The Talking Thali

Myth Theory 83 Comments

Published in First City, Dec. 2011


The best way to destroy a culture is to destroy the kitchen. For it is in the kitchen that a language is spoken that addresses the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue and even the skin, all five senses, something that all of us are exposed to since childhood but few of us realize. By cooking Chinese food in the Chinese way,the Chinese mother makes her child Chinese. By cooking Zulu food in the Zulu way, the Zulu mother makes her child Zulu.

No child is born with an understanding of culture. As the child grows up his mind is shaped by thoughts of those around. But these thoughts are not necessarily communicated through words, and certainly not the written word. What the mind receives are not instructions but patterns. And patterns have always been communicated through symbols, stories and rituals.  The kitchen is full of symbols and rituals that shape the mind of the child. Change these symbols and rituals and you change the thoughts of the children and with it the culture of an entire community. It is a surprising fact that this has not been realized or noticed by child psychologists. Perhaps the humble kitchen as a place of learning seems to be farfetched for the modern mind.

A traditional Indian kitchen was a sacred space. It was decorated with auspicious signs. Sometimes, it doubled up as the puja room. In many households, you are not allowed to enter the kitchen with footwear, you are expected to bathe before lighting the kitchen fire, you are not allowed to eat unless you have taken a bath – all this clearly gave the child a message, food is not just for filling the stomach, food is something special and sacred, the offerings of the yagna of life. Without food, there is no existence. Today, the kitchen is changing in character. The aim is to create a kitchen that is highly efficient and effective and sanitized to satisfy the needs of the working couple. It almost seems like a factory: a good fridge, a good dishwasher, pressure cooker, gadgets to mix and grate and pound and mince, microwaves to quickly heat food. It is clean and quick, everything wrapped in foil and plastic, no stains, no smells, no vapors. What is the message? Cooking is a chore, an industrial activity, food is merely nourishment for the body, of functional value primarily.

What changed the kitchen from temple to factory? Is it the rise of secularism that saw food scientifically and rejected all sacred notions as silly superstition? Is it the rise of feminism, the Western variety, which saw the kitchen as a prison created by men for women? Kitchen duties, once the soul of the household, became a burden. There is a desperate need for quick solutions – easy to cook food, readymade food, outsourced food, food cooked by a cook, to liberate the lady of the household. Food ordered from outside has become more exciting than boring daily kitchen fare. The message: everything can be outsourced, everything can be industrialized, even the hearth.

It is in the kitchen that the Indian child learns the concept of ‘jhoota’ of pollution; how food that has been tasted by someone else spoils the food. One never tastes food while cooking and one never offers tasted food to the gods. Eating ‘jhoota’ food is a sign of love and subservience; we eat the ‘jhoota’ of gods and elders. In a Chinese kitchen, the child learnt how using chopsticks is the sign of civilization; only barbarians used hands, knives and forks. They learnt how a good cook always cuts food in tiny pieces so that they are chopstick-friendly. In a Roman kitchen, the child learnt that it was a luxury to be eat food while lying down. In India, eating while lying down was akin to show disrespect to food.

In the Indian kitchen, the child learnt to value approximation over exactness. Cooks never measured the quantity of salt to be added; it was all by judgment, salt to taste. Recipes were never written down but passed down through apprenticeship. One figured out proportion visually, by seeing the amount of food before, and through smell, never taste. Cooking therefore had to be creative, demanding opening up of other senses, beyond the taste buds. The cook was expected to rely on his eyes and ears and finger tips and nose, anything but the mouth. The absence of recipes indicated to the child that life was not about formulas. You had to work with what you had and be creative at it. It also meant that wisdom could not be stored outside human beings, in documents. The dish had no independent existence outside the cook. When the mother died, the particular taste of her dal went with her.

The masala box is a powerful tool to explain adjustments and accommodation. Every masala box had the same ingredients – but the proportions used by different cooks created different flavors. Bad food could be made good by adding another spice. Thus everything could be managed, with a little bit of creativity. With readymade masala packets coming in, the tastes are getting increasingly standardized, a sign of what may be called Westernization.

In most parts of the world, people sat around the hearth and ate around it. In deserts, meat cooked over the fire was cut and served on flat bread. In cold climates, a pot hung over the hearth around which the family gathered. Whatever was caught and collected during the day was put in the pot – thus was born the soup and the broth, to be eaten with bread.  In Islamic countries, food was served on a single dish to evoke equality and brotherhood. In Punjab, the notion of a collective oven to make bread created the romantic notion of ‘sanjha choolah’ where women gathered to gossip and bake bread at dusk just as they gathered around the well at dawn. In China, eating together with all dishes placed in the center, was a sign of unity. In Europe, food was served initially in the centre of the table and you ate what you could reach or was passed on to you by your neighbor – the precursor of buffet food, where each one is for himself, though everyone has access to bounty. Later, as manpower was increasingly available in rich households, food started being served by servants. In the 16th century, eating with forks and knives gained popularity; before that,all was finger food. How you ate food and your understanding of subtle flavors and aromas became a measure of your aristocracy.

In India, food was always served on a thali, either made of leaves (organic hence disposable) or metal (inorganic hence needed to be washed). Everyone ate in separate utensils, to reinforce the idea of ‘jhoota’. The women served the food. The men of the household ate first, then the children and finally the women. This was hierarchy established. Good food in India had much to do with caste hierarchy: food cooked in ghee, and by Brahmins, was highly prized, resulting in the employment of the ‘maharaj’ in royal and affluent households. The cook in these places had a higher station than the members of the household and so had a greater control over the kitchen fire than even the women of the household.

In most cultures, feasts are associated with festivals and rites of passage such as marriage, childbirth and the end of bereavement. Food was a powerful tool to establish religious and communal identity. Kosher food ensured that the Jewish people retained their identity as they wandered the world seeking a home. In Muslim households, the holy month of Ramzan is marked by fasting by day and feasting at night; everyone breaks the fast with dates on sighting of the moon. In many Christian households, during Lent no egg, or fish, is eaten leading to large consumption of eggs after Easter. Hindus become strict vegetarian either in the month of Shravan or the month of Kartik. Sour food is not eaten on Fridays to remind the household of Santoshi, the goddess of satisfaction. The kitchen fires are not used for several days when a death occurs in the family. Hindus offer Shiva raw milk, Krishna butter, while the goddess is offered lime. Thus through rites and ritual, food comes to acquire meaning.

The way food is eaten also has impact on the way we think.  Imagine eating a proper four course meal: first there is the soup, then the salad, then the main course and finally desert. Everything is controlled and sequential. Now imagine eating a thali: everything served simultaneously, the salad, the rice, the roti, the curries, the sweets, even the chutneys and papad. The Western meal is served in a linear way while the Indian meal is served in a cyclical way. The movement of the hand in Western food as the meat is cut and forked, is highly linear while the finger moves circularly while tearing the roti or mixing the rice. The Indian dishes are not eaten individually but have to be mixed, a practice that is uniquely Indian. So in Western cuisine, we taste what the cook serves but in Indian cuisine we taste our own mixture. This is the height of customization. Could this be the reason why Indians are so individualistic and resist working in a team as a group?

  • Deepti Gupta

    I enjoyed the article. I like that you point out the cyclical nature of how we eat and the idea that a child learns so much about a culture through the kitchen. However, you also lay out a lot of other information about how an Indian Kitchen works without delving into its meaning. For instance, the fact that men eat first and then children and then women. I would like to know how you understand that dynamics. For me as a woman, that is unacceptable. Why do women have to eat last? For that matter why don’t men cook in Indian kitchens? And I don’t mean restaurants. I mean kitchens at home. We also teach sexism in our Indian kitchens. How does that contribute to our culture?

    I’d love to know what you think about this.


    • Devdutt

      We can read it as women being treated as second class citizen (favored left wing thought)….we can read it is as logistic management since women were in charge of the kitchen (favored right wing thought)….you take your pick and then ask yourself when guests come to your house what is power dynamic when you eat before them, with them, after them…..all possibilities exist….our interpretations reveal not ‘the’ truth but ourselves.

  • bee

    you forgot the bit about the kitchen in old homes being dark, dingy with hardly any ventilation in a back corner of the house where only the women slogged. in kerala in old homes, they are like dungeons.

    it’s nice to romanticise about the past but ask one of those women who actually worked there which they prefer.

    i’ll take my industrial sanitized kitchen and so will my grandmother.

    • Devdutt

      I saw lovely bright beautiful kitchens around me with happy grandmothers and grandfathers who loved to cook with their wives…..sorry to know the kitchens you saw were tragic dungeons where women were abused….it takes all kinds to make this world.

      • Shubhra Mukerjee

        You were one of the very few lucky ones who saw only the very beautiful side of it. I suggest you do more research on the Indian kitchen before romanticizing. If you go through the translations of the first two parts of the Bengali stalwart Ashapurna devi’s trilogy Prothom Protisruti, Shubornolata — you will get a clearer picture of the women’s plight with kitchen in that era.
        By the way, I was brought up in a typical Howrah and North Calcutta background and I can tell you that the in all the grand mansions of the yester years, the worst equipped rooms were the kitchens. They were really like dungeons. People felt that it was not necessary to give much thought about the room where only the lesser mortals like women would spend most of their time in.
        Your article is beautiful but please do not generalize it. You can put that forth as an account of your experience with your family.

        • Sushweta Chakraborty

          I agree with my friend Shubhra. I too was born into a joint family & grew up seeing & visiting many joint family kitchens. In most families, men cared about what came out of the kitchens onto their plates. They didn’t quite bother to make arrangements that would make cooking easier & a happy activity for the women. But many women who loved to cook, enjoyed making the dishes all the same – making do with all the shortcomings in the infrastructure.

          On the other hand, some families, of course, had the fortunate matriarch swaying hold over cooks, bawarchis & their masalchis to produce exquisite dishes. Their kitchens too were elaborate spaces.

  • Sumanth Sharma

    “Food, nay a Full meal for thought”. A Must Read !

    You have indeed struck the right chord here I must say.

    More than whether one agrees or not with the various points you brought out, you definitely have brought our points to think over.

    I have not read your famous books I must confess, but through my voracious reader Wife I do know what you have a vast reader base, so you are indeed an Opinion maker in the Society now.

    Which means that you have a great responsibility !!

    This thought recorded here “The Talking Thali” is a very good food for Thought.

    I have recommended a various of my acquaintances, friends alike to read.

  • Sumanth Sharma

    Response to Avinash Rajgopal

    I do not see any problem even if one interpreted Traditional Indian as Hindu, if its Indian Tradition, then it HAS to be Hindu, for non Hindu is not a Tradition of India, but definitely they have been assimilated into Indian’ness with Acceptance (not mere Tolerance).

    Here am not emphasizing on differentiating Traditional Indian i.e. Hindu and non-Hindu, but I wonder what is the problem in Calling Hindu Tradition as Indian Tradition.

    • Nitin Jain

      I just want to add here that Jains have been as old as hindus and Jains are not hindus. so calling Indian tradition as Hindu tradition is wrong logically.

  • Sumanth Sharma

    I must confess most Indians Confuse “Hindu” with a Religions, this Nation existed with full glory even 10,000 years ago with many religions (Faith or Opinion or paths).

    This has always been a Pluralistic society with magnanimous and broad outlook and acceptance to every Opinion (religion).

    Since the land was on the Other side of Sindhu, Indu, came the Name Hindu, as given by Visitors to Bharath of those times.

    Hindu is a broad term and not a single Religion, and yet many “educated” Secular poeple seem to be apologetic when calling themselves a Sanatani or Hindu. Sorry for digressing.

  • malavika

    a very thought provoking article !!

  • Apoorv Vij

    I like the logic of the western versus indian school of thought. It is very similar to the western classical music versus indian classical. Western classical music is linear whereas the pieces in Indian classical are cyclic. I guess this has a lot to do with our core philoshophical thought process. Western philosophy believes in the idea that we all live are lives, at the end of which we die and then we either go to heaven or hell. In Indian school of thought, we believe in reincarnation, or coming back of the soul following the cycle of life. And I guess that thought process demonstrates itself in everything we do.

  • sujay

    Amazing, I never thought that we customize our own food when we eat in a thali. Yes indeed in a thali we tear the roti then mix it with Dal or curry and then perhaps a pickle and then put it in the mouth, maybe with a pinch of salt or onion.
    I never thought about the way you described here!!!

  • Sra

    It’s easy to romanticise the past and mourn a lost world, but the past world was different for different people – and your article does not reflect that truth. As for cleanliness, because of the lack of knowledge/means to deal with it, people were more tolerant of dirt – just the way we are tolerant of street food today but wouldn’t deliberately maintain the same low standards in our kitchens – so a few rats and bandicoots did not matter, but that did not make them less harmful. Would Big Bazaar tolerate rodents running around its shelves, Mr Pattanaik, and aren’t Big Bazaar and the Future group all about making life easy for the consumer?

    Even with modcons, many women are imprisoned in the kitchen, planning, cooking and serving meals, snacks and beverages day-round – so if industrial kitchens can make it a wee bit, or even much, better, well and good.

    And really, do we need to see more hierarchies being established, whether it’s gender or caste? What is so good about that?

    • Devdutt

      The more you seek to dominate with your point of view, the more hierarchies YOU create too….we all create hierarchies with ourselves as the alpha….someone who says he/she does not create hierarchies is a liar.

      • Krishnan Mk

        True. It is in human nature to create such hierarchies. What was yours, Sir?

        I ask because, although I sensed your judgement leaning towards the Indian way, I, nevertheless, cannot be sure, unless you tell us.

        Plus, I’m reading your writings for the first time. So, I don’t know if being ‘conclusive’ is your style/usual way, or not, like this one is not, I reckon. But, if, in case, you were to pass a conclusion, I’m quite curious what it would have been?
        (Please don’t say, ‘do your own math!’) :-)

        Thanks! Interesting article BTW. :-)

      • Lord Savior

        I mourn your childish smoothification of all viewpoints. Subjectivity is dependent on viewpoints but if my viewpoint directly contradicts yours, what shall we do? We turn to objectivity to resolve the issue. And that’s where science and absolute truth comes.

  • gitanjali

    The way i cook has changed because of this article.
    thank you for making the indian kitchen theory crystal clear.

  • hagra

    the last question suddenly pops up and seems not to be related to the article! the topic is food and traditions?!! I know lots of indians to be good team members!!

  • Charu

    Wow, wow, wow! What an articulate essay Devdutt! Lovely observations and analogies. I am writing this comment as I am halfway through the wirte-up. Let me go back to the feast!

  • MaheshB

    I whole heartedly love this “romantic” portrayal of kitchen — it has unity built into it. Wonderfully written article by Devdutt — thank you!

    And now for the skeptics, we are evolving into WORLD KITCHEN — let’s wait and see what comes out!

  • Sathyen

    This is a beautifully written, well articulated article.  My compliments to the writer. 
     While presenting some background and facts on the subject, the author (writer) artfully discusses his thoughts and observations and in the process he captures the reader’s attention fully. 
    When he is ready to close his article after discussing the unique aspect of ‘individualized/customized’ meal, the writer raises a question if this individuality has anything to do with the individualistic trait that resists group/team work, a trait generally attributed to Indians/Indian subcontinent.. Whether we like it or not, whether it has any merits or not, it is the general impression many in the West have about us…It is not a conclusion that the writer has made at the end of his article.  It is a question he raises to tickle the readers’ curiosity and engage them to think beyond his article – nothing more nothing less.  It could even be a precursor for another article by the author or for that matter by one of us, the readers!! …The very fact that some readers seem to be offended by it, appears to me that the author has succeeded in getting his readers to go beyond his article.   
    The author (Devdutt), in one of his responses correctly states “our interpretations reveal not ‘the’ truth  but ourselves”

  • jyothirmayi rallapalli

    Lovely! Very well written.. Any person, in my opinion experiences the culture traditions his family follows in precisely two places – his mother’s kitchen as a child and the marriage mantapa as an adult!

  • Anonymous

    I loved reading through the article but would beg to differ on the closing sentence that calls Indians more individualistic than the western world. We, Indians are more of team players, believing in the collective. Evaluate our marriage ceremonies where uncle, aunts, neighbours, and/or anybody interested, collectively make the event happen. A closer look at the corporate environment where we have teams with shared responsibilities, reinstates my assumption. What would others have to say on this?

  • sameer patel

    means what we think its depend upon what we eat and process of making food

  • OnlineObelix

    Apropos the last comment about ‘individualistic’ Indians, Is thali customisation a reason for our nature? Could it be that inherent individualism actually makes us customise each mouthful? Also, what’s your view on Swami Vivekananda’s famous comment about religion limiting itself to the kitchen in the south of India and asking the Brahmins to move it into the living room and even outside the portals of their homes?

  • Abhirup Basu

    A highly satisfying column. I would also liked if you would have touched upon the fact that food is an important way of inter-cultural dialogue. Growing up in Kolkata, I have taken a gastronomical journey through various cuisines of cultures that call this city their home. It sometimes felt like looking through a window into their individual cultures or even looking through the veil of times to the era gone by. Food is Art for all Senses….