Ashok R. Kelkar



Aesthetics of Food:A Case Study of Traditional Diet Of Upper-Catste Hindus


Abstract: To accompany ‘Aesthetics of Food’ Figures 1 (lower) & 2 (upper)


Figure 1: A ‘Place ‘ set for a proper meal in Maharashtra, India


            As noted in the text the plantain leaf may be replaced by a shallow metal dish or a plate made of leaves tacked to one another.  The seat shown here is a wooden one.  Note the floor decoration framing the leaf and incense sticks.


Figure 2: A schematic  platter for a proper meal in Maharastra, India


            When compared with Figure 1 this diagram will need to be slightly adjusted if the round dish or leaf-plate is replaced by the plantain leaf.  The basic division into four quarters or quadrants remains-namely, For leaf for Condiments,  Far right for Staple Condiments, near right for Rice Staples, and near left for Rice treats.


Aesthetic of Food Conceptual Framework.


The term “aesthetics” originally referred to the study of the five and more sense receptors, while anesthesia referred to their deactivation.   The discussion of arts tends to borrow from the gustatory sense: One speaks of sweet music, tasteful decoration and, in Sanskrit poetics of the rasa or “taste” of a play or a poem.  Despite this fact, however, current discussion of aesthetics and enumerations of the fine arts still frequently confined to the distal receptors of sight and sound to the exclusion of the proximal receptors of taste, smell, touch and others.  The proximal receptors of kinaesthetics involved in dance seem to fare somewhat better.


I am on of those who hold that a consideration of aesthetic experience cannot be complete without a consideration of aesthetic experience outside the ambit of the arts.  This implies that, while one could understand the reasons behind the neglect of the proximate receptors (They have not given rise to any fine art and the crafts they have given rise **** are typically the domain of the non-dominant female sex and so of a lower status).  One cannot justify this neglect.  The pleasures of these senses should not be dismissed as mere sensuous pleasures without aesthetic dimension or content.  I am therefore especially happy about this opportunity Colloquium on Food systems communicate on systems Central Institute of Indian Languages Mysore India, 2-5 January 1985. to take up the issue of the aesthetics of food.


Jesus reminded Satan (Matthew 4: 4) quoting Deuteronomy (8:3) that ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’  A wag has commented on this saying. ‘Yes indeed.  Man needs jam tool.  This is as good a point of departure as any for bringing aesthetics into the domain of nutrition.  To make food tasty is to ensure that the person would eat enough of it, if not more.  The aesthetic value of food is a kind of surplus in relation to the primary nutritional value of food: it calls for the judgement of Aesthetic Quality (AQ).  At the minimum the person likes the food or dislikes it.  This liking or disliking depends on two things –the input; namely, the Aesthetic Object (AQ), which is accessible to sense perception or to mental perception (‘I see a trap there,’ ‘I smell a rat’ are examples in of perception in both the literal and metaphorical senses), and the processing of this input effected by the person’s Aesthetic Sensibility  (AS), which subjects the input to a certain exploration (One savours, the food or, if one goes by the Sanskrit critical term carvanā, ‘chewing’, one even savours the poem).  The sensibility will vary with the individual, the personality type, the group and the historical period. The exploration may be immature or mature, spontaneous or considered.  (Some foods may be an acquired taste.)  To sum up, AQ=f (AQ,AS), aesthetic quality is a function jointly of the aesthetic object and the aesthetic sensibility  in question.  By saying so, we have answered the question: “Does beauty lie in the object or in the beholder?” In both.”  What is ‘f’ in this formula?  The function involves the mode of ascription of the aesthetic quality.  If the aesthetic object happens to be not a natural object, but a work of a craft or art, this mode of ascription brings in the question of style and technique.


Our present concern is of course with food (including drink) as an aesthetic object.  More specifically, one has to discriminate between food token and food type (‘I normally like ravioli, you know, but what’s been served here is somehow not quite up to the mark’), between food element and food complex (ingredient, dish, course, meal, diet in an ascending hierarchy), and between a combination of meals (the diet) and repertory of competing meals (the cuisine).  The food may be a natural product (milk, ripe fruit, raw oyster) or the product of the culinary craft.  Food as an aesthetic object is accessible chiefly craft.  Food as an aesthetic object is accessible chiefly to the proximal senses of taste and smell, both of which involve chemical discrimination and often combine into perceptions of flavour (rasa and gandha combine into sāvda).  Since food is ingested, the proximal tactile senses of pressure, temperature and chemical irritation are also very much in the picture.  Marginally, food is also subjected to discriminations of sight and of sound.  As we shall see later, food is also open to mental perceptions (like ‘y another made it,’ for example) in the aesthetic context.  So the first step towards an aesthetics of food will be a review of the raw perceptual input of aesthetic discriminations in food:


1)                             Taste:  The physiology of taste suggests a four-way discrimination sweet, acid salty, bitter (each associated with certain chemical types). Also one could detect an ingredient in a dish in a heavy, moderate, light or trace proportion.

2)                             Smells:  The physiology is not wholly clear on this point: a number of classes of smells are recognized; aromatic, musky, roaen, and so forth (again each associated with certain chemical types).

3)                             Touch (or Feel): In respect of food the following discriminations appear to be relevant: rough/ smooth; capable of being drunk, sipped, licked.  Chewed, crushed or gulped; dry/wet; dry/unctuous; cruchy/pasty/ mushy/ liquid; hot/warm /lukewarm/cool/cold/chill (45-50o, 40-50om 30-40om 25-30o, 15-25o, 5-15o—in comparison with the body temperature of 37o C.  (the corresponding scale for the atmosphere being somewhat different); burning/ pungent/ astringent/ tingling / bland.

4)                             Sight: In respect of food the following discriminations in respect of colours, shapes, and sizes appear to be more relevant warm/cool in colour (purple-red-orange-yellow, green-blue-purple), light/dark; bright/dull; regular/irregular in shape; bulky/mouthful/particle.

5)                             Sounds: In respect of food, sound is associated with tactile feels inside the mouth-flzzy, crunchy, cracking or the like; the noise of sucking in liquids or smacking or licking is also involved.


Certain foods and drinks may make you feel drowsy, simultaneous intoxicated

 or the like-more intimate proximate responses.

            Our second step will be to indicate ways in which aesthetic sensibility and exploration in respect of food could be defined.  The individuality of taste is widely recognized—Mediaveal Latin de gustibus et coloribus nonest disputandum, Sanskrit bhinnarucirhi loka (Kalidasa.  Raghuvaša 6: 30), Age, sex, temperament (gourmet, food lover, lacking in food  sensibility), state of health (loss of appetite, keen appetite) or the like define consumer types.  Commensal groups are often stereotyped at particular times.  (Thus, the French are supposed to be love of frog’s legs, pre-War Germans were supposed  to be content with sumptuous quantity, little variety, and strong flavours, Andhras are supposed to be capsicum lovers) Aesthetic exploration of food is associated with either a slow, leisurely meal or a quick tidbit.  Extremes of perceptual qualities or excessive continuous consumption are expected to a pall and to blunt the taste.  One can also raise the question as to how far food and drink preferences correlate with preferences in clothing and housing, the other two necessities of life.   If there is a high correlation, can one speak of certain food preferences being associable with certain life styles Of course this involves the larger question of relating the aesthetics of the proximal receptors with the aesthetics of the distal receptors of sight and sound, and of relating the aesthetics of sense perceptions to the aesthetic of mental perceptions.


            Third step takes us to judgements of aesthetic quality.  Given the complexities at the two levels of the aesthetic object and the aesthetic sensibility, it is no wonder that considerations of aesthetic quality rapidly move beyond a simple distinction between liking and disliking.  One can like one thing more than another or dislike one thing more than another.  Indeed possible discriminations in aesthetic quality can be best accommodated not in simple pigeonholing (beautiful/ugly, sublime/ridiculous) but  in a space with more than one dimension within which the judgement of aesthetic quality places the aesthetic object in consonance with the aesthetic sensibility underlying the judgement.  Elsewhere (Kelkar 1969) I have suggested that the attribution of aesthetic qualities involves the ascription of certain perceptual qualities:


1)      Unity-Fragmentation

2)      Perfection and Harmony-Imperfection and Disharmony

3)      Plentitude and Liveliness-Parvitude and Dullness

4)      Infinitude—Finitude.


Aesthetic adjectives like beautiful, sublime, etc., (in respect of food, ones like rich, exotic monotonous, drab, etc.,) can then be related to these perceptions.  Thus, beautiful is that which scores plus on the dimensions 1,2, 3; dainty is that which scores plus on 1, 2 and minus on 4; and so on.  Aesthetic qualities correlate both with focused perceptions (e.g. purple or sweet seen as rich) and with global, structural perceptions (e.g. changelessness as parvitude novelty or variety as plentitude, conformity to a familiar type as harmony).


      In order to lend some substance to this conceptual framework, let us apply it to a case study.


An Ethnographic Sketch of the Traditional Diet of Upper-caste Hindus from Maharashtra


            In proposing to describe ethnographically the traditional diet and cuisine of  upper caste Hindu from Maharasthra (a group to which the author belongs), I am aware that  this is currently undergoing some change, beginning with the larger cities.  It underwent some changes in the second half of the nineteenth century with the acceptance of roughly 11.00 to 17.00 hours in the cities as the office hours which affected employees and some professionals and with the spread of tea or coffee as drinks (though not quite as an institution of the British or Japanese kinds) In the first half of the twentieth century the food habits were relatively stable.  By the traditional diet we here mean the diet of this period to the extent that it has not been affected by more recent changes (such as the slow obliteration of rice, wheat or millet dominance based on geography and class distinctions that started with the war-time rationing of 1940-5, the commoner use of non-vegetarian food, leavened bread and other bakery products, and ready to-eat food on sale other than the traditional sweets and savouries).  It may also be noted that this pattern is also spreading to the other castes in so far as they are moving into white-collar jobs  and adopted the associated life-style.


            This is not a full-scale description.  Being oriented to the aesthetics of food it does not go deeply into modes of preparing, serving and preserving food; into the moral, ritual, economic and other aspects, into the nutritional folk wisdom; and so forth.  Apart from drawing upon my own informal observation over the years as a participant.  I have also made use of a cookbook.  It is no ordinary cookbook, one of the co-authors is a physician and the presentation is methodical with systematic definitions of categories of dishes (Sanmant and Desai 1947/1961).


            To begin with, one must point out that the reference group has vegetarians (making partial ‘concessions’-to eating eggs for instance), and non-vegetarians (all of whom abstain from beef and also by custom from pork).  This has to do with caste tradition, family tradition and personal choice based on taste or moral-religious views.  Even the non-vegetarians often eat purely vegetarian meals because of economic exigencies or for ritual reasons (observance of special days, abstinence on the part of widows and so forth).


            The daily diet (nirtyā-cā āhār) will consist of the following


1)            The morning tea (with or without a snack) between 06.00 and 08.00hrs (sakā -cā čahā)

2)            The midday meal between 10.00 and 13.00 hours (dupr-ce ǰeva)

3)            The snack ( with or without tea) (madhlī ve) between 14.00 and 16.00 hours.

4)            The evening meal between 20.00 and 21.30 hours (tri-ce ǰevan)


In addition there may be an occasional snack-as when a guest is visiting (pharā).


            The second and fourth meals are considered to be proper meals (ǰevan) with a relatively elaborate structure: between the two, the midday meal is considered to be the main meal.  In contrast, in the working class the morning tea may actually be a breakfast (nyāhrī) and the evening meal is considered the main meal.


The proper meals may be divided into ordinary meals (sādhe ǰeva) or feasts on festive days or special occasions such as the presence of a special guest or as a “Sunday change” in a public restaurant (mejvānī, fist).  Occasionally  they may be replaced by a necessarily vegetarian fast-day meal (upāsā-cā pharāī) or ritual meal in honour of the dead  (šrāddha-pakā-ce ǰeva).


            A proper meal may be abbreviated for reasons of insufficient time for preparation or eating, of chronic or occasional shortages (as in travel), of lack of skill (a novice housewife or an unskilled male trying to manage a household), or of bodily need.  (The sick person’s diet tends to approximate a young child’s diet.)  From the school age, a child’s diet will not differ materially from an adult’s diet except that, resources permitting, the child is encouraged to drink milk rather than tea in the mornings.  (Maharashtra basically falls within India’s tea zone though coffee-drinking is also common by personal preference or for a change of routine-a guest is often greeted with the question “Will you have tea or coffee?”)


            The structure of a snack (pharāī) is relatively informal-one hot or cold beverage preceded by one by one or two solids.  If there are two solids, normally one will be a sweet and the other a savoury.  Alternatively, ‘dessert fruit’ or dried/rolled grain (or its preparations) may be served as a snack.


            A proper (ǰeva) is structured more elaborately into numbered courses (pahilā aka, dursrā aka, etc.) along the time axis and into slots as served on the plate.  There is a standing plate—either a round shallow dish () made of tin-plated brass, stainless steel, silver or a plantain-leaf piece or a leaf-plate (partrāval) depending on the occasion and availability.  Liquids may be served in cups or less formally as topping for the solids.  The cup may be a metal cup (ī) or a leaf-cup (dro).  Some dishes serve as condiments throughout the meal (toṇḍī-lāve); others are the staples of the course in question.  The platter is divided into four quadrants: far left, far right, near right and near left.  To take them up clockwise:


1)         Far left quadrant—condiments (toṇḍī-lāve): salt; slice of lime(limbū); pickle (loce)/suse powder or paste (korī caṭṇī, olī caṭṇī); salad; and water (košimbīr/bharīt/rāyte/bharā); and water (pāpa)/fritter (tala), consisting of bhaje, pānvaī, sāṇḍ) /tart .(kāp).


2)         far right quadrant-stple condiments (mukhya toṇḍi lāve) along with liquids served in cups): boiled or saut-fired vegetable (bhaǰī)/boiled pulses (usa) stuffed vegetable (bharle) pulse flour paste (jhu), vegterarian or non-vegetarian soup with or without solid matter (ā, or var, rassa sār, kāahī, sāmbāre, pyhle) milk or milk product (curd yougurt (dahī), buttermilk yougurt (tāk) clarified yougurt butter or ghee (tūp).


3.         Near right quadrant—rice staples (for first or third course): for first course either (a) or (b); (a) boiled rice (sādhā bhāt) mixed with vegetarian or non-vegetarian soup (kālva, kāhī-tarī pātaī), salt and ghee (annašuddi), (b) a combined preparation (khicī) of rice and pulse, sweetened rice (goā bhāt), savoury rice (masāle-bhāt, vegetarian or non-vegetarian pulāv). For third course (c) boiled rice mixed with butter milk  or curd or milk ******followed by a sipping of these additives.


4.         Near left quadrant-non-rice treats (for second or main course) and liquid served in cups, if any: either (a) or (b); (a) unleavened bread or flatbread loafs (tukā) or puffs (purī) or pats vaā) with a sweet spre;.ad (boū) that is dipped into or spread (khr, dudhpāk, bāsundī, škrīkhada, ); (b) a combined preparation (sweetinened flatbread (goī poi), savoury flatbread (masālā paro), sweet pie (karanǰī, modak), savoury pie, (kačorī), sweet ball (ū), (ǰilbī).


Water is served in a metal jug (tāmbyā, loā, gaū) and cup (phulpātra) far left.  Note that the sweet dish is served as a part of the main course and not as a dessert at the end.  Contrast in Sanskrit saying mahduen sampayet (one should close with a sweet) and the English concept of the sweet dish serving as a desert at the end of the meal.  Alcoholic beverages are not a part of the meal, but served, if at all, in a separate all-adult-male session.  Dessert (mukhašuddhi) is an optional course served at the end in a separate session and consists of fruit and a liquid (viā) (or an abbreviated substitute like betelnut, cardamom, or clove).


Non-vegetarian dishes featuring eggs, fish, crustaceans (prawns, crabs,  lobsters), liver (mutton, chicken), brains, mincemeat (khimā), meat cuts (poultry, mutton) as principal or subsidiary ingredients will thus be seen to enter the diet as a snack by themselves or as a condiment, a staple condiment, a liquid, or a rice staple within a meal.  Examples might be, respectively, brain fritters, prawn pickles, fish soup, biryāi (a kind of non-vegetarian pulāv, boiled rice granshid with pieces of roast meat).  The all too famous ‘curry’ is thus a rassa that goes with rice as a liquid additive.


            In preparing snacks, rice staples, and khīr (milk boiled with staple grain or vegetable) the following act as rise surrogates: puffed rice (curmuā) parched grain (lāhī, phuāā), flattened grain (poh-resembling breakfast cereals), pasta (gahulā, šveaī) sago granules (sābudāā).


            The fast-day dishes often mimic the ordinary day dishes with ‘permitted’ ingredients substituting for ‘prohibited ingredients.


            The two far quadrants house the peripheral condiments; the two near quadrants house the nuclear staples/treats.  The two left quadrants house variable condiments or treats; the two right quadrants house staple condiments or staple main dishes.  The main or second course features the treat, the opening first or the closing third course features rice.  Abbreviated meals will feature just one or two courses: rice staple possibly with liquid additive and/or a non-rice treat.  Staple condiments can substitute for the sweet spread on the flatbreads or puffs.  There is no clear break between the near quadrants (the dish that defines the course) and the far quadrants (the condiments).


            The ingredients of dish are broadly categorized as follows:


1)  The medium: own juice (āp-ras), water, milk buttermilk yogurt, some other juice for cooking: oil or ghee for frying.


(1.1)         Shortening (mohan), oil, ghee

(2)  The main ingredient: grain that is plain or preprocessed, its surrogate, pulse, flour, milk, curd yogurt, milk condensed by boiling to a cheese. Texture (khavā), beestings (čīk), soft cheese (čhāna)), non-vegetarian or fast-day surrogate.


(2.1)         The main ingredient of a condiment: vegetable leafs, leaf stems (deh), gourds and pods, bulbs and tubers and roots, flowers, non-vegetarian or fast-day surrogatge.


(3)  The subsidiary ingredient as relish or garnish (vyanǰan): pulse or flour, dry or green groundnuts (peanuts) (with an item from 2.1 above), dry fruits, grated dry or fresh coconut,  green coriander, curry leaves, onion or garlic cloves or green peas or green chickpeas; non-vegetarian or fast-day surrotgate.


(4)  The seasoning ingredient (in limited quantities):

(a)    Sweeteners: sugar, jaggery ( ), (Honey is not used in this way).

(b)    Savoury agents: salt; pungent seasoning (pepper, capsicum, ginger).

(c)    Staple spices: mustard, fengureen, asafetida, tumeric, cumin seed, coriander seed.

(d)    Special spices (garam masālā): cinnamon, tamāl-patra daga-phūl, etc.

(e)    ‘Sweet’ spices (goā masālā): saffron, cardamom, nutmeg, etc; poppy seed.

(f)      Spices burst in scalding-hot oil (phodini).

(g)    Acid agents: tamarind, mangosten peels (āmsūl), āmboši or āmcūr (dried raw mango),bla dock leaves (cuk, Rumex vescurlus, akin to the common sort), vinegar, curd yogurt, buttermilk yogurt.

(1)  Texture control: pounding, grinding, dicing, grating, rolling, crushing, kneading, stirring, etc: melting.  Freezing is a recent innovation.


(2)   Moisture control: soaking, drying, airing, etc.


(3) Ingredient control: mixing, sprinkling, peeling, husking, removing impurities, cleaning, removing fibrous content, etc.


(4) temperature control: slow application of low heat or quick application of high heat (through open fire, hot plate, hot sand or ashes, hot air in a closed oven (baking, strewing, boiling, steaming, deep-frying, sauté frying) cooling (Chilling is a novelty).


(5)  Chemical control: fermenting, using yogurt starter (virajen), aging (The use of yeast or baking  soda is rare novelty).


(6)  Bacteria control:  candying, salting, spicing, vinegaring (Irradiation is an innovation that is not widely practiced).************************************

            Such is the input of the aesthetic processing of the Maharasthra upper caste Hindu palate.  (Actually the organ of taste in Marathi is the tongue, not the palate).  In order to understand better the aesthetic sensibility and the aesthetic processing of food with this group, one must also look at the cultural and social context of the preparation and consumption of food in the group.


            Traditionally both the preparation of food and its consumption are ritual acts and call for appropriate conditions-the cook and the consumer should have batched and one should not  eat with the ritually impure left hand, for example.  One of the various Marathi verses recited when commencing a meal, for example, ends with the line:


udarabhara nohe jāiǰe yadya-karma

Know ye that this is not filling the belly, this is

                                    A sacrificial act (to the sacrificial fire of the

                                    Stomach that consumes, i.e. digests, the food)

            Alternatively, the food constitutes not the sacrificial offering (havya) in a yahña but the offering (naivedya and prasāda) in a non-Vedic puja.  The meal begins after the host has offered it to the tutelary deity (the family deity, the community deity, or the personal is-).  Some people say at the end of the meal-


                                    May (this act) be dedicated to Krishna!’


            There are orthodox persons who never eat except at the two formal meals or who never eat food except when prepared in their own home.  Even others are a bit shame-faced about eating for pleasure-one needs a certain privacy even for a snack (eating by the roadside is frowned upon).  One is expected to resist when the host offers tea or a snack.


            Since food is sacred, one must not step on a food particle. In some subcultures within this group (for example, among Chitpavan Brahmans) leaving food on the platter is frowned upon.  A common parental injuction is—

                        anna khāūn mājā, tākūn mājū nakā.

                        ‘May you eat and grow strong; don’t waste and grow arrogant.


            In other subcultures within this group the sacred duty of hospitality tends to come into conflict with these values.  A guest failing to leave food on the platter will be worried that he may be taken to be too greedy or all too hungry.  He will also make the host feel uneasy: perhaps the guest has gone hungry and thus he has failed in his hospitality.  One has to be mindful of the following ritually questionable states of food:

kharkae anna ‘food with a cereal in boiled or roasted state as an ingredient and so not open to being offered to a ritually higher person outside your commensal group (cf. Hindi sakrā; contrast Marathi nirlep anna ‘food like milk, fruit that can be so offered’)



uṣṭe anna food that one has touched with one’s lips or tongue and so that one cannot offer to another person other than one’s spouse or offspring or (before the thread ceremony) one’s mother’


            Then there is the whole lore about one’s food preferences being both indicative of

one’s personality and conducive to a certain state of health and mind.  The Ayurveda doctrines of the three humours (dhātu)of Phlegm, Bile.  Wind, representing three of the five elements (mahābhūta), Water Fire, Wind respectively and of the two qualities, ‘hot’(usa) and ‘cold’ (šīta) associated respectively with Bile and accompanying Wind play an important part in this lore as also the Sankhyavada doctrine of the three qualities (gua) of sattva (self-dependence), rajas (other-dependence), and tamas (inertness) and the associated states of mind respectively of bliss and fulfillment; of fluctuation between pleasure and pain and between affection and disaffection; and of sensual indulgence, non-insight, indolence, and depression.


            Of course Maharastrians do not always think ritualistically or medically about food.  On the whole, they are not real gourmets as a group.  The one exception among upper-caste Hindus is a small subculture including the Gaud Saraswats, the Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhus, and the Pathare Prabhus (all along the West Coast).   Compared to other Indians, they eat less in quantity.


 Correlations Between individual Elements and Semiotic and Structralist Considerations


Now we are in position to relate the framework of aesthetics (section 1) and the ethnography of our case study (section II).


            The object of food is open to sense perception and mental perception.  This social group operates with certain taxonomic categories and preferences.


            Tastes: The traditional taxonomy is as follows


            Sweet               madhura          god                  sugars

            Acid                 āmla                āmbat              acids

            Salt                  lavaa             khārat                         common salt

            Pungent            katu                 tikhat               casicum, pepper, ginger, radish

            Bitter                rikta                kadū                alkaloids

            Astringent         kasāya             turat                alum, pulses, meats, walnut, tea


            Also, the doctrine holds that the meal should feature all six tates (adrasa-yukta) as contributing to health as tastiness (miṣṭa caviṣṭā),.  Certain groupings are recognized as available for combination


1)  + sweet + - (acid + - salt + - astringent)

2)   + salt + - (pungent  + - (acid + - sweet) + - bitter + - astringent)


This corresponds to the broad sweet/savoury grouping.  The spices may be classified as appropriate for sweet/savoury dishes.  Non-vegetarian items are almost invariably savoury.  One may note ***** the  Maharastrian propensity to combine tastes, a trait which they share with the Gujaratis Varieties of tastelessness are conveyed by: ***

            Smells and flavours: there is no recognized taxonomy.  Other things being equal, freshness  of natural produce and cooked food is valued for flavour and better nutritional value.  Cooked food not left overnight is considered fresh.  Some preferred flavours are:


Nutty          khamaga      nut, caramel, roasted coconut or onion, well heated ghee or oil,      (condensed milk)

sourish       āmbūs        very lightly sour but not spoiled

critic         mbā-čā        citrus fruits (especially the

                  svādā-cā      aromatic oil in their peels)

spicy          masāledār  aromatic spices, green coriander or mint or curry leaves


fragrant     suvāsīk          saffron, khus grass, rose(used in food in drink);

                                    vanilla and chocolate are novelties


Fragrant flavours and some of the spicy flavours are recognized as compatible with the sweet group and not with the spicy group.  Some flavours are unwanted (or wanted only by a small minority):


Burnt                jakat               overroasted


Sour                 āmlelā             over fermented, spoilt milk, overripe fruit


Cheesy             khavat             stale ghee or oil or coconut


Farty                pādrat             black salt (with sulphur content)

Spoilt               kujkat              rotten meat or eggs

Strong              ugra                 arise leaves (śepu)

Smelling            vāsācā

The group under consideration does not really go in for subtle flavours. 

Feel; Hot and warm food is preferred. (Chilled items are a novelty). Since food is eaten with fingers, the touch comes into play at that point also.  Traditional taxonomy classified food as: edible potable (khādya ), (peya), suckable (čosya), and lickable (lehya).  Sucking and licking—preferably noisy-is much enjoyed especially by children.  There is no recognized taxonomy of textures.  There are two basic groups:

1)      Dry and hard: kakaīt, phaphaīt, kukuīt, kurkurīt, khuskhušīt, alavār in ascending order of friability.

2)  Soft and wet: in ascending order of mushiness; in ascending order of mushiness; vāta, cotha, luslušīt  in ascending order of tenderness; bharbarā, rava, gulgulīt snigdha, cabcabīt, meca in ascending order of unctuosness.

The jelly-like quality is a novelty.  Some unwanted feels are:

Chewey            cāmat,  vātad, chtha fibrous

Slippery            bubulīt                        ochra or lady fingers juice for example

Itchy                 khalerā            oxalic acid crystals in certain stems and tubers

Sticky               eita                 gums,


Dishes and platters may be graded from heavy through filling to light.

            Sights: Saffron  is also valued for its colour.  (Artificial colouring are new.)  Large servings and large morsels are regarded as crude.  Thus, two servings of rice are better than a large mound of rice.  (The use of the fluted pastry wheel [kātae] is new, as is the use of silver foil with sweets in the North.)

            (Sounds: This aspect has already been subsumed with feel.  Mental perceptions about food may have to do with its ritual status or its health status, with the setting of the preparation or of consumption, and with the ethnic identification.


            Ritual Status: The dish may be fit for a fast-day or for a meal in honour of the dead.  The dish may be more or less subject to commensalityh taboos (uṣṭe, kaharkae, nirlep).  The platter may be looked upon either as a havya in a yaja-karma or as a naivedya, in a ǰa.  Certain food (especially non-vegetarian food) and drinks (especially alcoholic drinks may be ritually forbidden to certain categories of persons-thus, meat and drink to Brahmans, fish to most Brahmans, beef to non-untouchable Hindus,  etc.  They may be ritually enjoined or forbidden tin certain circumstances, for example, meat is forbidden during the Hindu ‘Lent’ (caturmasa) from Aadii (cool drink with bhnag as a merged *********************

            Health-status: some foods may be specially recommended (pathya) or forbidden (apathya) for reasons for health and sickness: for example, for a nursing mother; compatibility with the reason’s constitution; convalescence; antidotal quality against certain toxic or noxious substances; etc.  Foods are graded according to their digestibility; certain foods are rendered more digestible when eaten with certain other foods; eating certain pair of food together is considered unhealthy, violating against viruddhāšana rules Food are not only classified as placating or disturbing the humours—Phlegm, Bile or wind-and as ‘hot’ or ‘cold’, but also classified as sāttvika (and so recommended to the student, the celebrate, the weak in health, the other-wordly), rājasa (and so recommended to the this-wordly and men of high power status), and tamas a(and so associated with persons of low caste or of low moral fibre).  (Cf. Bhagavad-gita 17.8-10, where the classification of aha diet is more abstract: satuka being trasty unctuous stable (will  keep well electable rajasa being pungent acid very not, sharp, non-unctuous  unfit for oblation.  Milk products, cereals (especially barley), fruit; honey, etc. are sāttvika meat, alcohol, spices. Oil when overindulged in, are tāmasa, Seasonal  foods are deemed to be healthy other things being equal.  A pregnant woman’s cravings must be satisfied; this is a moral obligation, these cravings are supposed to reflect the personality of the prospective offspring.


            Setting for preparation: for the orthodox, a private home or the communal yajna/pūǰa are the only proper settings for the preparation (and consumption) of food.  Buying ready-to-eat food and eating it at a public eating-shop is frowned upon.  Cleanliness is sought after.  Expert cooks (vegetarian, sweetmaker, non-vegetarian) are valued, but not prized as they are in some other societies.  Most people are content with food made the way my mother/wife makes it, ‘unless the mother/wife happens to be exceptionally bad cook, which is not uncommon.


            Setting for the consumption of the food: dishes may be classified according as they are--

(1)    prepared and served immediately (or at any rate fairly soon) at a proper meal (ǰevā-cā ajā padārtha)

(2)    prepared and served immediately for a snack (pharālā-cā ajā padārtha),

(3)    half-prepared, stored for months, and served with minimal processing at a proper meal or snack (sāthvī-cā padārtha or ikāū padārtha),

(4)    prepared stored for weeks or months, and served at a proper meal or snack (pharālā- cā sāthvī-cā padārtha or pharālā cā ikāū padārtha)


Freshly prepared dishes are preferred.  Dishes available for a proper meal may be graded form the very ordinary to a delicacy appropriate to a special feast.  Dishes available for a snack may be graded from rather heavy (pobharī-ce khāe) to quite light (toṇḍāt tākāy-ce khāe).  Food is eaten with one’s fingers.  (The use of a spoon, or even more, a knife and a fork is a novelty.  Not eating with one’s fingers is felt to deprive one of the ****** pleasure. )  The occasion for consumption-(Whether a proper meal or a snack-may be graded from informal (improvised, intimate, variable) to ceremonial (carefully prepared, prearranged, highly structured).  Table talk is something of a novelty; in very orthodox homes, talking is discouraged among the females and the young mixed session Persuading a consumer, especially a guest, to eat more (āgraha) can range from very informal (often with some horseplay) to rather formal.  At ‘intimate’ eating-shops the cook or server may indulge in this practice as a mark of familiarity and friendship.  The reciprocal of this is for the consumer to express his appreciation or disapproval of a dish or of the whole platter.  (Disapproval is of course to be expressed most guardedly, if at all-certainly not to the pareparer’s face except in very informal settings.  Even appreciation is sometimes expressed guardedly—e.g. after the meal is over so as to ward off āgraha.)  The ritual form of expressing thanks is to bless the head of the family or the host.  A common Sanskrit formula is.


            annadātā sukhī bhava ‘May the giver of this food be happy!. Nonverbal appreciation and thanks often take the form of burping, but his is not considered ‘modest’ for adult females.  The consumer sits on the floor, with or without grass or wooden or cloth seats, in the modified sukhasana posture proper for a ritual.  For females this is modified to a more ‘modest’ khurmāṇḍī.  The platter is set individually on the floor in front of the participants with a wooden plank, floor decoration incense burning on ceremonial occasions. It is said that the setting of the meal and the structuring of the platter was formalized by  the  last Peshwa ruler of Pune, Bajirao II in the beginning of the 19th century.  The use of chair and table is a novelty. The sharing of a platter by two persons is approved only between mother and a very young child.  The ‘palces’ are set in rows (pagat); eating in the same row with another implies a higher degree of commensality.  Children, adult males, a and adult females traditions eat in separate rows, if not in separate sessions.


            Ethnic identity: some dishes are served often and prepared specially well by some castes.  Most of the novelties or recent innovations are associated with Westernization or Modernizations.  The process of Brahmanizaion has also effected some customs related.  There is greater divergence in respect of non-vegetarian cuisine, many dishes being clearly taken over form Mughlai Cusine (of North Indian artists the Muslims).  Some vegetarian dishes too (ǰiblī, pullāv, bālušat, etc) have also been borrowed from the North.

            As I have already suggested, aesthetic processing and the categorization of aesthetic quality are very casual in this group.


            At this point it may be useful to place the group under study in its proper cultural and geographical setting.  South Asia is transition zone between West Asia and south-East Asia not only in respect of food preferences, but also in many other matters. South-East Asia, in turn, is a transition zone between South Asia and China (Thus, Chinese-like chopsticks are used in Vietnam and Cambodia but not in Burma or Thailand.)  Most of the isomers that divided South Asia and align parts of it with the two neighbouring culture-areas pass through Maharastara.


Feature                                     Like North and West    Like South                    Maharastra


Preference for sweets                           +                                  -                                   +-


Preference for savouries                        -                                   +                                  +


Preference for soft,

Uncituous (as appoceis to                     -                                   +                                  +/-*

Ha, dra, gi texture


Preference for quick

application of high heat              +                                  -                                   -


Preference for slow                              

Application of low heat             -                                   +                                  +


Preference for masking

The ‘raw’ flavour                                  -                                   +                                  +



            Costal  areas and upper-caste Hindus + , the rest -,


Again, South Asia has its own internal isomers and many of these pass through Maharashtra.



Feature                                     Like West Asia Like South-East Asia    Maharasthra



  non-vegetarian food                            +                                  -                                   -+


Preferring tea                                        +                                  -                                     +


Preferring coffee                                   -                                   +                                  -+


Structured ritualized meal                      -                                   +                                  +


Slow enjoyment-oriented

Eating                                                   +                                  -                                   -


Brahmanization                         -+                                -                                   +


Westernization                          -+                                -                                   +

            The overall conclusion of all this is that Maharastra has no readily recognizable food profile.  Many of the favorite dishes originate in or are shared with Gujarat or Karnataka-Andhra.  In recent times the South Indian ialī,  the Panjabi chole bhaure, and other such items have made their way to Maharashtiran  homes and eat-shops.


            There are caste, sex and age stereotypes within the group under study.  For example, Chitpavan Brahmans are supposed to prefer buttermilk, yogurt, rice, fresh coconut, arum leaves, use sparingly capsicum and use generously sweet, acid foods.  Yajurvedi Deshastha Brahmans use sweet sapiraly and groundnuts, capsicum generously.  CKP people ********* use spices and mutton.  Saraswat Brahman love salt-water fish, fresh coconut, and spices.  Females prefer, acid, astringent, salt and nutty-flavoured foods, especially and avoid bitter, pungent foods.  Immature adults go for sweets and avoid bitter, pungent, astringent foods.


            Aesthetic quality may be associated with sense perceptions or with the combinatory qualities—(ingredients in a dish, dishes in a platter, courses in a meal, diets in a cuisine).**************************************** There is some  attempt unity within a course or in a whole meal. The back and forth movement between condiments and staples/treats (between far and near quadrants), the doctrine of the six tastes in a meal, and the mixing of tastes (sweet-acid, salt in Khīr, jaggery in savouries) emphasize diversity and de-emphasize perfect harmony.  Avoidance of incongruities (the grouping of relishes and spices into those appropriate for sweets and for savouries) emphasizes harmony.  Some dishes are greatly variable with equally acceptable ways of preparing them while others demand conformity to prototypical perfection.  The application of the Sankhyavadi doctrine of the three qualities to food habits implies a harmonious correlation between food habits, personality and life-style.  One can argue that the exception that the use relishes and spices and the control of texture, mosisture, temperature and chemical effects mask rather than preserve and enhance the ‘raw flavour of the main ingredient is congruous with the transformation lists poetics of classical India.*

* I am indebted to H.S. Senventane’s discussion of Sinhalese food for this point.


            The use of sight-values, icense-burning, melodious shenai music (anai) as accompaniments to ceremonial meals testify to the striving for harmony between an activity, its experience and its setting.


            The present study is essentially a study in aesthetic description and not and example of aesthetic criticism.  The crucial methodological point for present purposes, is, therefore, not the philosophical validation of aesthetic judgements, but the descriptive validation of the attribution of mental perceptions and aesthetic judgements to the culture of a defined social group.  This descriptive validation brings us face to face with certain semiotic and structralist considerations when we look for the appropriate evidence for the attributions.


            Language, whether at the level of vocabulary or at the level of staple verbalizations, constitutes and important kind of evidence: thus, Sanskrit miṣṭa (past particle of mi -m-‘sprinkle’) ‘tasty’ has a reflex mīthā  ‘sweet’ in Hindi and mīt ‘common salt’ in marathi.  Does this not suggest divergent ideas of tastiness?  That the Marathi words for gourmet (khayyā) and feast (mejvānī, fīs) should be borrowings from Hindi-Urdu and English is probably significant.  The verbalizations are important evidence for cultural categories.  The Marathi expressions for plain fare are  bhāǰī-bhākri, pihle-bhāt, bhāt-bhāǰī, kahī-bhāt, jhukā-bhākar, mih- bhākri kāndā-bhākri (‘onion and millet flatbread’) depending on the caste, the class, and the region.  The folk taxonomy of dishes is amply shown by examining the range of application of category labels like phrāā -cā padārtha tikhā-mihā-cā padārtha, and the like. The anatomy of a platter is revealed by category labels like kālav, toṇḍi lāve etc.


            The use of body language has also been touched upon earlier (burping , modified padmāsana, rows, of individual places, sharing a platter).


            The geometry of the table setting or of the platter (the quadrants of the Maharastrian platter, the three sectors of the White-Anglo-Saxon Protestant American platter) is of course a more overt non-verbal signage.  Behavioral evidence is seen when we compare the ‘full’ meal with its abbreviated versions; the ‘native’ diet with its modified versions occasioned by migration or borrowing.  Verbal behaviour also provides evidence; for instance one can examine responses to a question such as ‘What did you have for lunch/dinner today?”


            Evidence for past food habits is available not only in past forms of language but also in documents analyzed philologically.  For example, food catalogues are a common feature of a genre of narrative poems in Mediaeval Marathi literature.


            Finally, there is the larger question of food-meanings in the context of other life-meanings and of the food-style in the context of the life-style as a whole.  Are there positive and negative correlations between certain food habits and certain dress habits, housing habits, leisure habits or even literary habits? (See Kroeber 1957) especially pages 4-7 on style in food, 19-27,70-82, 149-60 on style in entire civilizations.) University of Poona




Kelkar, Ashok R. 1969.  “On aesthesis,” Humanist Review (Bombay)2, 211-28, April-   June.

Kroeber, Alfred L. 1957. Style in Civilization.  Messenger lectures, NY: Cornell University Press.

Samant. Champabai and Damodar Dinkar Desai.  1947 (1961).  Ādhunika pāka šāstra. Pune: Anath Vidyarthi Grina, (3rd revised edition 1961).




   This was presented at an international colloquium on Food Systems and Communication Systems hosted by CIIL at Mysore,2-8 January 1985 and published in Poetics East and West, ed Milora Poelova. Velingerorara, Toronto: Semiotic Circle, Victoria College, University of Toronto, 1989.