Some of my fondest Sunday afternoon memories from childhood involve a piping hot plate of aromatic biryani, a mixed rice dish made with meat and fragrant rice that is said to have been developed in the Mughal era. We’d pair this feast with a fizzy glass of Coke and Bollywood classics blaring in the background. Butter chicken was too sweet, seekh kebabs were too greasy, but each condiment-loaded mouthful of meat-meets-rice felt like just the right amount of flavour. Even as I come from a culture that promotes fish curry and rice as a staple, for me, biryani is what home tastes like.
But for some followers of India’s right-wing school of thought, biryani isn’t just one of the finest dishes in the repertoire of Indian cuisine. It’s also an anti-protest slur.
Over this month, thousands of Indian farmers have been protesting against a controversial new farm reform bill, aimed at deregulating India’s vast agricultural sector. Visuals of these protesting farmers being hit with water cannons and tear gas were accompanied by one viral video posted on Twitter: of farmers protesting at the Delhi border being served biryani.
In a video tweeted by national daily Times of India’s Delhi desk, a man can be seen doling out a rice dish to a queue of protestors. While it’s unclear whether the large vat of rice seen in the video is actually biryani, or some form of pulao, the word “biryani” was subtly used by some Twitter users to suggest that the protesting farmers were actually being bribed with the dish to dissent. Soon after, the micro-blogging site was flooded with people drawing parallels to the biryani supposedly being served to farmers as being “anti-national”.
A similar rhetoric was used during protests held in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh last year, opposing a Bill passed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Some right-wing politicians and followers alleged that protestors staging peaceful demonstrations against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a controversial law criticised for offering citizenship on the basis of religion, were being bribed to do so with a plate of biryani.
“The term ‘biryani’ is used to [glorify] the Muslim angle, and create a conspiracy to give these peaceful protests a communal colour,” Nadeem Khan, a founding member of the United Against Hate, a citizens’ initiative which plays an instrumental role in organising peaceful protests, told VICE. “As the backbone of our country, farmers get the sympathy of the public, but they use these diversion tactics to crush that wave of sympathy.”
Khan states that it’s common for NGOs and religious centres, including the langars in gurudwaras (free communal kitchens), to set up distribution centres at these demonstrations to feed protestors. “The simple act of providing food to someone on the streets who is exercising their democratic right to protest, despite the cold weather, is misconstrued as a conspiracy by saying ‘biryani’”, said Khan.
While the origins or at least the development of biryani are generally traced back to the Mughal era, when India was ruled by a dynasty that practised Islam, there is evidence that points to similar rice dishes existing in the country before it was invaded by the Mughals. The word “biryani” is derived from the Persian word “birian” which means “fried before cooking.”
“Biryani is a south Asian dish, and if you go to [Persian heritage] nations like Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, they make a dish called ‘pilaf’, which is similar in that it uses meat, rice and dry fruits, but is nothing like biryani,” Sohail Hashmi, a food historian and researcher, told VICE. The Delhi-based expert explains that in several pockets of India’s national capital, biryani made from the meat of buffalos is the cheapest available food option, despite the right-wing media’s attempts to equate biryani with a decadent feast. “Most people cannot afford goats, or even ghee, which is why this biryani is made using buffalo fat. Many [Hindu nationalists] have a problem with this biryani being served because it has meat, which is widely consumed by so-called lower castes or by Muslims and Christians.”
Even as biryani is said to have Mughal origins, it has today evolved into a national dish of sorts. According to a 2019 report by food-delivery platform Swiggy, biryani has been the most ordered dish three years in a row, with Indians ordering 95 biryanis every minute on the app. In fact, biryani is the most globally searched Indian food on the internet.
Both Hashmi and Khan say the likening of the word “biryani” with “anti-national” is an attempt to spread communal hatred and misinformation in a way that appeals to a Hindu nationalist voter bank.
“They did the same thing when they said Ajmal Kasab (a terrorist hanged for his role in India’s 26/11 terror attacks in 2008) asked for mutton biryani in jail,” pointed out Khan. In 2015, public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam admitted that Kasab never really asked for biryani, and that the tale was “concocted” to turn the “emotional wave” against the terrorist.
In India, food is a symbol commonly used in situations of conflict to incite hatred or drive opinions against groups, especially vulnerable ones. When India’s border tensions with China escalated this year, Ramdas Athawale, an Indian legislator, asked for all Chinese food to be banned in India, despite the Indian version of the cuisine seeing little resemblance to the original. Similarly, in January this year, BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya said that Bangladeshi immigrants could be identified by their preference for poha, an Indian rice staple.
And it's not just political leaders who make these problematic statements. The Indian curry, a quintessential gravy consumed across the subcontinent, has historically been a term used to racially stereotype South Asians in foreign countries. In 2017, Pakistan-born Australian cricketer Usman Khawaja spoke about how he was racially vilified as a child, and called a “curry muncher”, a slur used to demean the South Asian diaspora. Terms like “curry a favour” and “brown-nosing” are also used in a derogatory manner, and equate the Indian dish with unpleasant social habits. A podcast called the Racist Sandwich explores how the identity of Indian chefs, writers and comedians living abroad is judged and criticised by their food choices.
Similarly, Northeast Indians have also fallen victim to racial stereotyping for their food choices. Not only are many of them regularly subjected to being called “momos” or “chowmein”, but marginalised people are also called “uncivilised” and criticised for eating dog meat or winged termites, both of which are traditional dishes for many indigenous communities. The 2019 Netflix film Axone explores the racial vilification of the Northeastern community living in Delhi for their cuisine.
“Food is a powerful link to one’s identity,” said Hashmi, adding that the close connection between a person’s food and identity allows for food to be weaponised as a dangerous political tool. “When a person leaves his home state, language, attire and festivals behind, cooking their home food is the only thing that can make them feel connected to where they come from. The identity of a country rests on these things, and unfortunately a casteist and racist narrative is now being used in the name of nationalist discourse.”