Amid the uproar over the rising onion prices in India, financial minister Nirmala Sitharaman sparked another controversy over her recent statement in Parliament. Sitharaman said, “I don’t eat much of onion and garlic. I come from such a family which doesn’t have much to do with onion.” Her statement wasn’t appreciated by the people with many calling it ‘insensitive’ and ‘casteist’. Some also called it an attempt to impose food practices of dominant community on the rest.
But does consumption of onion really have casteist connotations?
Despite having medicinal benefits which have been prescribed in Ayurveda, Onion and garlic are considered as Tamasic foods which are not a part of the ‘pure vegetarian’ diet of many communities.
But why are onion and garlic considered tamasic foods?
InUth spoke Pritha Sen, a renowned food historian who explained the history behind tamasic foods. “Earlier it was the tribal population who used a lot of wild garlic and onions. But as people got more urbanised, the affluent classes in order to separate yourself from what is considered the common man or the poor man, you change your food practices as food is our identity. This creates the narrative of people who eat such food are tamasic, uncivilised, primitive. Therefore, their food is not fit for god and ultimately not fit for us,” she said.
But it was after the arrival of Muslims in India, the usage of garlic and onion became more prominent in their non-vegetarian cuisine. The Muslims used a lot of garlic and onion in their food because of which Hindus became more orthodox about using it.
With the advent of Vaishnavism in India, many upper caste communities denounced non-vegetarian food practices.
“Vaishnavism denounced the use of meat, fish, onion and garlic. Which is why Onion and Garlic did not form part of the Sattvik food. Ginger remained. And who were the people who had converted to Sattvik food? People who had converted to Vaishnavism, people who were more affluent. They planted their casteism by saying that they are pure vegetarians. The common man did not have these luxuries. They had to eat whatever was available,” she added.
As onion prices hit above Rs 100 per kilogram, it is the common man who has been hit the most.”85 percent of the population is having it because that is the only thing that might keep them going. I am not talking about onion lachcha and thick onion gravies in Mughlai cuisines at fancy restaurants. I am talking about the poor man’s food. Dal, roti, one onion and one chilly,” she says.