Spice nationalism

What’s in a name? Plenty, when it comes to asafoetida or “devil’s dung”. The evil-smelling spice is a stink bomb that unquestionably lives up to its moniker. Inhalation at five paces can make someone with a blocked nose stagger back. It has to be stored away from other spices to prevent it overwhelming them. Just a smidgen can cure indigestion. Yet it is a staple in Indian cuisine, adding a certain subtle aroma, pungency and flavour. For the Jain community, whose religion forbids the use of onion and garlic, “hing”, as it is called in India, is a lifesaver for the flavour it adds. Hing is India’s answer to Japan’s umami.

Yet, until now, no one in India has grown the spice.

So, now some has been planted and Huzzah.

Although spice nationalism does sound like a pretty silly thing to be worrying about. Rather ignores the whole benefit of that trade thing….

Previously Indian cooks benefited from the labour of Afghans. Now they won’t. This is an advance how?

33 thoughts on “Spice nationalism”

  1. Ok so farming is a technology and at some point new techs need to be researched, introduced, tried out, but Tim’s reason is right. The thing that’s cared about here it is whether some stuff is imported or not. They ought to be careful because if these farmers can’t grow it below the Afghan supplied market price, which is the thing they should care about, the whole exercise is actively doing those farmers harm.

  2. Yes, so I looked it up:

    The Jain cuisine is completely vegetarian and also excludes underground vegetables such as potato, garlic, onion etc, to prevent injuring small insects and microorganisms; and also to prevent the entire plant getting uprooted and killed. It is practised by Jain ascetics and lay Jains.

    Weird indeed but there is a certain logic there all the same…..

  3. “Weird indeed but there is a certain logic there”

    Don’t be colonial. No logic needed. Their choices are their choices; they don’t need our approval.

  4. Same reason Jains use a soft sweeping cloth on the ground before they sit down, don’t want to hurt any little bugs…

  5. I knew a few Jains when I taught in North London. There was a small community in Wealdstone. At first, I thought they were Hindus, but as students they were quieter and more modest. Their beliefs were closer to Buddhism than Hinduism. Nice people.

  6. Non-Jain Indians also believe onions and garlic make you horny So widows (now that they survive the husband’s funeral in significant numbers) traditionally don’t eat them.

  7. It wouldn’t be a religion (or philosophy) if it didn’t require you to obey silly rules. It’s part of the schtick, and it always comes with some sort of logical explanation, but it is purely for control.

  8. @rk

    I’m not convinced that cultural, social and religous norms are always “purely for control”.

    Which “controlling entity” benefits from the design, imposition and enforcement of the rule “never try making conversation with a stranger on the London Underground”? Or “cream then jam” versus “jam then cream”? Or “you can eat cows and sheep and pigs, but horses, snails and frogs are a bit too Frech while eating dogs is just plain wrong”?

  9. “Hing is India’s answer to Japan’s umami.”

    Umami is a taste, not a spice or flavouring…..Presumably the author meant glutamates.

  10. Although spice nationalism does sound like a pretty silly thing to be worrying about. Rather ignores the whole benefit of that trade thing….

    Trade, like most human behaviour, is downstream of culture. It’s possible that many Jains and Hindus will pay more for food that doesn’t come from Muslims.

  11. MBE, I was talking about religions but it applies to anything which offers membership, belonging. The price of belonging is conformity. If that conformity is to some rule or practice which doesn’t make sense, that would be a flag for control as the intent.

    On the underground it’s pointless to engage anyone in conversation because they won’t speak English, that is not s cost of membership it’s the opposite, it’s a way to exclude non-members.

  12. @rk

    “No conversing on the Underground” is a very British cultural norm (more specifically London – my experiences in Liverpool have been quite different) and knowing those kinds of norms are important for belonging (someone new to London who tries sparking conversation will get some short shrift). There are rational reasons you could put forward for the norm but the one you proffered can’t be the “real” one since it’s an old one that’s attested from a period when the vast majority of Tube passengers would have been English-speakers.

    A society where people talked more to strangers might even be a happier one but conformity is a strong reason they might not. I’m just unconvinced that conformity is the same thing as control. The latter suggests an external, higher director. The former might well be a more emergent, “bottom up” property.

    There are lots of pretty arbitrary social norms people follow because conforming establishes them as members of the in-group, but without them being (I would argue) “directed” or “controlled” to do so. Therefore it seems wrong to me to claim that the “true purpose” of these rules is “to establish control”.

  13. Sam Vara, one of my badminton doubles partners is a Jain. Lovely lad. Met his dad a couple of years ago too. One of the nicest people I have ever met.

  14. Apparently Parthian chicken was a thing for the Romans, flavoured with asafoetida. Which direction did cultural appropriation travel?

  15. Is there a prohibition to conversing on London’s Underground? If there is, as a life long Londoner, it’s strange I’ve never heard of it. And neither have the strangers I’ve had conversations with.
    That you may not often have them is just a reflection of how the Tube works. Journeys are often short. The intervals between stations brief. There’s not much chance to discover topics worth discussion. Wait until you get stuck in a tunnel for half an hour.

  16. The “don’t talk on transport” thing is related to size of settlement and increased likelyhood that a random person is an unknowable stranger. Hong Kong and Tokyo is packed with trains full of passengers assiduously pretending nobody else around them exists.

    Whereas talking to somebody using the adjacent urinal is Just Not On regardless of settlement size.

  17. You can talk to people in the North but not the Home Counties unless there is some form of shared adversity. Stuck in a tunnel, the Blitz, on the station platform at King’s Cross looking at the indicator board flashing all ‘Cancelled’.

  18. @bis

    Interesting! I’m sure I’ve read that it was mentioned in guides to London even in the 1950s but I might be wrong about the dates. It does seem to be something of a Thing now. There was even a failed effort to change things a few years back..



    I like @jgh’s suggestion. But Northern cities are still large and yet on their local equivalents I’m used to people trying to make conversation. Probably all decreased in the “everyone’s got their headphones in” i-era.

  19. ‘“No conversing on the Underground” is … specifically London’: what’s the habit on the Glasgow subway? I find it hard to imagine Weegies not nattering.

  20. No Talking on Public Transport is a rule mocked by Miles Kington (How to be a Brit?) from sixty years ago, so probably the joke is even older.

  21. @MBE
    I suspect it became more of a Thing as people on the Tube progressively became not Londoners. Or even spoke English.

  22. philip, you’re only saying that because you’re in the out group. Obviously.

    (My original or not point was that religions make you jump through hoops, or give up bacon, because they require to demonstrate their power. Not for any other reason, regardless of the explanation they proffer. Transport for London is not a religion. Yet.)

  23. My counter-point was that many religious practices and norms might just be cultural practices and norms that were ancient and prevalent enough to get codified. Odd or locale-varying rules don’t always seem to need anyone to invent and enforce them, or require someone to go off on a power trip.

    If there were a tribal religion of Britishness (which we don’t, but the British “national psyche” has much in common with one, including funny rules and the in/out-group thing) I’m pretty sure it would abhor the consumption of dogs, even if in other parts of the world they are or have been considered expensive but tasty, but this doesn’t stem from some grand controller telling us not to eat dog in order to prove our subservience to their power.

  24. “There’s not much chance to discover topics worth discussion. Wait until you get stuck in a tunnel for half an hour.”

    In Japan, people have sex with total strangers on trains and buses. There are even movies about it. So I am told.

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