Low caste cuisine

Monday, 29 March 1999

THE manager of a new Indian restaurant in Sea Point, Cape Town, caused a bit of a stir last week. Interviewed as part of a review of the restaurant by the Cape Times, Andrew Bergman told Top of the Times writer Graham Howe that his North Indian chefs had been confused by their South African customers requests for "hot curry".

So, Bergman wrote a prologue to the menu explaining the differences between the hot curries of South India and the aromatic spicy fare of the North. "The hotter the curry, the lower the caste," said Bergman with all the subtlety of Robert Mugabe at a Gay Pride march.

About two years ago, one of the US left coast universities tried to figure out why it was that at the various oyster bars that can be found around San Francisco, only some of the patrons ended up with food poisoning after eating raw oysters. (Raw oysters are considered to be aphrodisiac - supposedly because of the way they slither down one's throat - but we'll talk about that some other time.)

So they conducted a study and discovered that a disproportionate number of those who did not pick up salmonella (and other such nasties) had used a well known red pepper sauce that makes use of tabasco peppers, spirit vinegar, and salt. Studies conducted under carefully controlled conditions showed that a drop or two of this sauce upon an oyster (or upon a raw egg) tended to nuke any bacterium present in about a minute.

Now, if they had gone back in history and studied the eating habits of the Indian sub-continent, they might have found this out a lot earlier. In hot humid climates where there is no access to refrigeration, potentially lethal sub- cultures can develop with frightening speed, particularly on raw meat. The inhabitants of such areas developed ingenious methods of dealing with the problem. For much of the Third World, the solution has been to make liberal use of chilli peppers. Red hot chilli peppers kill bacteria, and the poorer the quality of meat, the larger the amount of chilli peppers that would be used.

Since poorer quality meat would normally be acquired by the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum, (that's politically-correct speak for "poor people"), their food would tend to be substantially hotter. In India, if you were poorer, it was usually because you were of a lower caste.

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Case in point, Vindaloo is one of the hottest dishes on any Indian restaurant menu. Originally used for wild boar and rabbit, the recipe uses a paste of (surprise!) red chillies, vinegar, and salt. It was developed by hunters who would have to carry carcasses back home over long distances.

The eating patterns across castes are also reflected in the cuts of meat. The cuisine of the lower castes makes extensive use of offal. For most South Africans of Indian descent, tripe, trotters, head and brains were staples until fairly recently. With increasing economic empowerment, the cuisine has shifted to choicer cuts. (This is true for other South African communities too - "smilies" are a staple in Khayelitsha but not on the menu in the parliamentary dining hall.)

When Indian chefs prepared "curries" for colonial conquerers, they were careful to load chilli peppers to a much higher level than they would serve to their own families at home. They would then stand back and watch the sweat pour off faces which rapidly underwent a transition from pale pink to bright red, all the while smiling in genial fashion and assuring the victim that the dish was "authentic".

India's supposed upper castes, the Brahmins, are usually vegetarians and use hardly any pungent spices because of the belief that many foods are Tamasic. (Translation: they make one hot-tempered.) Examples of such foods are onions, garlic, and chilli peppers. Really serious Brahmins will avoid these completely, eating only Sattvic foods (which supposedly foster mental tranquility). Coriander and cumin and ginger are considered to be Sattvic.

Of course, things have since changed. Those of us who are part of the great unwashed are upper class in the economic sense but retain our love for hot spicy food. On the other hand, sects such as the Hare Krishnas are not at all caste conscious, but usually eat only Sattvic foods.

What goes around comes around...