Finding Spaces for ‘Ethnic Food’


BY ANE KHIEYA | HEIGRUJAM PREMKUMAR | YAOREIPHY AWUNGSHI*

“Ethnic Food”

What do we mean by “ethnic food”? What is ethnic about food? Can food be an identity? Do what we eat define us?

singju manipur_ordinaireme
Singju, an ethnic cuisine of Manipur.

While trying to find a definition of ethnic food even the great Besserwisser internet could do little for us. Even the dictionaries do not have entry of the term.

People are divided on what they mean by ethnic food. Though all of us witness the existence of certain food cuisine which are socially and culturally associated with some communities and the origin of such cuisines owe to these communities, people disagree on why they should call it ‘ethnic food’. What people do not like is the ‘ethnic’ prefix in the food.

Can the ethnicity of food be an identity of a community or a group of culturally more or less similar communities? Can food be an identity? Do what we eat define us?

Paul Brass and others have strongly argued that ethnic identity is a social construct. Even then what they do not refute is the reality of the existence of ethnic communities. Irrespective of the lack of consensus on how ethnicities as such came into our political and social life, what all of us agree today is that ethnic communities do exist.

When we talk and discuss about ethnic communities what we come to know is that there are certain ethnic communities whose food habits, customs, attire/dressing sense and other cultural and social aspects are distinct from other communities whatever their origin may be- social construct or primordial. This does not necessarily mean a reason for conflict. In fact, we should not see it as a difference instead we should see it as distinctiveness, an addition to the many beautiful colours of diversity and celebrate it.

If the existence of ethnic communities is real, then it is evident that ethnic food exists. Every culture and society has a specific food habit influenced by cultural, geographic and even religious choices. In this era of twitters and instagrams, we frequently come across food cuisine that we have never tasted or even heard of.

For the purpose of this research, we took liberty in defining ethnic food (acknowledging that ethnic food exists) to suit our research.

By ethnic food in our research we refer to the food items/ingredients and food dishes/cuisine indigenous to the various communities and tribes of the Northeast region, and irrespective of the innumerable differences they may have, which they all share in common.

The names given to the food ingredients and dishes may vary and the way they prepare it may not be necessarily similar, yet all of these ethnic communities and tribes consume very similar food ingredients and dishes. They relish these indigenous food stuffs with eagerness irrespective of which community or tribe prepares it. This is the meaning of ethnic food in our research.

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Northeast Food Culture/Food Habit

king chilli
The world famous King Chilli which is grown mainly in India’s Northeast states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur and Nagaland.

Eromba, utti, chagem pomba etc. (Manipur), thukpa, apong etc. (Arunachal Pradesh), jadoh, ki kpu, tung-rymbai, mini songa etc. (Meghalaya), sawchair (Mizoram), axone, anishi, (Nagaland). These are some of the popular dishes of the Northeast community. The name of these dishes varies from state to state and community to community. However, these dishes are prepared using same ingredients most of the time.

Bamboo shoot, fermented fish, dry meat and dry fish, fermented soya bean, King Chilli, smoked meat and fish etc. (other than rice and related food items) are some of the most essential and popular common food ingredients in the whole of Northeast region and they are unavoidable ingredients to prepare the above dishes. Whichever of the Northeast states one may belong to, bamboo shoot, fermented fish, fermented soya bean, King Chilli are common food items one always says he or she cannot live without. These foods are very much a part of the people’s social and cultural life. They form a crucial part of festivals, ceremonies, day-to-day life and other social and cultural activities.

For instance, among Angami tribe in Nagaland, it is customary to gift specially prepared meat wrapped in plaintain leaves to every invitee who attends the wedding ceremony.

Every house preserves and stores these food ingredients. Sometimes local women prepare and sell them (such as fermented soya bean) and sometimes people themselves plant and grow them (such as King Chilli). Other food items like fermented fish and bamboo shoot are prepared and sold by professionals or local entrepreneurs or even made at home in some cases. And, almost every household prepares dry fish and meat, and smoked fish and meat themselves.

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This lovely picture was taken at Bamboo Hut, a popular Northeast cuisine restaurant in North Delhi

Therefore, it is joked that when people from the Northeast region go to other parts of the country or even outside the country, their food follow them. Thus, most of the people living in Delhi try to get these ethnic foods through various means- asking their parents or relatives to directly send these ethnic foods to their places or asking their friends and relatives to bring when they come to their place from home.

One great solution to their yearning for ‘home food’ arrived in the form of shops selling ethnic food opened in areas when larger number of people from Northeast stays. These shops try to provide almost every ethnic food that the people from the region demand. We even see the opening of a restaurant providing specifically ethnic food (Bamboo Hut).

However, these shops and restaurant owners are facing various inconveniences and challenges in finding a space for their shop/restaurant, in getting food ingredients and many other things. We primarily focus in their difficulty of finding spaces for their shop and restaurant.

***

Spaces for Northeast Ethnic Food in North Delhi:

A Descriptive Analysis

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A signboard of a Northeast food items shop in North Delhi.

The places we went for fieldwork were Gandhi Vihar, Nehru Vihar, Indra Vihar, Outram Lines, Vijay Nagar, and Malka Ganj. However, we could find shops only in Gandhi Vihar, Nehru Vihar and Vijay Nagar, and a restaurant in Outram Lines. We were told that those shops in Malka Ganj and Indra Vihar selling ethnic food were closed down few days ago.

Our first fieldwork was the restaurant Bamboo Hut, run by a young Naga woman, Diana, who is educated and fluent in English. Well-furnished and decorated with beautiful Naga-themed tribal art, it is the only ethnic restaurant we could locate in North Delhi. This is an entrepreneurial venture started with a male co-owner who belongs to Arunachal Pradesh, and it had to be shifted from a nearby place due to (according to Diana) increase in rent and complaints about the ‘smell’ of food such as bamboo shoot and fermented soyabean(axone). Even now, she says, there are certain complaints and she concedes that the smell of indigenous ingredients can prove too strong for unaccustomed noses or palate. Jokingly, she adds, the weak exhaust fan in the kitchen doesn’t help matters.

Nevertheless, business in her restaurant seems to be good and is frequented by many northeasterners as well as people from other parts of India who are curious to experiment ‘exotic’ cuisine. On a Sunday fieldwork there, we observed that in over 3-4 hours we were present, more than half the customers were ‘mainland Indians’ savouring various Naga dishes.

You can see an inside view of the very indigenous inspired theme of this popular restaurant:

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The tables, chairs etc. in the restaurant are of wooden. We also saw pictures of Northeast tribes hanging on the walls.

And, then the utensils used in the restaurant to serve food:

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The utensils are mostly wooden.

Diana has had no problems with the local authorities and we sensed her self-assurance (either due to education or social status or cultural capital etc.) in mediating with the larger, urbanised and oftentimes, ‘inhospitable’ Delhi culture. When inquired why only pork, chicken and fish is included since all northeastern tribes take beef as a major part of their diet, she mentioned that beef cannot be sold as it is ‘prohibited’ and if at all included in the menu, the nomenclature has to be buffalo or “buff” meat as is found in the Tibetan restaurants.

***

Next, we interviewed two male shop-owners (in Vijay Nagar and Gandhi Vihar respectively) and both were only matriculates. The one in Vijay Nagar came to Delhi with his wife and three-year old son in January this year (2014), and belongs to the Maram tribe of Manipur. He had recently shifted from the previous place, because tenants started complaining of the apparent disturbance caused by customers coming late in the evening to buy Paan (sort of concoction of betel nut and leaves, supari, tobacco, etc.) which is ubiquitous and widely consumed especially in Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, and Assam. The complaint, according to him, also pertained to customers spitting the crimson-red saliva that paan produces, in the surrounding areas. What is interesting is that residents should single out his shop given that other shops in the area also sell paan and the general cleanliness/hygiene of these areas are very poor to begin with. His other products were packaged eatables such as rice-cake, shrimp paste, smoked beef etc.

As for his ‘home’, it is a one-bedroom place on the ground floor which also serves as the shop, and he works at a call centre at night. This was a ‘compromise’ with the safety of mother and child as the shop/flat is just by the roadside.

He had trouble conversing fluently in Hindi, and when asked why he had come to Delhi, replied vaguely that he migrated for his son’s education. His rent seemed quite high and that could be because of his naivety and newness to Delhi. It is observed that people such as him from the northeast (less educated, economically disadvantaged and lacking in cultural capital) are the most easily exploited and discriminated. They usually lack the confidence and resources (social or material) to assert or defend themselves.

IMG_20141205_172333
Since selling beef openly was not allowed, he was keeping this price list slightly hidden.

The other man we interacted with is from Gandhi Vihar, and goes by the name of S.K. Kom, thirty two year-old, bachelor, belonging to the Kom tribe of Manipur. His is a meat shop, catering to the demand for pork and beef, of the northeastern students and families in North Delhi. The selling of beef is a clandestine affair and the situation turned very humorous as we had to speak about his ‘business’ in hushed tones and the conversation was mostly in his mother tongue i.e. Manipuri. He was wary not to make known the selling of beef to other locals, and by mixing the beef meat with pork he is able to hide it. This was the same case with what we were told in Bamboo Hut as well that selling beef was prohibited. However, since his shop is in a relatively rural area he could hide the meat but sell it to ‘specific’ customers. He even had an A-4 size paper with the price of beef and pork written on it but he kept it in a manner that could be showed to or seen by only those customers who enters the shop. Some wires and small clothes were half-covering the paper.

His shop has been running for six months and though only a pre-matriculate, he is pretty fluent in both Hindi and English. When asked how he deals with the local people and if he faces any kind of problems, he confidently replied that it depends on how one deals with the other. His friendliness and tact did come across as he spoke and interacted with a few passers-by and customers. His lack of education did not seem to be a big deterrence in asserting himself as was the case with the other participant.

As he has to be in the shop most of the day, seven days of the week, he does not have a social life and confesses he has no time even to find a girlfriend! He has the support of his family to work here and this makes perfect sense because being from a rural area in a state with vast unemployment (Manipur), compounded with the stigma of being uneducated or no formal degree renders any capable, healthy youth such as him burdensome and highly unproductive. He said there has been no harassment out of suspicion from authorities such as the MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi) or police.

In this interaction, we were struck by the fact that what is considered illegal meat in the Hindu heartlands of India is a part of everyday cuisine of northeastern tribes/communities, and in their worldview, selling or consuming beef is a way of life. His customers, while we were present, included the local Pastor’s wife (from Manipur) and few Naga students.

***

IMG_20141205_183321
Packets of fresh King Chilli and fruits popular among people from the Northeast are found in all these shops.

Lastly, we ventured to a shop run, by a family of brothers and sisters of Tangkhul tribe from Manipur, and living in Gandhi Vihar. The girl is Jacinta, twenty three-years old, doing her B.A. from Delhi University (co-incidentally studying political science), while the brother is Zingmin, a twenty eight years-old civil service aspirant. Another brother of theirs is running a similar shop in South Delhi which is apparently more profitable as it caters to an affluent Northeastern section in contrast to the struggling students of North Delhi who mostly survive on limited pocket-money. Jacinta recounts amusing instances of how these students have a hard choice in deciding which one or two delicacies(ranging from bamboo shoot, dried mushroom, king chilly, meat chutney etc.) to buy given their lack of ‘spending power’.

They too had to shift shop due to high price of rent, and we were told that the business is not very profitable and is somewhat inconvenient too since all stuffs have to be carefully chosen, packed and then sent through flight from Imphal (capital of Manipur), which can be quite costly. However, they find satisfaction in providing food that, in her words ‘our people’ really yearn for and miss when so far away from home.

She has no complaints or instances of discrimination in the locality, and surprisingly her only complaint is against her fellow-northeasterners whom she finds unsupportive and discouraging at times. As for the customers, most are from the northeastern region especially Mizos, Nagas and Manipuris, but she pointed out that the shop also gets  customers from other parts of India who, she observes, have acquired a taste for these ‘exotic’ and ‘smelly’ food, through their northeastern spouses/partners.

***

From our work we have found that finding spaces for ethnic food is influenced by a number of economic, social and cultural factors. Economically, the high rent charged upon them is a common problem. The frequent shifting of location of the shops is found to be mostly due to high rent. Small capital on the part of the ethnic food providers as well as the lack of profitability hinders their business in many ways. That is also a reason for the temporary nature of these shops. However, they did not talk much about profit or incapability to sustain due to small capital. Most of them were happy to be able to provide ethnic food to people from ‘our’ region and the opportunity to come to Delhi and provide their children some good education, or getting themselves education in good universities.

Socially and culturally, the acceptance and appreciation of fellow residents towards the food of others’ is crucial in uninterrupted and problem-free operation and continuation of these shops. The disdain of others towards an unfamiliar food culture often forces these shops to shift elsewhere. The frequent shifting of shops endangers the long-term sustainability of these shops since the familiarity of the shop’s location to customers is lost. Often, when one goes to buy ethnic food to the same shop one cannot find the shop in the same location after one month. This becomes more important considering the fact that most of the ethnic food ingredients (such as bamboo shoot, fresh King Chilli, etc.) cannot be kept and stored long and as soon as these ethnic food ingredients reach Delhi, they have to be sold out within few days.

Besides, most of these shops are located in areas where larger number of people from the Northeast live. We found that despite the food being prepared or sold by a particular tribe or community, every tribe and community belonging to Northeast came to buy the ethnic food ingredients. We saw the operation of community bonding in terms of their access to food. The everyday interaction between the customers and the ethnic shop providers seemed making them closer. It did not matter who sells it but what was available. Most of the time we also saw them buying ethnic food products using English names only. This indicates the similarity of food ingredients despite the fact that they may prepare it differently.

Moreover, many people from the ‘mainland’ (as the sellers called) found the ethnic food tasty and ‘exotic’ and did not have any problem with the smell or taste of the food. We witnessed this in Bamboo Hut as well as in few shops selling ethnic food in Gandhi Vihar.

Further, the power to negotiate and carve out a space for themselves or even flourish business-wise seems to be in favour of those with better education, good communication skills, and a sort of street-smartness. One may well get by with lesser cultural capital but it renders them more vulnerable to discrimination or worse, exploitation at the hands of landlords, brokers, and other people. None of these entrepreneurs were gushing about profits and since all are new start-ups, no conclusion can be drawn on the long-term sustainability for their livelihoods. The future seems most uncertain for the two uneducated man and the one with family is struggling with two jobs, to provide a good future for his son and wife.

Finally, all of them are engaged in an everyday, constant interaction with people from their own communities as part of their job, and this might give them a sense of security that comes with belonging to a small, culturally distinct ‘group/community’ and so mitigate the kind of alienation that impersonal big urban cities produce. Their realities also reflect the unaddressed problem of high unemployment ‘back home’, and socio-economic inequalities within the tribes/communities themselves.

***

A little note on our research project

“An ethnographic research on the ethnic food culture of people from the Northeast India living in Delhi”

Our research mainly focuses on study of the ‘ethnic food providers’ with respect to the ethnic food culture of the communities from the Northeast living in North Delhi.

By ‘ethnic food providers’ in this research we mean the people from Northeast states who are selling ethnic food ingredients in small shops, or opening fast food stalls or restaurants to provide ethnic food dishes/cuisine.

The specific locations of these ethnic food providers are considered as the ‘spaces’ selected by them in view of the presence of relatively larger ‘consumers’ of ethnic food. The main focus of this ethnography paper is to study how these shops or restaurants owned by people from Northeast region try to provide ethnic food to their folks living here in Delhi, and the inconveniences, challenges and objections they encounter during the process.

For the purpose of this ethnographic study, we undertook structural and non-structural interviews of the people who are selling Northeast ethnic food, the people who are consuming these food and the respective residents in North Delhi. We actively involved in the selling of goods for almost a day in a shop (Gandhi Vihar). We also spent almost an entire day at Bamboo Hut, a restaurant providing Northeast ethnic food dishes in Outram Lines. The informal exchanges between the customer and the shopkeeper or restaurant owner during the process of selling the food ingredients/dishes were closely observed. The movement of residents and their opinions about the ethnic food store were also duly noted down.

What we did was to see the social condition of the surrounding areas and see it from the perspective of those selling the food, those consuming it and the respective residents.

For better clarity, we first tried to understand what ethnic food means and developed the meaning of ethnic food for the purpose of our research.


About the researchers:
Ane Khieya, PhD
Premkumar Heigrujam, M. Phil
Yaoreiphy Awungshi, M. Phil
All the three are with the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi, New Delhi-110007.
Note: Images are taken by the researchers themselves.
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One thought on “Finding Spaces for ‘Ethnic Food’

  1. Aha! The endeavour of this little work was indeed enlightening though I was only accompanying my two “intellectual friends” (as I consider you guys he he). I hope the readers get some sense and critically engage with the actual reality. Food politics, which is now one of the most discussed topic today also need to contextualized the idea within social cultural and political of any particular social groups or community.
    I hope every reader enjoy this writeup as much as I do and benefit even as little as or as much you can!! Enjoy

    Liked by 1 person

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