The Mnemonics of Food: Edible Archives

Memory is a prominent exponent of food. Through both individual and collective memory, food propagates itself. To borrow from social anthropologist Paul Connerton (How Societies Remember, 1989), great subjects of history accumulate in the unconscious collective memories and food is decisively one such historical subject. Thus, there’s a shift of lens from food being a sensorial object of consumption to a historical subject with possibilities of sensorial archives. At Edible Archives, the archivists build towards the idea of an archive of the edible. Through each meal the participants, “the-humans-of edible-archives” as they call them, can tap into the collective memory of the edible through the individual memory of food – sensorial experiences that reside in the body.

Som Tam topped with Arancini.

At the Kochi Muziris Biennale 2018-19, the Edible Archives is an infra project set up inside the Cabral Yard of the Fort Kochi town, with chefs Anumitra Ghosh Dastidar and Prima Kurien as the curators, and Priya Bala and Kiran Bhushi as guest chefs. Outside the Biennale, the project is largely continued by Anumitra and Shalini Krishan, consulting editor and a queer feminist who has worked with everyday functioning and archiving of various queer activist and resource groups; their research furthers the engagement of the project with the cultural history of food, traditional knowledge of food, food medium and technique, and their possibilities of invigorating food memories. Rice, one of the most integral elements of traditional food cultures of South Asia is a crucial entry point to this research. In praxis, rice as a food medium aids and substantiates meaning making and encapsulates the socio-cultural history of collective memory. Diversity is contained in various indigenous types of rice; to quote Edible Archives themselves, “of taste, texture and colour; of starchiness and nutritive value; of traditional knowledge and techniques; of cultural and religious importance; in short, of possible ways of life.” Post the 1960 Green Revolution in India, the loss of thousands of local varieties of rice and their constant replacement with hybrids has initiated a desire to archive and restore what is lost. The Edible Archives team travels, documents and sources these indigenous rice types.

Food initiates new postmodern understandings of what archives can be- as sensorial documentation the archive resides in the body through food memories. The project attempts to access edible archives that already reside in the bodies of the humans-of-edible-archives, creating a collective edible archive from the varied individual strands of edible archives drawn out from the people who relish each meal at the Edible Archives stall at Cabral Yard. The act of this archiving transforms food from object to subject and implants food as a seed for critical thought, with rice as the primary medium.

Ratna Chudi and Kattuyanam rice with fresh crab curry, roast cauliflower, yams, dried dal, ladyfingers with mustard and squash tempura. Photo: Indranjan Banerjee

A variety of indigenous rice from different regions of the country is used in the project. To list a few used in the first four weeks of the Biennale (December and January): Seeraga Samba (small grained, scented white rice) and Kattuyanam (red rice) from Tamil Nadu, Thondi and Thavalakannan (red rice) from Kerala; Rajamudi (pink rice), Ratna Chudi (white rice) and Burma Black rice from Karnataka; Radha Tilok (small grained scented white rice), Kala Bhaath (sticky black rice) and Chini Atap (sweet white rice) from Bengal. Knowledge of use of water in the harvesting process also becomes crucial in understanding the materiality of rice, which carries with it a history of rainwater, groundwater and traditional harvesting techniques. The use of the above-mentioned rice at the Biennale during the months of December and January is a great example since these rice are summer harvests, unlike new rice from the November harvests that remain sticky- suitable for use only in the later months of the Biennale. This nature of rigorous research paired with knowledge of various cooking traditions – Anumitra’s expertise in Bengali cuisine, Prima’s specialisation in traditional Malayali cuisine, Priya’s culinary speciality in Sri Lankan cuisine, and Kiran’s experience with Peninsular cuisine, blends into the Edible Archives food experience at the Kochi Muziris Biennale.

The Edible Archives Project is a comment on cosmopolitanism, where erasures, additions and adaptations culminate into the Cabral Yard space – a crucible for the process of food cosmopolitanism to become conspicuous. This is not a cosmopolitanism of fusion but a cosmopolitanism of perspectives conversing with each other, creating contexts, tracing histories through memories and constantly building and rebuilding archives. Anumitra’s “grandmother theory” comes in handy in understanding the nature of this cosmopolitanism. Her idea of cooking and understanding the historicity of food is a reflection of something very simple – what grandmothers cook and how they cook. However, this historicity is not about ‘her’ grandmother or one particular grandmother, but ‘all’ grandmothers. These are the histories that come together in their plurality in the making of the Edible Archives in a contemporary context, where recipes are put into perspective. A simple yet classic example from their food repertoire is the Pomelo Salad with Fried Fish. Pomelo, one of the largest, non-hybrid citrus fruits, grow in abundance in Kerala where it is mostly eaten as a fruit, while in South East Asian cuisines like Thai and Vietnamese, using the pomelo fruit in salads is quite popular. Anumitra brings forth a combination of the pomelo salad with local fish of Kerala- Mandelli (local golden anchovies) and Chazha (local sardines), an adaptation that puts a certain contemporary perspective to the ingredients local to the region where the Biennale takes place. In the menu chalkboard at the stall, this salad as a small plate exists alongside the meal bowls, the focal point of the project, which consist of the rice of the day (sometimes more than one kind) paired with traditional recipes across South Asian cuisines. The rice meals served in terracotta bowls, disposable plates and crockery made of Areca nut leaves and Palmyra barks, completes the Cabral Yard food ritual.

Rice (from left to right)- Rajamudi, Chini Atap, Pokkali, Kala Bhaath, and at the back, Kattuyanam.

Affective practices of food rituals, in this case, the act of making and eating food at the Edible Archives stall, charges the body sensorially generating memories that are simultaneously individual and collective. The same applies to the home kitchen. Many of us have grown up with the idea of food as a marker of identity for households – the use of particular ingredients in a specific manner in a certain dish demarcates culinary identities through flavours, textures and technique, constantly upholding the individual from the collective, thus simultaneously keeping both identities alive. For me, growing up in a family that traces the lineage from different regions of pre-partition Bengal, food became the primary marker of the individual cultural idiosyncrasies. Flavour patterns such as the earthy texture of kochu (colocasia), the overtly pungent mustard paste, the smell from the sizzling kalo jeere (nigella seeds), were subtly distinct from the more balanced, sweeter, yet richer gravies. This manner of interaction with food helped me gauge and chart out certain histories of the two sides of Bengal. History, in contrast to immediate contemporary realities, exists in memory and different ways of remembrance.

Likewise, society remembers through communal experiences and bodily practices; the culinary encapsulates the same reflex. These edible archives are particularly intriguing because they take domicile, not only in written accounts, photographs, audio-visual archival systems and e-cloud storage technologies but primarily in the body through sensorial residency in memory. The edible archives barely survive erasures. These erasures range from lost indigenous biodiversity to fading memories and sensorial experiences Yet, each meal at Edible Archives desires to regenerate the individual sensorial archives of the humans-of-edible-archives, thus replenishing the pool of collective food memories.

Cover image: Freshly caught grilled Mackerel, raw banana kofta, carrots and peas, and duck egg.
Images: Edible Archives.