Eating and Belonging: a Conversation

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What a Mess!
From Deepa

10 August 2012


I’ve hemmed and hawed about responding largely because there’s something about your remarks on eating out that makes me want to rethink our relationships to places, what experiences we look for in them, how we go about figuring them out—but I am not sure I know to put my finger on the distinctions I want to make just yet. Having procrastinated enough, however, I’m about to try.


French “concept store,” Baker’s Street [yes, its logo is Sherlock Holmes, eating a slice of pie] multicultural localization: The Pondinette

The joke in our family is that it’s impossible to take my mother-in-law out to eat anywhere because “hotel food” simply cannot measure up to food made at home. Even the best of “outside” food is invariably accompanied by the remark: Inntlo chesinte baaguntundi [If we made this at home, it would have been good]. Or variants thereof. And of course then we, in our indefatigable global nomadism, roll eyes, laugh, tease, throw hands up in mock-amazement, and promise that we’re never going to try taking her out anywhere to eat, ever again, because she never lets us win at this game.

“Hotel food” is of course a genre of eating unto itself that perhaps only Indians will recognize as the natural Other to “home food,” representing not so much comfort or roots (in contrast to the ‘home-style’ cooking of American cuisine) but hygiene, care, standards, health, non-greasy freshness, a mastery of certain specialized regional techniques, and an all-important sense of propriety. “Home style” cookery, as I understand the American category is a nostalgic allusion to cookery as we don’t have it any longer, but to which we long to return—ironically enough, in restaurants. Home food in Indian parlance, by contrast, is literally that which we make at home: ghar ka khana. Not in the style of home food, already acknowledging mimicry, but unabashedly the real thing. Even when it’s featured on the menu at the Taj, this is “simple, non-greasy Indian,” healthy, inexpensive to produce, and of verifiable provenance. “Hotel food” ends up the other of ghar ka khana simply because hotel restaurants were, by and large, pre-cursors to today’s respectable stand-alone eateries. They mark something of a mid-point between utilitarian and discretionary aspects of eating out (a distinction made by historian Frank Conlon in his “Dining out in Bombay”).

For workers, laborers, soldiers, pilgrims, and other itinerants, eating out was largely a matter of compulsion, not discretion—although many would carry their cooking materials with them, assembling meals in makeshift kitchens wherever there was space. The eateries that catered to such crowds often tried to reproduce their community-specific ghar ka khana, on the logic that if you can’t control where you eat, at least you can control what. To a degree, anyway, for only some of these establishments could acquire and sustain public trust. Udupi eateries come to mind, for example: cuisine that was once produced by the mathas or monasteries of Udupi on the Karnataka coast, a temple food that proliferated thanks to South Indian migrants establishing themselves in Bombay, Delhi, and elsewhere, demanding reliably vegetarian, associationally sacred food. “Udupi hotels” now are standardly associated with authentically prepared south Indian tiffins and meals, even when their proprietors are Gujarati-from-Zimbabwe, operating in Houston.


Makeshift kitchens and food preparation on construction sites populated by itinerant labor, just wherever there’s some room. Soya nugget curry (above) and Phulkas/ rotis (below)

Still below is Sri Amma Mess on Mission Street: a “military hotel,” I’m told, or one that serves mainly meat dishes (though at the time I took this photo, it was just samosas). Military hotels are vestiges of the world wars, catering to soldiers’ apparent carnivorism. Some, like the Ranganna Military Hotel in Bangalore’s Jayanagar, are quite well-known.

Hotels in particular, catered to itinerants seeking a recognizable nourishment—so much so that the “hotel food” tag remains even with the largely post-1990s, post-liberalization emergence of a restaurant culture in the subcontinent, catering to a growing class with growing discretionary income. Indeed, when we speak of Irani hotels, we’re actually speaking of the food brought to India by Parsi [Zoroastrian] migrants from Iran in the ’80s, and (for me, unbearably) milky tea that they serve—I’ve no idea what their rooms are like, if they have rooms at all. Hotels remain standard places to find restaurants on the move: the luxury-class Kakatiya in Hyderabad has no fewer than four restaurants serving regional and continental fare to international guests, and the grungier-by-far Alpha Hotel near the Secunderabad railway station I believe still serves a classic biryani, parceled for an easy and excellent train dinner.


“Hotel” at the corner of Mission and Bharathi streets in Pondicherry. No rooms.

Any anthropologist will confirm that food and cooking practices mark social boundaries and limits of all sorts; “eating together,” Appadurai notes, whether as a family or a village, “is a carefully conducted exercise in the reproduction of intimacy” (1997: 295). If we then take Mary Douglas’ famous dictum about dirt being simply “matter out of place,” then food out of place is by definition open to the possibilities of contamination, both social and physical. And then if the only really secure space of identity in a world fraught with cultural differences and challenges is the home, as Partha Chatterjee has also famously argued (American Ethnologist, 1989), then food prepared outside our four walls is always-already suspect. Going out to eat is plainly a matter of risk-taking, taboo-breaking transgression.

Sure, some people are allowed to transgress with impunity at least some times (men, in particular, but also women of elite classes). But for most of us, faced with the prospect of transgression each time we leave home, the only alternative is to make do by making good the food that we consume outside. Hence, perhaps, the proclivity to provincialism, the rationalizing sticking-to-what-we-know habits that become so hard to break in an age of global nomadism? And an almost-adamant insistence that, no matter what, the food we make at home sets an indisputable gold standard, no matter the actual quality of the cooking. We affirm repeatedly the notion that true “virtuosity [lies] in mastering the codes of one’s own cuisine at home” (Bhaviskar 2012: 58).


Aside from the military eateries, a range of regional and community messes, such as the one pictured above, dot Pondicherry’s cityscape. Each one claims broader or narrower culinary specializations. There are Kerala messes and Reddiar [Reddy, Andhra] variants as well—that latter of which I badly wanted a photograph of, but couldn’t get in time.

This is neither an apology for stubbornness nor a rationalization of provincialism, but a scene-setting move: this broad-strokes background tells us a great deal, I think, about why there are so few really excellent eateries in a place like Pondicherry.

I tend to agree with historian Benjamin Siegel when he suggests that a city’s particular forms of sociality really determine how public eating will happen, restaurants will develop, food will be produced, and so on. So Bombay’s “port liberality, ethnic intermixing, and relatively freer class mobility allowed for an earlier embrace of public eating”—whereas it took Delhi until the liberalizing ‘90s to equalize “public expressions of culinary cosmopolitanism” and Calcutta even longer to overcome its food taboos and heritage of imperial conservatism (2010: 87).

So the question for me in this conversation about Pondicherry has to do with what form(s) of sociality have developed here, shaping the public eating habits of this town. Much of what Pondicherry socially is, as you note, has come from elsewhere: France, Germany, Italy, and what the “Reddys and Patels, Kotharis and Guptas, Patnaiks, and Singhs, and all manner of Bhat” (ha!) have brought with them. Auroville, too, is an elsewhere of a sort, introducing new techniques of bread-tofu-pastry-cheese-making, new ways of preparing meats, new appreciations for herbs and salads and such-like, new emphases on organic food and environmentally conscious consumption—all of which I am personally very grateful to be heir to, just by virtue of being here.

At the same time, everything that rises doesn’t converge. As much as groceries in town are stocked to meet the needs of its elsewhere/nomadic/cosmopolitan residents, their’s is a parallel narrative. There’re other strata of people who have barely been touched by these other from-elsewhere influences. On one level, there are those who still thrive still on “home food” of a regionally specific sort, be it Tamil, Gujarati, or Bengali. In their expert hands, food prepared in home kitchens becomes a small-scale business, somewhere between catering and take-out. Just think of how many Gujarati and Bengali aunties can be called upon for chapattis, theplas, khandvi, fish curries, aaloo dum, and the like. For so very long, all our chapattis and theplas came from Surekha-behn, who also supplies small packets of snacks to Honesty Department Stores. But with the home kitchen it stops; no restaurants, no reservations. I’m not clear yet on how proprietary these recipes get—though I know that the ladies making Pondy’s famous “flower syrups” and cakes can be tight with their means and methods—but these home-operations keep regionally mastered cuisine primarily in private in-network circulation, unavailable to the passing-through visitor or the weekender tourist. This proliferation of small businesses does nothing to dismantle the home/hotel food dichotomy. Even though the home has now become a place of business far more than a sacred-protected space of essential identity, we’re still reifying the same old dichotomies, keeping foods private as the core means to assure provenance, and certainly not creating new forms of public eating.

On another level, there’s the genre of the multi-cuisine. What’s a “multi cuisine” restaurant, you ask? Your run-of-mill eatery, that serves everything from (North Indian) saag panneer and naan to Indian-inflected standard Chinese noodles, “manchurians,” and (yes, God help me) American chop suey, to (South Indian) dosas and idlis, sometimes also including “continental” items like cheese or vegetable sandwiches with fries. In short, the “multi-cuisine” is an unforgivable reduction of both Indian and select foreign cuisines into a single cheap-to-prepare, easy-to-market menu that is ironically localized and entirely unimaginative in its standardization of culinary diversity. The Chinese joints in town aren’t multi-cuisine, but they further a very similar culinary logic: the food is cookie-cutter, dragon this and manchurian that, one dish dry and one with gravy. Curiosities for new visitors, entirely predictable, near gut-wrenching experiences for those of us who’ve been there-done that, and are desperate for the more subtle tastes of global cuisines. And so you’re absolutely right, none of this was done with love. All of it exists in the name of expedience.



From the top: Executive Inn (left) and The Promenade (right) both dish out the “multi-cuisine,” except that one admits it and the other doesn’t. A function of class, maybe? Below that and clockwise: Hotel food extravaganza at a recent food festival: variants on the multi-cuisine from (clockwise) Le Pondy, Hotel Green Palace, Maison Perumal, and Virundhu. Do I dare ask what “cool blue” or “lovely chicken” are on Virundhu’s menu?

So, no, we don’t eat out very much at all. Partly because we came here from the US and were wary of what our North Americanized immune systems could tolerate, partly because we sought ambience as much as nourishment, we stuck first to the more established hotel restaurants—only to tire very fast of salads murdered with mayonnaise, and vast, greasy buffet spreads that interpreted and imagined continental foods (as Siegel writes of Gaylord’s, one of India’s older and respected free-standing restaurants) and regional dishes in the stultifying mould of the “multi-cuisine.”

But there’s another point to make here, and that’s that we didn’t come to Pondicherry in search of food. We didn’t expect to find great food here at all. I recall being utterly grateful that broccoli was available, also zucchini, that basil grows like weeds, and that fish sauce and walnuts were around, if expensive. I recall a sense of pure relief knowing that I could find the ingredients I needed to make most things we enjoy—but we didn’t for a moment falter at the realization that it wasn’t ready-made for us (the “ready-made” being a category of pre-made clothing that signaled a ‘70s/’80s shift in the garment economy, from tailor-made to, well, ready-made. Nowadays there’s the “custom-made,” but that’s entirely another post). Or that the mainstream (insofar as India has anything that can be called ‘mainstream’) interpretation of multiculturalism was the ironically cookie-cutter multi-cuisine.

It’s truly funny to see all the tourists coming through town looking for interesting restaurants, quite convinced that there are many, whereas the residents complain routinely that there are so few good places at which to eat. Is it that familiarity breeds contempt, or that the initial charms of this town lose their appeal upon closer scrutiny? Maybe, but more than that, I think, it’s a question of expectations. How much does eating out matter? To whom does it matter? And in what ways?

When you left your comment on my Pondicheri restaurant post about the horrors of eating out in Pondy, my response if you recall was: “What were you expecting?” and now I’ll add another: why would you expect otherwise?

If it’s the case that forms of sociality shape public eating habits, then dare I say that we’re stuck largely between the cordoned-off specializations of home food and the diversity-in-a-dabba “multi-cuisine.” There are exceptions, more creative, more playful options at some Auroville eateries, for example. But these are hardly mainstream, even if they are middle-class. Dare I also suggest that “play in the world of interesting cultures” requires itinerance, nomadism, cosmopolitanism—all of which happen so much more easily in elite backyards? You’re spot-on right, we’re not so much agents of progressive multiculturalism as its beneficiaries. But then I’m wondering if we can expect to be such beneficiaries wherever we might roam. I’ve fought Dumont for years, but I can’t help but acknowledge our massive, lumbering stratifications, now all re-validated in the twin rhetorics of “diversity” and representative democracy, which equally stratify what “progressive multiculturalism” might mean to any of us, if anything at all. Multiculturalism of the sort that facilitates play either doesn’t exist in quite such form here, or it lacks universal appeal—limiting what play is possible, and for whom.

Me, as I’ve said already, I’m just grateful for a town with the right ingredients, never mind the dearth of public eateries, and four walls that cordon off a space of free play where the chocolate is really chocolate (not “compound”) and cakes don’t rely on emulsifiers and humectants (“cake gel”) to rise. Visitors are welcome, but should know there are no maps and no Lonely Planet guides to show you the way. You’ll have to search and find me first.



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1 Response to “Eating and Belonging: a Conversation”

  1. 1 Bridget Fernandes 20 July 2012 at 10:15 pm


    Hello, my name is Bridget Fernandes, and I am a former Deepa Reddy student and am currently teaching anthropology courses as an adjunct at the University of Houston Clear Lake. I love to travel and was even in Pondicherry in January 2011. I had the honor of tasting some of Deepa’s delicious desserts and meals!

    Well, this blog conversation resonates with me on several levels. I lived in a conservative small town in Tennessee for the first 22 years of my life. My schedule consisted of school, time with family, church, and tradition. Many of the family traditions revolved around food.

    On Monday nights, we went to my maternal grandparent’s house where we ate homegrown (my grandparents raised all of their vegetables without pesticides…..this was before the term “organic” was in fashion) green beans cooked in an iron skillet, fried green tomatoes, Mexican cornbread, and fried okra. Cooking was my grandmother’s passion, and she was always trying new “Southern” dishes. I remember canning (putting all the goodness that they grew in their gardne into jars to enjoy later) with grandmother during the summers. We put the tomatoes in the hot water so that the skin could be removed easily and then we added peppers and vinegar turning it into a relish to be enjoyed on black eyed peas. Unfortunately, my grandmother died last year, and I miss these dishes and the love that she put into them.

    On Sundays, we went to my paternal grandparent’s house for more good home cooking. My grandmother prided herself on cooking the “old fashioned” way which for her meant cooking with lard. We had dishes such as fried chicken, greasy buttermilk biscuits, mashed potatoes with gravy, and Mississippi mudcake (her favorite) which is a chocolate cake with marshmallows and icing on top. My grandmother has always loved to eat and always says, “There is nothing that I enjoy more than watching others eat the foods that I have created.” My family sat around the table and told stories and laughed. These stories shaped my life and my identity and these stories were all told over sweet tea with lemon or fresh coffee.

    When I was 22 years old, I moved to Rio de Janeiro, a city of 8-12 million, and Lincoln, my husband, and I lived in a studio apartment (an euphemism for a 1 room apartment). We ate mostly out and about in the city. Self-service or buffet style salad bars, coffee with milk and crunchy cheese bread became our daily routine. Life was fast-paced, noisy, and the movement of the city intoxicating.

    At this point, I became “the other.” People called me the gringo or said, “Your Portuguese is so cute.” I didn’t want my Portuguese to be “cute”. I just wanted to communicate. After living in Rio for 2 years, I went back home to visit my family. When I got off the plane, my mother said, “Stop talking that way.” Apparently I had picked up an accent while teaching ESL to Brazilians. I had also picked up the open way in which Brazilians speak about sex and other subjects considered “taboo” in my town. My mother used to say, “Don’t talk about those topics in mixed company.”

    All of a sudden, I became “the other” in my hometown.” Old friends would say, ” I guess you are just so happy to be in the United States.” I used to answer, “Well, yes and no.” My stories at the table had changed and my family could no longer identify. I lived in Brazil for 5 years and my worldview and identity changed.

    My husband and I moved to Houston, a city where very few people are originally from here (as Deepa touched on in her post). We have lived here for 6 years and again my identity has changed. Many people ask, “Where are you from?” I can’t quite place your accent (which seems to be a clear marker of identity for many). Sometimes you sound “southern” and other times you sound “foreign”. My Brazilian friend states, “You seem more Brazilian than American.” What does that mean exactly? Well, I guess where you have been and lived also (like your homeland)becomes “imprinted” (the term that Mark uses) on your body. The traces are always there…

    Learning to negotiate these “identities” has been a wonderful growing experience and as Mark states, “I think as I get older, it matters far less to me that I fit seamlessly in every new culture I enter — or even within the two major cultures (North American and something-Indian) in which I live…The fun thing about putting a few years on oneself is that one gets to know their own likes and dislikes, and is better able to prioritize the former. Likewise, one has a bit better judgment about which idiosyncrasies to indulge and which to keep behind polite cover.”

    Yes, when I first went to Brazil being called “gringo” bothered me and the first time I went home after moving away, the fact that my “differentness” was the subject of much conversation irritated me but now in my 30s, I have raised my consciousness about what this “differentness” means and can identify the ways that these experiences have shaped my identity. I no longer become offended or irritated but rather appreciate the many different experiences that I have had both in the United States and abroad that have shaped who I am. Therefore, “differentness” becomes a point of pride rather than irritation or maybe it is just becoming “more comfortable” in your own skin (whatever that skin may be or preceived to be).

    My paternal grandmother is still living and every time I make it home, she makes her famous Mississippi Mud Cake, and we still drink fresh coffee (she always makes what she calls a “fresh pot”) and tell stories. Although the stories may have changed and I am negotiating several identities at once, the Mississippi Mud Cake tastes the same and brings me back to my home where my journey and the stories began.

    Here is a recipe for a version of my grandmother’s Mississippii Mud Cake. I found this at: It was the closest recipe that I could find on the web.

    1 cup butter
    1/2 cup cocoa
    2 cups sugar
    4 large eggs, slightly beaten
    1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
    1 dash salt
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    1 1/2 cups pecans (optional)
    4 cups mini marshmallows

    Chocolate frosting
    1 (16 ounce) package powdered sugar, sifted
    1/2 cup milk
    1/3 cup cocoa
    1/4 cup softened butter


    Preheat oven to 350°F.
    Lightly grease a 9×13 inch pan.
    Melt the butter in a medium saucepan.
    Add the cocoa and stir.
    Remove from the heat.
    Pour butter mixture into a mixing bowl and add sugar and eggs.
    Mix until blended.
    Add the vanilla.
    Mix in the flour and salt.
    Stir in the pecans.
    Put batter into prepared pan and cook for 35 minutes or until done.
    Remove from oven and sprinkle with marshmallows.
    Cool in the pan on a wire rack.
    For the frosting: Combine all of the ingredients and mix until smooth. Spread frosting on cooled cake.
    If your frosting is too thick, add more milk.

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