’Unienville wrote in the 1830s that they prepared their stew in Indian style and added to their food turmeric, ginger and chillies. Their preferred dishes were curry, ‘rougailles’ and chutneys. For example, in my view the ‘bredes malbar’ owes its name to the fact that it was consumed by the Malabars in the eighteenth century. Even today you can see it grow in the wild in rural South India. In 1838 in the Camp de Malabar, after the Yamse, Blackhouse noted that in the evening people gathered to eat rice with a curry of cock fowls. Hossen Edun reminded us in his article on Yamse that offerings during the ceremony were mainly in the form of sweets such as ‘ladoo, pera and malida’ but some also offered a cock.

When Indian indentured labourers were introduced in the island, their contract provided for food and lodging and at one time each labourer was promised one pound 10 oz of rice, 3 pound12 oz of dholl, ghee, 10 oz of salt. Indians supplemented their food with vegetables that they grew or could buy at that time. Even this basic ration of rice entailed a change in diet for it was not what many people from Bihar were used to. Rice was consumed in the south and in Bengal but not as a staple food in Bihar. In Oscar Lewis’s survey on a village in Bihar in the 1950s, he finds find that wheat and millet are the major staple foods, and green vegetables and pulses are minor additions which were regarded as delicacies. Roti made of wheat or millet was eaten everyday with a vegetable curry, dal, and dahi curds. Chutney was made of crushed onion, salt and chilli. Other special foods were puri, halwa and kheer (rice pudding).

Many immigrants who did not eat rice as a staple food had to adopt new food habits. Because the same food was eaten day in day out in Bihar and in Mauritius, it was the festivals that provided the occasion to eat delicacies. These delicacies were prepared during religious festivals and some may be defined as religious food. Most immigrants were vegetarians but many also consumed animal food. Archaeological finds at Aapravasi Ghat show that immigrants consumed all kinds of animal food since they belonged to different religious faiths and social groups. Many items of food were prepared during religious ceremonies and were consumed as sacred foods. They could be of vegetarian or animal origin. In the past fire-walking ceremonies ended with the consumption of animal food since goats were usually offered as offerings to the goddess as is still done in Reunion Island. In many religious and family ceremonies both vegetarian and animal food were consumed; it is still the practice in religious ceremonies dedicated to Kali. Many of these religious practices have undergone many changes and animal food is consumed mostly in private family ceremonies.

Today the variety of Indian cakes and sweetmeats available in the island had been consumed from a very long time especially on important festive and religious occasions. They had been introduced not only by Indian indentured labourers but also by the Indian merchant classes. Some of the sweetmeats and cooking techniques have disappeared, and many others have been reintroduced as a result of frequent visits to India. In the past as of now, cooking techniques may vary from community to community but also within the same community along class lines. The type of spices or mixture and cooking techniques may give special flavor to certain dishes and this has given rise to ethnic cooking, food identities and different food heritage.

Adaptations to the food heritage

On the other hand the food heritage has had to adapt, improvise and borrow from other food cultures present in the island and even before Indian immigrants landed here. The Tamil ‘urugai’ which became ‘rougaille’ in common parlance may have changed in India with the incorporation of tomatoes which were introduced in Europe from America in the sixteenth century. Potatoes which today forms part of traditional Indian vegetable is an innovation since potatoes first crossed to Europe in the same period by Europeans. Did we get ‘songe’ from India or from Madagascar or from both?

Like other aspects of heritage, food heritage is dynamic and involves a continuous process, abandoning and adding all the time. Did Indian immigrants initially drink tea? Most likely they drank milk; South Indians are known to drink coffee but in Mauritius Indians in the past drank coffee on special occasions. Take another example – ‘Dholl Puri’ which is one of the popular fast foods; it was once thought to be a Mauritian creation. Later we are told that it also exists in Trinidad and Guyana. Lately an Indian visitor to Mauritius recounts that the ‘Dholl Puri’ he ate in Mauritius reminded him of the ones he ate when he was very young in his home in Bihar and is no longer prepared nowadays.

Food consumption among Indians and in any other culture is linked with a number of factors — context, attitudes, beliefs and etiquette. Indians have always had a conception of cold and hot food. Some food is consumed according to the season and also for specific diseases. In winter, cold foods are avoided and on other occasions some hot foods must not be consumed. There is a list of hot and cold foods that was known to the immigrants but may now be known only by a privileged few. Spices and karela are considered hot, and some fruits are considered cold and must be avoided during certain ailments. On some occasions hot milk and hot spices are recommended and on other occasions cold milk is prohibited.

One cannot discuss food among Indians without some mention of fasting. Fasting or prohibition of certain foods during certain periods or festivals is linked with both religious and healing practices. Indians have their own conception of diseases derived from traditional medicine. There were also taboos about food, how they were cooked and by whom and how they were served. There is also a different etiquette for preparing serving and eating food.

In his book, Raj Boodhoo mentions about immigrants resenting hospital food, for according Dr Vitry, ‘the sick Indian refused to receive the diet prescribed, impure in his own religious point of view, a diet cooked away from his consecrated fireside’. Even today while many will follow allopathic medicine, traditional medicine continues to occupy an important part in treating diseases. With declining faith in allopathic medicine, more and more people are turning to alternative medicine in which food and dieting are important components.

Over the years food habits have changed for the better and even for the worse. Our daily dishes are enriched by other kinds of food. Drinking alcohol has become an established bad habit. Fast food for lunch and sometimes for dinner is quickly replacing home food. Many prejudices associated with certain kinds of food and they way they were served in the home or in the community have yielded to more egalitarian ways.

In the olden times, when preparing food there was always provision for an unexpected visitor or two and it was an offence to serve food cooked outside the home to family visitors, but with changing times new habits have emerged and have become more tolerable and acceptable as a norm. Nevertheless traditional foods have persisted up to the present day enriched by new experiences inside but also outside Mauritius. One can still speak of Indian food of the Indian immigrants as a tangible and an intangible heritage despite various admixtures and borrowings, for it is these borrowings which have enabled the food heritage to survive in a changing world.

As we celebrate Indian heritage in Mauritius, one may give some thought to that heritage and more importantly, one hopes that that this brief incursion in our food traditions may whet the appetitive of young researchers and people in general to look into and reflect on our food habits at home, in the community and in the country to appreciate and understand better the making of our food culture.


* Published in print edition on 1 November 2018

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