An International Symposium on
Travelling Cuisines: Culinary Politics and Transnational Foodways in and out of Asia

“Kosa kosa per pani badle, chara kosa per vani”: Indian Ocean Cuisine and the Politics of National Cultures

Krishnendu Ray, New York University

Within and across Asia, a new history of oceans and renewed visibility of transnational circulation are reinvigorating discussions of cultural domains that exceed the nation-state. The inaudible world of taste and trade in comestibles is opening a window into the stifled science of the space between nations. The reality of shared tastes, flavors, ingredients, culinary tools and technologies proliferate at the very border region and oceanic link where territorial cultural difference is shrilly asserted. While national cuisines have been amply theorized, the edges of continents and territories remains to be examined: it is where the New World chili meets the littoral coconut and the curry leaf to materialize a culture not merely as metaphor but as tangible curry, hot, spicy and aromatic. The basic tools of modern cultural history and demographics have become so nationalized that they have repressed the centrality of connections both between neighboring territorial regions and between the port cities of the Indian Ocean, the zone that connects Mombasa, Mumbai and Malacca through flows of knowledge, resources and material culture.

As much as a spatial argument there is a temporal dimension to our contention here. Culinary cultural products such as toddy and betel nut, for example, are ubiquitous in peninsular India and Southeast Asia, much like tea and whiskey. But the latter are clear products of British imperial influence on the global palate, through hierarchy, emulation, propaganda and advertising, while toddy and betel nut are decisively not products of British imperial design. Rather, such instances underline the obfuscated link between East and South Asia, echoing the pathways of dispersal of coconut, sagopalm, rice, certain yams, and perhaps even green chilies. Many of these flows pre-date Western imperial interventions; these are extra-colonial links hiding in plain view as ubiquitous everyday practices under conditions of post-coloniality.

Instead of heartlands and national wholes we propose a productive mapping of taste and place that is encapsulated in the Hindustani saying, Kosa kosa per pani badle, chara kosa per vani: every two miles the water changes – where water is a metonym for taste here but can also be read literally – and every four miles the language. This locates taste at the center of the landscape that extends incrementally in all directions, exceeding the edges, borders and boundaries of the four-colored maps of modernity that colonize our minds.

Krishnendu Ray is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University. He is the author of The Migrant's Table: Meals and Memories in Bengali-America Households (2004). He taught for a decade at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, New York and was the Acting Dean of Liberal Arts & Management. Most recently, he is the co-editor of Curried Cultures: Globalization, Food and South Asia (2012). He is currently working on a book-length project titled "Immigrant Restaurateur and the American City: Taste, Toil & Ethnicity."