Food is an intrinsic and defining aspect of a city’s identity; its smells, textures and tastes manifest a city’s cultural heritage, define its social habits and bring vitality and joviality to the streets. (Schaek and Watson, 2015)
Food has always been a vital aspect of a place, a city or a neighbourhood. Besides fulfilling one’s daily needs of hunger, food has always occupied a social, political and economic significance in a region. Its importance in the everyday life of a person, embedded in the social relations of a community cannot be overlooked. Khirki and Hauzrani, two adjacent neighbourhoods in the heart of South Delhi, has been the hotbed of migrants coming from across the country and even international borders. On one hand there are local migrants from Bihar, UP, Rajasthan, Bengal, Kerala, sustaining on the opportunities the city provides them with and on the other hand, there are international migrants, asylum seekers and refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Congo, Nigeria, etc. Khirki and Hauzrani has also seen a transformation in terms of its culinary spaces over the last few years with the opening up of new joints offering food prepared by the migrants: internal and international. A girl from Manipur can be seen enjoying an Afghani burger on the streets, or an Afghan teenage girl could be seen relishing the ‘Golgappas’ from a vendor. The interaction between multiple forms of food consumption practices has made the neighbourhoods an interesting display of mutating food habits.
The process of food preparation is not a process in isolation, but one which is mired in multiple processes ranging from the selection of ingredients, the style of cutting the meat which is specific to each culture, the assortment of vegetables, the proportion of salt and sugar, the right amount of heat and the process of stirring which offers different possibilities on the basis of one’s social identity. The local migrants and especially the ones rooted off their native places, carry ‘food practices’ as one of their defining identities to the new place. This explains the growth of places serving different cuisines in the cities across the world which have seen streams of local and international migrants. In this context, the idea of exchanges through food forms an essential component of our social bonds. The Museum of Food: A Living Heritage was launched in January this year to bring these multiple food practices in a common space through the simple, yet layered act of cooking. The agents of exchange in this are women who have been socially and culturally bounded in the kitchen owing to the larger patriarchal setup. The relation is not restricted to the act of cooking but also consists of the stories that are hidden in the selection of ingredients, the role of their mothers in sharing the age old recipe, the range of utensils, etc. They are a storehouse; a living museum of their cultural practices and habits that they have inculcated over the years. The Living Lab was started with an intention of providing a space for these stories around food and the process of preparation to unfold and build a community of women from diverse backgrounds sharing their practices over a period of time through the act of cooking.
The project Museum of Food: A Living Heritage is supported by Prince Claus and British Council. Collaborators are Kiran Nadar Museum, Saket and BOSCO Delhi Initaitive UNHCR, Malviya Nagar.
Our method at the lab is to rotate the tasks of food preparation, i.e., to have one dish from each cuisine tradition cooked daily, often focusing on a common ingredient or a theme, and then to present these dishes collectively at a monthly Pop-up Kitchen at different sites, where local people are invited to share the meal and encouraged to interact with the project. This mode of engagement cohesively brings the different food traditions together both within the familiar intimate space of the kitchen and the wider context of the general public.
Within the lab, pragmatic discussions about particular traditional foods seamlessly expand into wider narratives about displacement, migration and memory, and how these variables compel resettled families to willingly/unwillingly adopt new food habits, occasionally give up old ones, and adapt embedded, hereditary culinary customs to new realities. Project members daily prepare food in the kitchen, exchange recipes, discover new uses of traditional and Indian ingredients, etc. Such communication also enables them to share personal recollections of their families and relatives, their home/social life in their diverse places of origin, the environments of the kitchens they left behind upon migration, and the practices, protocols and habits around their traditional foods that they seem to treasure as a natural, tangible form of personal and cultural inheritance.