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053: Food and Taboo with Ragini Kashyap (Day 8 SFW2)

Jackfruit. Chicken feet. Alcohol. Pig skin. Masoor dal. Blood. Onions. Coconut Milk. Intestines. Crickets. Why are certain foods taboo (prohibited or restricted) in certain cultures while being commonplace in others? What were some of the taboo foods or culinary rules (eg. not touching pickles while menstruating) in your childhood? How do we understand the meaning and conceptual category of taboo foods without voyeuristically making ingredients “exotic” or “abnormal” (as many shows on National Geographic do)? What are the relationships between purity and pollution, between the sacred and profane, between the allowed and the forbidden when it comes to food?

Ragini Kashyap encouraged us to think more broadly and deeply about the word ‘taboo’

which has its origins in the concept of ‘tapu’ from the Tongan language. Tongan along with Hawaiian, Maori, Samoan and Tahitian form the Polynesian branch of Austronesian languages. The 18th century British naval captain James Cook is credited with introducing the word taboo into the English language having borrowed from the Tongan. The problem with many of the colonial “borrowings” is that words and concepts are often stripped of their context and presented in misconstrued or skeletal fashions (read the book Braiding Sweetgrass for numerous illustrations). In order to better understand what tapu could have meant, one would have to understand the world view that the people of Tonga held.

Nevertheless, as Ragini pointed out, there could be myriad reasons why certain ingredients and dietary practices are taboo, including religion, medical (unsafe to eat), economic (animals are more valuable alive than as meat, sharing of resources amongst neighbouring tribes), symbolic (virility), and social (class, stature, caste, gender), marketing (tea is thought of as a “traditional South Asian drink) and public policy (availability and affordability of certain foods). And these reasons can change over time and space, as societies mutate.

She also illustrated how cultural practices were often a way of passing down scientific knowledge in a more easily accessible manner. The caveat with this route is that the underlying logic or reason for the scientific practise is often forgotten, and may be no longer relevant (eg. change in kitchen architecture, gathering foods, sources of cooking heat). However the gap between science and cultural rituals often allows a shift in the power dynamics between the people dictating the taboos and the ones who are supposed to practise them. Her stimulating lecture made many of us probe taboo foods and practices that we grew up with.

"Taboo and Food" Lecture part of online Studying Foods Workshop with Ragini Kashyap conducted on March 16, 2022

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