Stay informed: Sign up for eNews Subscribe

Curried Cultures Globalization, Food, and South Asia

Excerpt from Chapter 1



Krishnendu Ray and Tulasi Srinivas

South Asia is a new hub of intersecting global networks nourished by proliferating material and symbolic transactions propelling bodies, things, and conceptions across national boundaries. In this book, traversing national boundaries is the contingent operational definition of globalization. That implies at least two things: globalization becomes more visible after national boundaries crystallize; and we witness a new kind of self-consciousness about the connections between various locales and between the local and the supralocal in this phase of globalization. Furthermore, the affiliation of food to the body makes comestibles intensely local, in spite of their long history of distant circulation. Thus food is a particularly productive site to interrogate a new iteration of something old, because it links not only the global to the local, but the mind to the body and beyond. By weaving densely local stories, this book draws attention to processes of globalization as they play out at particular places and on specific peoples' conceptions of themselves and their world.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century, new nodes in the global traffic in capital and culture joined previous flows of the capitalist world-economy from the edges of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Works such as The Globalization of Chinese Food (Wu Cheung 2004), Asian Food: The Global and the Local (Cwiertka Walraven 2001), The Globalization of Food (Inglis Gimlin 2009) and Globalization, Food and Social Identities in the Asia Pacific Region (Farrer 2010) bear witness to those transformations. Until now there has been no comparable work centering on the South Asian wellspring of unconventional flows of bodies, edible commodities, and cultural conceptions. Although South Asian cookery is transforming the everyday world of urbanites everywhere, there has been little attention given to this process. Curried Cultures closes that gap in our knowledge about South Asia, its connections to the larger world, and to the cultural environment that urban middle classes almost everywhere face with increasing potency. It draws attention to timeless processes of creolization and conservation, flow and counter-flow, and transvaluation of the old and production of the new in the food cultures of globalizing middle classes. The title, Curried Cultures, is ironic, self-consciously playing on a stereotype, and earnest enough to appropriate the curry as a sign for the people it talks about. These are people who are born of the transaction between India and elsewhere, no different from the genealogies of Chicken Tikka Masala or Curry Raisu, not wholly belonging to the subcontinent and yet oddly defined by it.

Partly what is new about the current conjuncture that is marked by the term globalization is that numerous spatially distributed urban middle classes have been dramatically pulled into transnational transactions in taste, and they have left a legible imprint of their experience, often in multilingual mediums. Paying attention to this practical-linguistic ecumene is important here so as to redress excessive attention to nation, religion, and commodity in the literatures on the global-cultural link. In addition, numerous chapters in this volume are written by scholars who are themselves of the middle class and who often write about people who belong to that class to whom English is available, at least as one in a bilingual or multilingual world. The anglophone middle class comes with a location in a social hierarchy with a shared feeling of middleness, either precariously or assuredly so. Some of the brash assertion of middleness of this class is a product of the novelty of their location in an emerging economic and cultural powerhouse such as India (Dickey 2010, 2000; Fernandes 2006; Deshpande 2003; Fernandes Heller 2006; Dwyer 2000; Derné 2008; Harriss 2006; and Fuller Narasimhan 2007).

This book is neither about globalization from above, nor is it about globalization from below. Instead it is mostly about globalization from the middle, with its derivative and deviant relationship to neoliberal globalization (that Bhabha characterizes as "performative, deformative" translation-1994: 241), and the imaginative reconstitution of the global elsewhere. This book is about that middle class precisely because it is a class that has emerged as a major player in the conceptualization of globalization and counterpositions to globalization. Much has been written about globalization from above, but very little from elsewhere. A subaltern history of globalization that Akhil Gupta challenges us to conceive in the next chapter is yet to be born. We see the field of cultural globalization as constituted both by questions of the perimeter, marked by the nation-state, and of hierarchy, in terms of class and profession.

Curried Cultures joins an array of work that interrogates culinary cultures (separate from agricultural food production) to address issues of globalization, nation-making, nation-breaking, and beyond. In particular, we develop what is suggested in Warren Belasco and Philip Scranton's Food Nations (2002) and James L. Watson and Melissa L. Caldwell's The Cultural Politics of Food and Eating (2005) about the relationship between place, power, and comestibles. These issues have been developed further in studies such as Jeffrey Pilcher's Que vivan los tamales! (1998) on Mexico and Richard Wilk's Home Cooking in the Global Village (2006b) about Belize. We draw on their work to argue that in some ways globalization makes national boundaries porous as people, goods, and signs move from one part of the world to another with greater velocity and ubiquity. New links are forged between the social structure and commodities, between global markets and local governments, and between diverse peoples and conceptions. In the process, categories of the local and the global, which previously appeared to be distinct, now become increasingly interwoven and reproduce each other.

In other ways, globalization solidifies boundaries of the world and the mind, often by naming, codifying, and standardizing everyday practices that middle-class men in previous epochs rarely paid attention to. We explore these changing ratios of legibility of everyday practices by interrogating culinary cultures in South Asia and by South Asians elsewhere. In the process, we examine dynamic formulations of identity and its maintenance in various uprooted "worlds"-a world of people who feel the pull of other worlds in the double oralities of taste and talk.

To elaborate a little further on the theme of the local and the global reproducing each other, we find that the jostling of class, profession, and nation within the interstate system and the global cultural ecumene, produces a variety of localisms and cosmopolitanisms. In Equatorial Guinea, for instance, "the national elite are assembling the favourite foods of different ethnic groups and repackaging them as part of the Equatoguinean national cuisine" (Cusack 2000: 218). In this case the national impetus seems to come as much from the old metropolitan center, Spain, as from local elites. Specific bureaucracies, such as the Spanish "Aid Agency and the Ministry of Health and Consumer Affairs, and Spanish religious orders" are "implicated in the building of a national cuisine" (2000: 219).

In the Belizean story, local and authentic foodways, which emerge from current conditions of globalization, are crafted for tourists looking for diversity and difference (Wilk 2006b). This manufacturing of locality is the global phenomenon, argues Wilk, sometimes done in a densely lived, unselfconscious way and sometimes done as pure Disneyfied performance. "It took more globalization to bring local food out of the kitchen" and assert its presence in the public domain of Belizean national identity (Wilk 2006b: 166). We do not get "'Belizean cuisine' until migrants who had lived for years in the USA began to return home in the 1980s," demanding authenticity and backing it up with capital (Wilk 2006b: 172-173). The first "Belizean restaurant" in Belize City was opened by an expatriate family from Los Angeles in 1989.

What unites the Equatoguinean and Belizean experience, and is rarely commented on, is that these tenuous national cuisines are sometimes a product of the interstate system with its own hierarchy of values espoused by development bureaucrats and tourism bureaus. Meaning, Belize and Equatorial Guinea are said to have a cuisine because it is now expected that nations have cuisines, as much as flags, anthems, and airlines. Or in Sidney Mintz's words, "is having a cuisine important-is it because other people have one?" (2002: 24).

Longer networks, faster flows, and intensifying relationships between here and there, both real and imagined, demand reformulations of locality, identity, and notions of the self. The provisioning, preparation, and consumption of food among South Asian middle classes affects various aspects of identity such as ethnic affiliation, linguistic facility, gender constructs, notions of hierarchy, national identity, and so on. Food can be used variously as a signifier of cosmopolitanism, localism, traditionalism, or nationalism, in implicit or explicit negotiations with global hierarchies of value (Herzfeld 2004). What happens to these constructs of identity when they are subject to both the collapsing and expanding patterns of recent global flows? That is the larger question that this book seeks to examine. More specifically, some of the allied questions that emerge are: How are classifications of the self and the other impacted for those drawn into the vortex of the translocal? What notions of historicity, locality, or authenticity rest in food in a world of expanding ambit and frequency of transactions between distant places? How do places such as homes, restaurants, and cafés-places designed to contain bodies in specifically demarcated activities, such as eating and sleeping-relate to and how are they imagined to relate to other places? How are bodies and places made and remade to fit each other in authorized and unauthorized activities? What kinds of relationships ensue from the real and imagined places and peoples?

Current understandings of cultural globalization and transnationalism often rely upon a particular kind of spatial understanding, where the world is divided into nation states and culture is linked to territory. Even the amorphous notion of civilization in Samuel Huntington's famous essay (then book) (1993, 1996) falls within bounded regions, which are more or less closed. Goods and ideologies move across this space aided by hastening technologies of transportation and communication. But compared to commodities and conceptions, peoples' mobility across national boundaries is much more frictional. When people do move, globalization leads to a paradoxically persistent questioning of identity among migrants and natives alike. Thus, migrating food practices bridge and buffet bodily conceptions of the self and the other, insinuating themselves into conceptions of home and abroad, this place and that other one, private and public.

Identity is no longer "taken for granted" (Berger 1997), especially for urban middle classes drawn into the vortex of recent global flows; rather, it becomes an all-absorbing project that is often enacted through consumption. In Arjun Appadurai's cogent conception: "As group pasts become increasingly parts of museums, exhibits, and collections, both in national and transnational spectacles, culture becomes less what Pierre Bourdieu would have called a habitus (a tacit realm of reproducible practices and dispositions) and more an arena for conscious choice, justification, and representation, the latter often to multiple and spatially dislocated audiences" (1996, 44). Recent ethnographic work that describes cultural consumption among the Indian middle classes (Osella Osella 2000; Fernandes 2006; Varma 1998) links it repeatedly to the shaping of a nation, imagined or otherwise. But how this consumption, especially of comestibles, actually plays out in the everyday lives of South Asians in their quotidian particularity, whether among the urban Indian middle classes or among their diasporic compatriots, and what it means to them and to others, is rarely explored. We hope to fill that lacuna.

Furthermore, globalization has been seen by many theorists as the dominance of the culture of Euro-America (Barber 1996; Berger 1997; Friedman 2000, 2005). That is a plausible claim about a number of subjects discussed in this book, such as the idea of a restaurant and the related standard of judgment through the frame of professional French haute cuisine. Furthermore, elite restaurants in Indian cities (see chapter 7) or the traffic in chefs between princely states (see chapter 3) can be treated as derivative forms of a metropolitan standard. Yet we think such instances could be more productively engaged with as vernacular forms of modernity, derived at some point and in many of its elements from the Euro-American West, but exceeding it, much like Anglophone Indian literature today. In other words, the superposed cultural-linguistic matrix can be appropriated as the "cosmopolitan vernacular" (Pollock 2006) that implies certain affiliations and summons membership of certain locals in translocal networks. That, of course, keeps the possibility open that the cosmopolitan vernacular may be challenged by more regional idioms with a far more proximate lexical radius. That is a potentially interesting scenario, which nevertheless is not our story here. Instead, how some South Asians today practice being cosmopolitan in the realm of foodways, and how others challenge such scripts are some of the issues we are after.

We argue that food-the provisioning, preparation, presentation and consumption of it- can help us in interesting ways to unearth subtle changes in the social and cultural worlds that connect the local to the global: remind us of older and perhaps more robust networks of globalization (chapter 2 in this volume); suggest movement along the spokes of a wheel radiating outwards from a metropolitan center (chapter 7); as backwash along these lines of conveyance (chapters 8, 9, 10); or as rhizomic patterns (chapters 5 and 11). Of course, it is also true that globalization in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries may at times be an appropriate synonym for Americanization. Yet, we find that patterns of dispersal and connection are plentiful, especially among transmigrating middle classes. Curried Cultures argues that another place, another's food, is not merely the "global's presumptive victim, its cultural nemesis, or its coerced subordinate," but an increasingly assertive player in transactions of taste (Kraidy Murphy 2008: 339). We will show how in the pages below.

"Curried" cultures also allows us to distinguish this work as culinary, hence closer to everyday sensory experience than "food" or "nutrient" would have allowed us. That indicates a certain practical proximity to dishes and diets that is often missing in discussions where food is only considered a lens to investigate other things. Of course, we do look at food to comment on other matters, but the practice of cooking matters to us because we consider it an important way of knowing the world and acting on it. We do not think it necessary to narrow our sensory horizons to sharpen our intellectual vision, contrary to what dominant Western epistemologies have assumed since the eighteenth century. To us, first principles are no more important than mouth-watering aromas and we want to convey some of that sensory exuberance even within the confines of visual marks on paper. Food is not only a lens, but something we pay particular attention to-its material and symbolic constitution. In that, we have learned from Francesca Bray's complaint that materialists have shown little interest in the material (1997: 39).

Food allows us theoretical possibilities more fecund than almost any other material object precisely because of its ability to be at one moment inside and at another outside the body, to be a-routine-and-a-ritual, and for its ubiquity-and-specialty (Bennett 2010). Food, when aligned with body and place, allow us to imagine both rootedness and routes of dispersal. This is a feature that R.S. Khare and M.S.A. Rao drew attention to long ago, when they stated that food "mediates body and mind, work and thought, and individual person and society" (1986: 6).

Another's food is sometimes the most accessible product of a cultural complex; sometimes too easily digested without acknowledging the others' presence (Hooks 1992; Heldke 2003; Nandy 2003b). We wrestle with both those aspects of access and taken-for-grantedness, and in the process we try to delineate the possibilities of a migrant, minoritarian, food-related cosmopolitanism, while acknowledging its possible conflation with a neoliberal commodification of everything, including food culture. Several scholars have argued for a new cosmopolitan theory of globalization that accounts for difference (Hannerz 1996; Harvey 2001; Breckenridge, Pollock, Bhabha, Chakrabarty 2002). Martha Nussbaum has argued effectively for a cosmopolitan morality in which we need to know the culture of the other to create a truly plural social environment (1996; cf. Calhoun 2007). In the anguished wake of the ethnic bloodbath that accompanied the collapse of Yugoslavia and subsequent instances of virulent terrorism and predatory modes of counter-terrorism, Carole Breckenridge, Sheldon Pollock, Homi Bhabha, and Dipesh Chakrabarty (2002), working with South Asian material, have sought a minoritarian cosmopolitanism of refugees, migrants, and exiles, as a critique of nationally constituted nativist modern spaces. We provide flesh and bones to those unspecified aspirations. Yet we are attuned to Craig Calhoun's retort that "nationalism is not a moral mistake," in spite of recognizing that it is unequivocally implicated in numerous atrocities and banal injustices of the twentieth century. It is, nevertheless, "also a form of social solidarity and one of the background conditions on which modern democracy has been based" (2007: 1). We are amenable to a cosmopolitan ethic and aesthetic precisely because we are people who have come from elsewhere, another nation. It is for us, then, a very pragmatic case of actually existing cosmopolitanism that accounts for multiple national loyalties and attachments both close by and at a distance. We find Robbins's contention incontrovertible that "If people can get as emotional as [Benedict] Anderson says they do about relations with fellow nationals they never see face-to-face, then now that print-capitalism has become electronic- and digital-capitalism, and now that this system is so clearly transnational, it would be strange if people did not get emotional in much the same way, if not necessarily to the same degree, about others who are not fellow nationals, people bound to them by some transnational sort of fellowship" (Robbins 1998: 7). Furthermore, cosmopolitanism is no more an apology for capitalism than nationalism was when it was the dominant mode of middle-class identification (Robbins 1998: 8). Of course, there is nothing naturally virtuous about transnationality, although it is worth making the case against the "thousand gross and subtle ways in which we are told every day that people outside our borders are too distant to matter" (Robbins 1998: 12). We do not find such distant people too remote for our moral compass. Yet we are acutely aware that such a posture is unavailable to many. To those for whom it is accessible, we think cosmopolitanism is a more productive attitude than nativism and we will show how in the following pages. Nevertheless, globalization establishes relations of power, including practices by which we appropriate that power for ourselves. "Globalization is ours because it is in the dimension of globalization that we fashion our ethics and bodies, that we imagine the way we conduct our lives, that we suffer and desire, that we submit others to ourselves and are made subordinate to them" (Bayart 2007: xi). We are subjected by globalizing processes, and yet we are tasting, thinking, dreaming, acting, and living subjects, who use, shape, and resist globalization's flows. We couldn't agree more with Bayart's sober judgment that globalization "will probably transform us, but it will not damn us any more than it will redeem us" (2007: 8). Yet it remains a challenge to be global without being imperial.

Food studies, because of its genealogy in European scripts, has been too focused on Western national food cultures. Sometimes, as a retort to globalization, food studies can also be seduced by a purifying provincialism, often visible in nationalized and racialized readings of the local that is territorialized as terroir (see, for instance, the discussions surrounding the sale of kebabs and curry in Lucca, Italy). In contrast, Sheldon Pollock shows in The Language of the Gods in the World of Men (2006) that certain South Asian versions of the relationship between the local and the supra-local, sedimented in long-circulating elite networks of Sanskritic aesthetic cosmopolitanism, permitted vernacular appropriations, such as Balinese Hinduism and Sinic Buddhism, allowing options beyond a bland homogenizing culture or a closed ethnolocalism. Such choices may also be possible again in contemporary patterns of circulation of peoples, commodities, and conceptions. The discussion of culture and place as it pertains to South Asian cities and South Asians abroad can teach us alternative forms of cosmopolitanism that neither universalize a metropolitan culture, nor posit a nativistic relationship between terrain, tongue, and taste. We elaborate on those possibilities in the following pages, while acknowledging that cosmopolitanism as a form of identification is not readily available to everyone, and that cosmopolitanism does not escape the hierarchical structures of globalization (or can be allowed to be comfortable in its own universal strictures). Yet like feminist and antiracist cosmopolitanism that preceded it, we seek to understand solidarities along with situatedness while reaching across barriers of nation and tribe. Curried Cultures takes the problem of building translocal models of globalization seriously by fully engaging in meaningful and critical dialogue that not only spans our gustatory differences, but makes inhabitance in a distant locale viable, while illuminating the poetics and politics of place-making through diet and desire. The middle classes play a particularly important role in those transactions in transnational taste-making in the current instance precisely because they are not bereft of the basic material and symbolic resources necessary to play that game.