Digesting Caste: Graded Inequality in Food Habits

Part 1: Historical and Cultural Context

This is part one of a two part series covering caste based food disparity and inequalities. The first part discusses the historical and cultural context in which this issue is situated, while the second part delves into the policy and political aspects of the same. The second part can be accessed here.

Astitav Khajuria, Ayush Mehrotra, Bethamehi Joy Syiem and Charan Preet Singh

Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

If one’s privileged enough, food is something which they consume everyday, and even otherwise, an inherent bias in food choices limits the living experience of any human being.

Caste has been the basis for thousands of years of historical oppression, and despite the nation’s constitutional vision of empowerment and upliftment, lower-caste communities, especially Dalits, have continued to be marginalised in India. Unsurprisingly, the social practice of caste has played a role in determining physical and economic access to food. It is this relation that we seek to examine in the context of caste as a form of graded inequality. In the first article, we explore the historical backdrop that has determined the relation between caste and food. Following this, current food practices along with the politics of food as seen in the Indian context are articulated. In the second article, we take note of the role of caste in India’s food security programmes.

Even a superficial view of the food taboos of the Hindus will show that there are two taboos regarding food which serve as dividing lines. There is one taboo against meat-eating. It divides Hindus into vegetarians and flesh-eaters. There is another taboo which is against beef-eating. It divides Hindus into those who eat cow’s flesh and those who do not. From the point of view of untouchability the first dividing line is of no importance. But the second is. For it completely marks off the Touchables from the Untouchables.

Ambedkar (1948).

A Historical Background

In India, the relationship between people and food relates to the caste system still prevalent in the region. Members of the highest priestly castes, the Brahmins, are said to be mostly vegetarians and thus restrain themselves from eating meat which is considered both impure and inedible, though there are numerous exceptions within the community. A Brahmin is considered to only retain his intrinsic purity if they stay a pure vegetarian and consume food cooked by people of appropriate rank only. If a Brahmin was to eat meat or conduct certain contraventions to his caste’s strict dietary laws, he would be declared to be highly corrupted and would have to go through numerous purifying rituals.

On the other hand, the high-ranking warrior castes, better known as the Kshatriya, are traditionally said to eat non-vegetarian food that is considered appropriate for them according to their practices of bravery and physical strength.

According to the mythological story, the ‘Ramayana’, Ram who is said to be an avatar of God on Earth belonged to a family of Kshatriya, and therefore, implicitly a meat consumer. Ram’s diet preference has been widely discussed and debated. While some people believe that Ram was a vegetarian, others argue that he was bound to follow a non-vegetarian diet as he was a Kshatriya. A shlok from Ramayana suggests that before leaving for his 14-year vanvaas (exile) Ram said, “fourteen years I will live in a lonely forest like a sage, leaving meat off and living on roots, fruits and honey.” This suggests that although Ram decided to adopt a vegetarian way of life after leaving for the jungle, while residing in the confines of his palace in Ayodhya he might very well have been a meat-eater.

Returning to the Indian caste system, it is found that maintaining caste integrity is correlated not only in terms of its essence with the intake of food and water, but also in terms of who cooked or handled it. Though this phenomenon is mostly rooted in Hindus, these ideologies are also adhered to varying degrees by other religions as the people practising those religions are many-a-times converts from Hinduism, and hence they carry with them the deep rooted ills of the caste-system. In most cases, a person risks ‘pollution’ if he accepts beverages or cooked food from the hands of people of lower caste status than his own. But ironically, as proclaimed by many Dharmasutras, the status will not be affected if the man accepts absolutely raw foods, such as uncooked grains, fresh unpeeled fruits and vegetables from anybody, regardless of caste.

Primeval Hindu food laws claimed to have arisen from ancient scriptures. One of these scriptures is the Dharmashastra, or the ‘dharma study’, which explains the eternal unchangeable dharma contained in the Vedas. It is assumed that dharma upholds private and public life in the socio-religious context, and maintains civil, spiritual, and political order in the life of an individual. Manu plays a central role in this. Arguably, in this context, his most famous text is Manava Dharmashastra (The Laws of Manu) – the Manusmriti. It is in the form of the dharma which Brahma revealed to Manu, who is touted to be the first man.

C 4 223. A Brahmana who knows (the law) must not eat cooked food given by a Shudra who performs no Sraddhas; but, on failure of (other) means of subsistence, he may accept raw (grain), sufficient for one night (and day).

C 5 5. Garlic, leeks and onions, mushrooms, spring from impure substances and are hence unfit to be eaten by Brahmana.

C 6 176. A Brahmana who unintentionally approaches a woman of any low caste, who eats with a lower caste and accepts presents from them, becomes an outcast; but if he does it intentionally, he becomes their equal.


The Dharmashastras state that food is the soul of life and from which things are disclosed. It states, “everything is centred on food, the evil deeds of man resort to their food. Whoever eats the food of another partakes of that man’s sin.” This is the reason why there are such apartheidist restrictions associated with Indian society in terms of food.

After a thorough study, we come across many food-related regulations encoded into caste literature, while some are benign, some are prima facie malignant. Clear examples of this can be seen in the Manusmriti and Yājñavalkya Smṛiti where many verses convey that when engaged in food-related activities one should face the east, and an individual of the higher castes must not consume food in the presence of lower caste people.

Food plays a vital role in explaining the Hindu ideology of creation and universe. Ancient stories of creation portray the Brahmanas as the direct children of God and hence, purer than others. This is clearly reflected on the proscribed food habits and rituals too. Therefore, as a primer, it is safe to say that all this and more, sowed seeds of the perpetual subjugation of lower castes which made their food habits contingent upon the discards of the upper castes.


Caste-based inequalities are not restricted to food. Water served from an earthen pot can only be consumed by someone of a higher or equivalent caste, but it is interesting that the same water, when served from a brass pot, may be consumed by someone lower in the caste hierarchy. Accordingly, as per Manusmriti, ‘waterbearers’ are exceptions to this rule – employed to carry water from wells to prosperous homes and from whose hands representatives of all castes may drink water without becoming impure, even though a waterbearer belongs to a low caste.

Although food is meant for survival, over time the choices people make or are left with become a part of their culture. One such dimension of food in India is ‘Dalit food’ which has not been explored much from a cultural perspective.

Current Practices: Food Dishes, Food Exchange, Manners and Restaurants

The concept of ‘purity and pollution’ made its way to the kitchen and influenced practices of food cooking, serving, eating and even of cleaning utensils. ‘Dalit food’ developed out of economic necessity, limited food choices and mostly with the motive of survival. Limited access to water, agro-produce and restriction to designated areas has been instrumental in development of non-vegetarian delicacies like Rakti, i.e. coagulated goat blood fried with onions and served with bread or rice, consumed in Maharashtra and north Karnataka. Chanya, is a food item essentially made of sun-dried pig skin called chunchuni, cooked with preserved pig fat and jaggery. Spices were also rarely affordable for Dalits, hence, the main tastemakers are salt and red chilli powder. Wajdi, is a dish made from scrubbing the skin of the animal’s intestines and cooked with salt and chilli only. Red ant chutney is one of the most featured tribal sauce, originally from the region of Bastar in Chattisgarh (Indurkar 2018).

Names were assigned to castes based on the food they ate, or more accurately, the food they were left with to eat. Mahars, in Maharashtra, were known as mrutaharis, or those who eat dead animals. Valmikis and Musaharis are still known in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, for they ate rats and joothan (scraps of food on a plate, left for garbage or animals) respectively. The food items on one’s plate became indicative of the placement in the caste hierarchy – Brahmins at the top consume vegetarian food, non-beef eating non-vegetarians are somewhere in middle of the hierarchy and beef and pork eaters are at the absolute bottom. Upper castes did not want beef or pork, especially the parts of the meat like intestines and other digestive remnants, which came to Dalits and they developed these items to infuse taste and nutrition (Homegrown Staff 2018).

Apart from the dishes, there are patterns in exchange of food among people. Stanley A. Freed (1970) from a study in Shanti Nagar, a village near Delhi, reported that there has been a normalisation of food exchange norms in the village. A Jat does not accept food from a maali, chamar or lohar, however, he may be willing to offer food to a priest, and it is very unlikely that the priest will accept it. He also observed that although brahmins do not accept boiled or kaccha food from a lower caste person because he might be ‘polluted’, they do accept food cooked in ghee from a lower caste person due to the apparent belief that ghee is pure. Freed also noted that village upper caste would use cow dung to light up fire to cook, while the lower castes were supposed to use donkey dung. This study by Freed was done in 1970s, but even a glance at the present Indian society reveals that such practices are still prevalent.

As aforementioned, food preparation and eating practices also have a very close caste connection. Studies in rural Andhra tell that, rice, daal or pulsu, and rasam are the main components of a meal in the region. Coarse grain or mota chawal is generally found in kitchens of lower castes while upper caste people enjoy fine grains. The quantity of water in daal or pulsu increases with a decrease in the social status of a person (Staples 2015). Even food eating practices involve such nuances, as James Staples (2015) notes:

The opposite style of eating – using the full palm and not just the finger tips to continue the rice with the curry; throwing the food into one’s mouth rather than placing it there; face down turned towards the plate; eating with an open mouth and spitting out unwanted stems, pods and pips directly on to the floor; and openly belching at the ending of a meal – was described to me by one informant, a middle caste ranking woman in her 40s, as a very low caste way of eating. 

James Staples (2015)

Many restaurants still prefer to maintain an image of being upper caste eateries only by serving on banana leaves, making the staff dress up in traditional brahmin get up, staying bare chested and applying vermilion on the forehead.

Urban setting

The shadow of caste on food is not limited to rural settings alone, and is clearly visible in urban centres. Restaurants in big metropolitan cities like Mumbai and Bangalore have clear demarcation of caste-based food items, employees and even customers (Iversen and Raghavendra 2006). Earlier these restaurants used to serve only upper caste customers, but the change in demography and thus the economics forced them to allow all customers.

Iversen and Raghavendra (2006) had found that in many food chains in Mumbai and Bangalore caste Brahmin are almost exclusively appointed as cooks, while cleaners are generally from lower castes and there is negligible appointment of Dalits in any section of the staff in restaurants. 

Kshatriya’s Kitchen, Whitefield, Bangalore (Source: Justdial)
Brahmin’s Coffee Bar, Shankarapura, Bangalore (Source: Yummraj)

In September 2017, a scientist from Indian Meteorological Department in Pune, filed a police complaint against her cook for violating her ritual purity and sanctity because the cook did not ‘declare’ her ‘true’ caste at the time of appointment. She vehemently accused the cook of violating her hygiene standards and filling her kitchen with filth. This preference for upper caste cooks and perception of brahmin or upper caste food as clean and edible is the manifestation of a deeply engrained hatred towards lower caste and the persistence of untouchability. 

If one’s privileged enough, food is something which they consume everyday, and even otherwise, an inherent bias in food choices limits the living experience of any human being. These biases are not limited to any one aspect of food and not limited to any geography either. They may change in their form and extent, but they continue to tell the horrifying story of fight for survival occurring three times a day.

All the authors are currently pursuing their Master’s in Public Policy at NLSIU, Bangalore.

Astitav Khajuria has a background in Biotechnology from his undergraduate studies. Astitav likes to explore science and technology’s interplay with government and society at large. He can be reached at astitavkhajuria@nls.ac.in

Ayush Mehrotra has a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Delhi. Ayush is interested in exploring policies at the intersection of political economy, governance, and institutional design. He can be reached at ayushmehrotra@nls.ac.in

Bethamehi Joy Syiem is a graduate from St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi. Her core interests lie in social justice, gender, sustainability and traditional ecological knowledge building (TEK). Outside of research and policy advocacy, Beth is passionate about cats, baking and soft pastel art. You can usually find her sipping lemon tea at Chetta’s and otherwise. She can be reached at bethamehi@nls.ac.in.

Charan Preet Singh is a jolly Civil Engineer who did put together couple of bricks for sometime. Public policy is a tool for him to understand and hopefully resolve some of the deformities in society. Inequality in any and every sphere of life is his biggest concern and he is a strong believer of ‘collective questioning’ to fight inequality and to grow personally. He can be reached at charanpreetsingh@nls.ac.in


Ambedkar, B R. 1948. The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became             Untouchables? Delhi: Kalpaz Publications.

Bühler, George tr. 1984. The Laws of Manu. Delhi: Banarsidass (Reprint from Oxford University’s 1886 edition).

Freed, A S. 1970. “Caste Ranking and the Exchange of Food and Water in a North Indian.” Anthropological Quarterly 43(1): 1-13.

Homegrown Staff. 2018. Dalit Identity and Food – Memories of Trauma on a Plate. November 21, 2018. https://homegrown.co.in/article/803216/dalit-identity (accessed July 20, 2020).

Indurkar, M. 2018. “Caste on your plate: Where is the Dalit food?” The Indian Express, April 27, 2018.

Iversen, V, and P S Raghavendra. 2006. “What the signboard hides: Food, caste and employability in small South Indian eating places.” Contributions to Indian Sociology (SAGE Publishing) 40(3): 311-341.

Marriott, M. 1968. “Caste Ranking and Food Transactions: A Matrix Analysis.” In Structure and Change in Indian Society, by M Singer and B S Cohn. Chicago: Aldine.

Olivelle, Patrick. 2005. Manu’s Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the Manava-Dharmasastra. New York: Oxford University Press.

Smith, B K. 1990. “Eaters, Food, and Social Hierarchy in Ancient India: A Dietary Guide to a Revolution in Values.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 58: 177.

Sonagra, V. 2017. “The ‘Non-Brahmin’ Cook from Pune and the Myth of the ‘Caste-less’ Middle Class.” Economic & Political Weekly.

Staples, J. 2015. “Civilizing Tastes: From Caste to Class in South Indian Foodways.” In Food Consumption in Global Perspective, by Jakob A Klien and Anne Murcott, 65-86. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

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