Acknowledging Intersectionality In Odisha’s Culinary Tradition

If we look at different culinary traditions all over the world, one will notice the areas where they are highly segregated in terms of gender, class, or title. Who is behind the stove is not just a coincidence. In fact, in most cases it is a product of cultural norms deeply embedded in society.

But not all cooks get the recognition they deserve. How they are perceived is the culmination of a series of unchallenged ideas that plant themselves in our homes, streets, and cultural spaces in the form of a sneaky historical legacy.

The notion that it behoves women to find their place in the kitchen is an age-old stereotype. While there are exceptions here and there, a tacit social consensus entrenched in our collective perception of what is acceptable makes it difficult to question the norm.

I grew up in an Odia family. Some of my earliest memories include watching women from my father’s village take turns to slog away at a dhinki.

A dhinki is an ancient tool levered at one end, as in a see-saw, to pound and dehusk grains like rice and millet.

We didn’t have a dhinki at home. But I remember watching my grandmother muscle through a batch of black grams on a stone grinder until they were pulverised, ready to be turned into a batter and left to ferment for making pithas the following day. My grandfather, on the other hand, had never so much as boiled water. Gender roles in and out of the kitchen were clearly demarcated.

A woman’s job in the kitchen is by and large a thankless one. While there are men who like to cook once in a while, it is usually seen as a fun activity garnering adulation from all and sundry, even when less exciting chores like scouring plates or cleaning up after a mess is for the woman to handle.

I had internalised this and didn’t bother learning how to cook until a decade later, when I rediscovered the joy of watching someone conjure up a feast in a college hostel. Now I cook pretty much every single day as a form of therapy. My appreciation for people who routinely toil away in the kitchen to feed others has also increased tenfold.

If you consider just Odisha, the men who obviously cook regularly are the temple priests of Puri. But this again, is a highly-respected role performed in a hallowed space. The act of cooking in this scenario has value by association with God himself.

But we often turn a blind eye to people who feed us without asking for a lot in return. Street food vendors are a perfect example. They play a part as important, if not more, as the roles performed by TV chefs and Odisha’s temple priests in corroborating our cultural and personal identities through food. But more often than not, the profession itself is gauged on the basis of class rather than the magic they create on a daily basis, uniting people from all social backgrounds in street corners by virtue of their instinctual understanding of food that’s exquisite and representative of an entire culture on a plate.

Giving every cook their due is the least all of us can do. In the words of the legendary travel show host Anthony Bourdain, “When someone cooks for you, they are saying something about themselves… They are saying where they come from, who they are, what makes them happy.”

The food on our plates is an extension of someone’s emotional wellspring and energy. Food is more than just fuel for our bodies. Acknowledging it as such can change our lives. I know it has changed mine.

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