Home to people from various ethnicities, the cooking practices of Dharavi reflect the diversity inherent to the locality. Known more for its industry and slums, Dharavi is also a hotbed for unique recipes. And while cooking may be a daily ritual, here it becomes infused with the beliefs and practices of the women who cook.
In June 2014, The Dharavi Food Project (organised as part of the Dharavi Biennale arts and science festival), saw a 13-session pop-up kitchen being set up. Eight local women presented cooking demonstrations with mentor-curator Prajna Desai at the helm. The idea was to engage vocational cooks to showcase their cooking and explore the relationship between food, aesthetics and women’s employment.
What emerged from the experience was The Indecisive Chicken, a bilingual (Hindi and English) cookbook-cum-cultural studies text launched by Desai last month. Based between Tokyo and Mumbai, Desai trained as an art historian in pre-Columbian art and architecture and writes on contemporary art.
The Indecisive Chicken is divided into chapters, one for each woman. The women are profiled and details of the recipes are shared. The recipes range from the ubiquitous baingan ka bharta and kadhi to unusual ones like Nimuna and Meetha Thokwa. “The recipes constitute everyday food, familiar within communities but unfamiliar to those on the outside, as well as food cooked on special occasions. I invited the women to contribute recipes that they excelled at and which resonated with their cultural background,” adds Desai.
Unlike other cookbooks, the format deviates so as to not have just “a bland list of recipes”. So, it is peppered with anecdotes, and the recipes also delve into the lives of the women featured. “The thrust of the book is to compel a second look at the processes that fuel everyday cooking — hard work performed by women for no pay, a grasp of chemistry (strong or weak), an acute sense of when experimentation is called for, a desire for pleasure and sensuous gratification, a respect for humble ingredients, and the capacity to shift with the seasons and cook with what’s available,” says Desai.
Food for thought
The amusing title refers to an incident at the start of the workshop, where one of the women said she doesn’t eat chicken as the bird is indecisive about whether to run right or left. The book recounts how she says, “My husband says eating it makes you stupid.” Another woman at the session quips, “Hens eat everything…Worms. Paper. Garbage. And they lay their eggs anywhere.” It leads to a discussion, until the first woman blurts out the real reason: “My husband doesn’t like the taste.”
The incident reflects the power of food myths and how they can alter food habits, says Desai in the introduction: “People will avoid delicious, sweet fruits because their spiky skins evoke visions of being impaled from the inside. Or, cooked flesh might trigger a gag reflex, aversion to that meat, and eventually even dislike of the animal…They become ruling principles, traversing generations, before finding firm footing in cultural habits and family kitchens, serving to distinguish communities and falsely define notions of superiority and hygiene.”
The author chose a bilingual format keeping in mind the demographics of the locality. “Because Hindi is a lingua franca there when people from different backgrounds are thrown together, it was a natural choice to pair with English. I wanted to write and produce a book in at least one language that represents shared ground in Dharavi and our workshops,” says Desai, who spent 18 months working on the book.
Working among the women, Desai recounts that there was no reluctance to share the recipes. “However, various women were confused as to why anyone might be interested in their recipes. And one woman joined the workshop because she was eager to showcase her talent among her peers,” she says, adding, “It was gratifying for most to share their talents with a multi-cultural group, and have a platform frame a daily task as a special act worthy of being archived.”
What: The Indecisive Chicken by Prajna Desai is out on stands.
Price: Rs 1,350 on amazon.in
Publisher: Dharavi Biennale and Prajna Desai