Don't Yuck My Yum
Culinary experiences of India’s Dalit communities are a lesson in the history of oppression
Twenty-seven-year old illustrator who calls herself ‘Big Fat Bao’, hails from the Dalit community. She fondly talks about a traditional delicacy named Lakuti, as a rare treat. Bao recalled that it would take days to make Lakuti as the butcher would have to be told in advance to save leftover blood, and chicken liver. Otherwise these by-products of the butcher's meat shop would be discarded as animal food.
Lakuti is a dish made from leftover blood, and is popular among the Mang community of Maharashtra. It is said to be extremely simple to make. The collected animal blood is seasoned with salt, and boiled in a large pot till it reaches a brown jelly-like consistency.
This is called Rakti, or cooked blood. Rakti is then cut into cubes and then stir-fried with oil or fat leftover from the meat. Locals also add onions, chilli powder and a special masala called Yesur to flavour the dish.
Lakuti is often eaten as a side dish or with bhakri, the local flatbread. This dish is nutritious and is said to contain a significant amount of protein.
“The dishes we eat do not have fancy ingredients. This is not by choice but the fact that our food originated in oppression, the struggle has always been there”, explained Bao.
India's Dalit communities have endured centuries of discrimination and systemic marginalisation. They have been denied access to basic livelihood necessities like water, shelter and food. The caste hierarchy has always been forced upon Dalit communities and continues to have the power to influence what they see, what they cook and eat.
Most Dalit communities in India cook and eat discarded animal offal. This includes the slaughtered animal’s tongue, tail, epiglottis, liver and blood. These were thrown away by the ‘upper-caste’ Hindus who would only consume choice cuts of meat.
Bao explained that the ‘upper class and ‘upper-caste ’ only eat the ‘sexy parts’ of the meat. Their food has to look and smell good, and the ‘ugly, un-sexy’ parts of the meat, which are extremely rich in protein and promote sustainability, are picked up for consumption by the Dalit communities.
The offal is cooked simply with basic ingredients like oil and masalas or dried in the sun. Then there is sun-dried meat, which makes for a delicious, protein-rich snack called Chanya. This can be fried or added to stews to enrich the dish.
Today many of these dishes and their recipes are just memories, stories recalled by the Dalit elders. The ‘upper class’ and their quest for a so-called 'purity' has also attached a certain stigma and an element of ‘disgust’ to these ancient recipes.
Journalist-turned writer-Shahu Patole, in his 2015 book ‘Anna He Apoornabrahma’ ( that can be loosely translated as ‘food is an incomplete phenomenon’), writes that there is no one else after him, who would write about these recipes.
Patole wanted his children to know about these recipes and that became the driving force behind this Marathi book. He records the dishes grew up eating in a Dalit household in the book.
Dalits constitute 16.6 percent of India's population, but their traditional recipes still lack representation in India's culinary, literary and media circles. Readers may not find recipes of dishes such as Lakuti or Chanya in mainstream Indian cookbooks. The dishes may not be available in popular restaurants, even though they are eaten within various communities throughout India.
Typical cookbooks continue to include recipes which are 'rich’, and use many ingredients. This may be so because they cater to the classes which have the privilege to buy those ingredients.
Even social media popularised the ‘delicious looking' and 'aesthetically pleasing' food. However, the ground reality is different. For many marginalised and tribal communities in the country, food is about survival, rather than joy and satisfaction.
“What Dalits ate was always food of poverty. They never felt that their food should be celebrated. What they ate was not the food prepared in abundance but recipes that originate in the lack of ingredients and poverty in the kitchen," Food historian and political analyst Pushpesh Pant told the portal Youth Ki Awaaz.
A perfect example of a dish that originated within these communities is the Lambya Rotya, popularly known as Mandes from the Dalit communities of Maharashtra. Lambya translates to 'long' in Marathi, and Rotya is a roti or bread.
“It was Babasaheb's most favourite dish. The dough has to be perfectly kneaded, and making the roti is tough. Only a few people from the Mahar community can make it,” said Bao.
Lambya Rotya is made of just three ingredients: wheat flour, water and salt. The dough is fermented, then a small portion of the dough is stretched out on a hot inverted kadhai or matka (earthen pot).
This thin flatbread pairs well with spicy mutton curry or mango pulp. In the past year, this Lambya Rotya has gained a lot of popularity among food bloggers. Reels and photos of this bread are popular on Instagram.
This unique preparation, which has been a part of the Dalit communities for decades is now used as popular content by food bloggers. However they only tend to present it as an exotic dish, rather than talk about its history or give credit to the community that created it.
Similar patterns of online and offline popularity can be noticed with grains like millet. Millets have suddenly become all the rage now as a ‘superfood’.
However, millets such as jowar, bajra and nachni have always been a part of Dalit communities’ diet. “Millets come in fancy packaging now, and sometimes cost even more than wheat. This has only made things worse for us,” said Bao.
Bhakri, a flatbread made from millet, has always been a part of Dalit communities in Maharashtra. The community relied on millet because they could not afford expensive grains such as wheat. “Bhakari is extremely simple to make. One large bhakri eaten with an onion can satiate a person's hunger for eight hours,” explained Bao.
Marginalised communities are spread all over India. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, there is the Musahar community. Musahar translates to ‘rat hunter’ in Bhojpuri. The Musahar are one of the most poverty-stricken tribes in the country and consume rat meat because it is freely available.
The rodents are roasted over an open flame, and the meat is deboned. This meat is further cooked with spices, onion and tomato to make a curry.
Another Dalit community in Bihar is the Dom, they are incharge of burning corpses. They sometimes use the wood from cremation grounds to cook their food.
Baati Chokha, a popular dish from Varanasi, is a daily staple for this community. It can be cooked under the embers of the wood left over from the pyres. The chokha is made up of roasted vegetables like aubergine and tomato, which are then mashed together with salt and oil.
The Dalit communities in the country are still fighting for their right to nutritious, healthy food. The idea of ‘purity’ and 'satvik' food propagated by the so called ‘dominant castes’ continues to be a challenge.
Even today, children in these communities are malnourished because of the absence of proper nutritious meals. Even the mandatory midday meals served at government schools are often watered down. These meals lack sufficient protein because they are dominantly vegetarian.
Today, these recipes are fading even within the Dalit community. The genres of art and literature are the only ones which have brought alive some conversations regarding oppression and caste-based hegemony to the table.
Illustrators like Bao have used their art to protect and showcase the community they are a part of. “We do not mind talking about these recipes, these recipes are like the sea for us. It's the only thing we have been given down to us,” Bao explained.
Here is a recipe for Jowar Bhakri from a portal called Madhuras.
Calories - 113 Cal (1) | Nutrition Value - Protein -2.3g Carbs - 15.7
- 1 cup Jowar flour/ any millet flour
- 2 tbsp rice flour
- Salt to taste
- Hot water 1/4 cup (approximately)
- Take jowar and rice flour in a deep plate, add salt to taste.
- Add hot boiling water and mix well.
- Once the dough cools a bit, start kneading and continue for at least five minutes.
- Dust some dry flour over the rolling board and start to pat the dough to flatten it into a round bread or bhakri.
- Heat a skillet or tawa, place the bhakri, the side on which dry flour was applied should face upward.
- As soon as you place the bhakri, apply water on the top surface and spread it evenly all over the flatbread.
- Roast it just till the water starts to evaporate from the top side of the bhakri.
- Now flip the bhakri and cook the other side for just two minutes. At this point in time, you can increase the heat.
- Now take the skillet away from direct heat, lift the bhakri using tongs and roast it on the direct flame on both sides.
- Serve warm, with onions or thecha, a spicy chutney.
(This story is published as a part of The Citizen's two-week mentorship programme.)