Kitchen Publics: Indian Delights, Gender and South African Indian Identity

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Seminar Date
February 25, 2009
In early 20th century Durban, a woman wishing to concoct a biryani, kurma, khuri or patta employed the skills and knowledge transmitted through apprenticeships to her mother, aunties, or mother-in-law. Her repertoire of dishes was largely a familial or circumstantial inheritance, falling within a matrilineage of recipes that had traversed the Indian Ocean. Women who immigrated in the late 19th century as labourers and/or wives, under indenture or in trading families, had incorporated imported and locally grown ingredients to make meals that tasted of home. The familiar savour of meat or vegetables prepared through applications of jeera, arad, lavan, methi and other spices, made daily nourishment for the body also a ritual of cultural reproduction and transmission. Just as crucially, pleasures of the palate and aesthetics of the table were a medium for local (and commercial) adaptation, experimentation and change. As is the case for other diasporic communities, food and the material relations of sustenance have reflected the varied and changing socio-economic, gendered, and cultural realities of Indian South Africans. By the late twentieth century, an authentic-tasting biryani might be attributed to another skill: literacy. Putting gastronomic knowledge into writing both reflected and shaped the way community was being imagined among people of Indian ancestry, as well as localized changes in family, gender and class relationships. The development of culinary print culture turned household kitchens into public spaces and their gendered readership into agents of diaspora. In Durban, the most important text in this process was the cookbook Indian Delights, compiled and published by the Women’s Cultural Group of Durban, a long-standing association of mostly Muslim women, in 1960.
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