How caste influences food: The Big Fat Bao's Instagram series is a revelation

In a series on caste and food, the Instagrammer has been putting together illustrations of dishes, recipes, and history with a personal touch.
Illustration of Lakuti by The Big Fat Bao
Illustration of Lakuti by The Big Fat Bao
Written by:

The Lakuti is a dish made using solidified goat or pig’s blood (rakti in Marathi) fried in some oil along with onions, haldi and chilli powder. This seemingly easy-to-make dish, however, is a caste marker in India where it is associated only with Dalit households. With an illustration of this dish, a Mumbai-based designer who prefers to be identified by the name ‘The Big Fat Bao’ (TBFB) (because the bao, she claims, best represents her personality) makes an observation: “(Lakuti) is not a dish for ones with a delicate digestive system. It is known to cause constipation. In some places of Maharashtra, Dalit women use Rakti as a verbal abuse against men. For eg. Sinaacha pavnaaraa ani rakticha jevnaaraa. Which loosely translates to "dung seeker and Rakti eater" meaning both the dung seeker (brahmin man) and Rakti eater (dalit man) are the same when it comes to our oppression. (sic)”

The 30-year-old artist who studied in Coimbatore and has spent time working in Chennai, comes from a family of mixed cultures. Her mother is from a Dalit family in Maharashtra and her father from an upper caste family hailing from Kerala. TBFB grew up in Mumbai.

TBFB is not the first to talk about the food history of Dalit communities and politics. Pune-based visual artist Rajyashri Goody’s Eat With Great Delight, an exhibit in which she explored and presented the politics of food from Dalit communities, is her predecessor. But, TBFB has chosen the medium of Instagram, where she has been doing this series on caste and food for a while now.  Previously, she also did a series for Dalit History Month, sketching and sharing stories of women who impacted and inspired her choices in life. On this, she says, “I wanted to celebrate the women who played an important role in my life. Whose work and stories have transcended my life to give me strength and courage and speak about things that matter to me on an open platform.”

According to her, the choice of medium came as a natural response to the increasing food-related content that was being shared by many on Instagram, especially after the pandemic. “It started with the dalgona coffee and we’ve been seeing these extremely aesthetic presentations of food, all of which I don’t get to have unless I’m going out to a restaurant. Noodles, fried rice and cake are not everyday food for me. There has been such a great influx of food photography, and how it's arranged that I began wondering where is the kind of food that I grew up having?” asks TBFB.

This led to her series on caste and food where she’s been putting together an illustration of the food, its recipe, a little on its history and her own personal observations related to it. “I wanted to capture the way it was served to me. My grandmother had a ceramic saucer with a chipped rim. She liked having tea from it but I rarely find such things in other people’s houses,” she notes.

The artist therefore has a nuanced observation of the politics of food and caste. “I want people to be able to understand that nutrition, food resources etc are all political, and can never cease to be so. It’s not a unifying factor like how chefs tend to portray it. It is a very divisive thing. Whoever claims it’s unifying does not understand food at all. One can’t separate food and politics,” she says. “The politics of smell is very important especially in an urban setting,” TBFB continues. “There are plenty of buildings and cooperative societies where non-vegetarian food is not allowed. Discrimination starts there. How does one ignore the politics of food then? Who gets to decide if it's fragrance or odour?”

The role of gender in food and caste too is not to be missed. “There’s this largely invisible layer of oppression and that is of gender. Of how patriarchy ensures gender roles are set in stone. Stories revolve around domestic violence, abuse, mothers and grandmothers trying their best to make whatever they can source palatable for the entire family… this is a big challenge and not recognised enough,” she points out. 

Then there’s the question of access to food and its ingredients. “When a child goes to school where he or she watches a classmate bring and eat something like modak, which does not exist back home, how does the child go on to explain the desire to have it at home? Now there’s a pressure on the mother to make the child forget that exclusive thing but instead make them happy with what can be made in their household. No cookbook or making videos of food question the idea of sourcing,” she explains.

In her recipes, TBFB offers alternatives for most ingredients and also adds a line on what can be done with peels and other discarded parts. “Pour oil (if available) or use the fat from the animal itself to a wok or pan,” she adds in one; “This cucumber juice can be consumed as is or with a bit of molasses,” in another and “The thick skin (of the yellow pumpkin) is not discarded because it can be used to make another bhaaji,” she writes in yet another post.

This simple, holistic way of cooking is deeply ingrained in TBFB’s growing up stories. When requested to share a memory that kept coming back to her while doing these series, the artist talks about a simple kanji that her grandmother would make. “When there are no vegetables in the house and there's only rice, my grandmother used to just boil it, add a little of ragi, turmeric, salt and green chilli, make it watery and serve it for everyone. This is the most comforting memory of food that I have. When I grew up, I realised that a lot of upper caste people make Ayurvedic kanji and claim it to be healing and best for an upset stomach, which is not true at all,” she laughs. “It is just overcooked rice and there’s no scientific evidence to prove that,” she adds.

As for the response she’s been receiving on this, both from home and the outside world, TBFB shares, “My mother does not want me to do this. It’s because she has had to negotiate with the palate that has led her to become vegetarian. She’s shy and feels people may talk about it. But I tell her there’s nothing wrong and it’s what she has eaten growing up. My ajji (grandmother) would definitely be proud that I’m doing something like this.”

But she also has to deal with another kind of response from social media. “Some people end up mansplaining to me asking if I know what molasses is… which is funny because I grew up eating exactly that. I have memories of stealing it from a jar,” she says with a laugh. “There’s also another type of response where people are curious. Some ask for the dish’s name in the illustration itself. But aside from the fact that it makes no sense to do that, since dishes are all differently named in different languages, I don’t see why I should change my presentation based on the suggestion from someone, probably from an oppressor caste, not having the courtesy to even read the description,” she adds. 

Related Stories

No stories found.
The News Minute