Food on table

The Cultural Flavours Of Food

BY DRISHTI RAKHRA

There are many ways in which teaching is possible. The most traditional one — the age-old lecture model, is one we fall back on very easily. This happens for good reasons since the act of teaching is reliant most heavily on communication — how efficient we are, how well we can speak to our students. Everything is reliant on the teacher’s ability to communicate. I am still learning how to teach, but I know enough to never take any class for granted. If there is one thing I have learnt, it is that the power dynamic created between the student and teacher is a delicate one, particularly in a pandemic world, where there is already so much distance between the two. At this point in my teaching career, I have been teaching online longer than I have been teaching offline, so this return to the offline is somewhat daunting, to put it lightly. Nevertheless, being able to see my students is a gift I didn’t know I wanted. 

The college I work at is a fairly open space. There is room for conversation and laughter. As most English departments do, my colleagues and I organise several events over the semesters. Keeping students involved in an educational space is a continuous battle. We organise fests, causeries, panels, and lec-dems — all to give the students more space to realise their identities outside of the classroom, outside of who they are supposed to be. In this space of consistent work, we also organise a food festival every academic year called UFF — Unique Food Fusion. A food festival in a college, you might ask? That has not been organised by home science students? Yes, yes, simply because our relationships with food surpasses our identities in our classrooms. 

Our most recent edition of UFF was put together by MA English students. The students were asked to cook a dish that has some significance at home; a dish that forms or contributes to who they are. When I entered the classroom, a jury was already marking them on their cooking effort. 30 students stood at different benches across the room, each of them standing before a dish they had cooked. Right from the first student, who stood with a bowl of some kind of laddoos — to the last one who stood at attention before a plate of boiled tapioca and some kind of curry — each of them looked excited to be there and have their food tasted. 

I walked around the room, moving from one bench to the other and asked each of them what they’d cooked. Some of them picked dishes they love eating themselves — chicken skewers with sauce — while others cooked dishes that had to be cooked several times to be perfected. Right from egg fried rice to fish curry and even some very crispy fried jackfruit. Each of them was bursting with stories. Many of these students live away from home, they carry with them a heavy nostalgia for their hometowns and their families. 

The act of cooking for someone, especially a dish that is meant to represent your identity, is a particularly intimate exercise. It allows you to think back to your childhood, your mother (in most cases), and even the small moments of your life. When this is brought to the very formal space of the classroom, it is afforded rather important respect — all of our stories are important. 

I heard the phrase ‘comfort food’ for the first time while reading fanfiction about an American show. The comfort food in the show was a kind of fried chicken, and I wondered for a long time what was so comfortable about this. It took me a while to understand what the phrase means. There is, perhaps, nothing more comforting than eating food that feels like home. Most of us return to this food at the end of long days, particularly in this incredibly fast-paced world. We forget the power of food, especially when it’s become so easily available to us with the likes of Swiggy and Zomato, right at our fingertips. 

Once the students explained to everyone what their food symbolised, each of them stepped away from their benches and moved towards their classmates. Slowly, they began eating each other’s food, sharing stories and laughter. The plates we collected at the end of the programme looked like a mess of colours – each food bleeding into the other. Our students are from all parts of the country, and their food represents each of these locations.  To experience a moment like this is powerful. As I watched them all — my students and colleagues ate so much that they couldn’t move, I couldn’t help but smile at the fact that we were able to do this again, in a pandemic stricken world that will perhaps never return to the normal we once knew it to be. We must learn to evaluate what we consider to be normal, in every little part of our lives, be it how we relate to others or how we experience the world ourselves. Perhaps, if our patterns of learning change, we will become better individuals capable of dealing with a newer world.

Drishti Rakhra is a reader, teacher, and writer, in that order. In 2019, she completed her Master’s in English from Ambedkar University Delhi and is currently an assistant professor at St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore.