‘The pork dry fry here is really good. We can share one of those,’ said M.
‘But I do not eat pork,’ I responded.
‘Really? Since when?,’ asked M.
I have been a part of these kinds of food-related conversations quite a few times now. Friends and acquaintances are surprised that I do not eat pork, which has become representative of Assamese food in recent times. It is served as a part of popular fast food items like momo, noodles, soup and thukpa as well as the thali. Assam is the largest consumer of pork in the country. As such, I have been thinking about the significance of pork in Assamese food.
If one looks back at ritual and ceremonial food among caste Hindus in Assam, meat is an integral part. But the forms of meat that are served at weddings, funerals and other occasions are mutton and duck. Although chicken has become popular and is included in many ceremonial celebrations, it is a recent phenomenon. Interestingly, pork is still missing from the menu of such feasts.
Forms of meat, just like all other food items, have degrees of purity associated with them. In this purity index, mutton, duck and pigeon rank higher than chicken. Pork is actually at the bottom of this index. Both chicken and pork have been seen as ‘impure’ meat, because of their association with Muslims and tribals respectively. Historically, most chicken rearers have been Muslims, whereas pork is seen as a meat that is consumed by tribals and lower castes. As such, they have not been part of caste Hindu Assamese diets. Even when a widow would be allowed to eat non-vegetarian food after her husband’s death, she would ideally not eat chicken or pork.
During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were several rumours about chicken being the cause of the virus. Similarly, pork is linked to the spread of swine flu. Both these forms of meat, thus, are associated with taboos.
So when and how did pork become so popular in Assam? The popularity of pork can be linked to the emergence of eating places in Guwahati that sell different kinds of cuisine. Pork is easier to cook and can be used in different recipes, very much like chicken. It can be fried, made into curries and gravies, minced, roasted and smoked. Another factor that is linked to the growing popularity of pork is the interaction of caste Assamese food habits with other global communities. Asian cuisine forms such as Thai, Chinese and Japanese have become very visible in recent times, and pork is a ubiquitous part of these cuisines. There has also been greater interest in other Northeastern forms of food, be it Naga or Manipuri. Pork is an integral part of these cuisines as well.
At the same time, there is also an increasing debate on who is an Assamese and what constitutes Assamese food. Unlike caste Hindus, pork is not seen as an impure kind of meat by several tribal communities, who form a significant part of the state’s population. For them, pork is often a part of ritual offerings. So excluding pork also means excluding these communities from the idea of being an Assamese. Hence, there is a growing enthusiasm for experimenting with pork among both chefs and consumers as well as state investment in pig farming.
But does this mean that pork has been universally accepted as part of the caste Hindu Assamese diet? The simple answer to this question is no. Even today, pork is not cooked at home in most Assamese caste households. It is eaten outside the home, particularly by the younger population, mostly men. This is also because men have greater access to the outside sphere than women.
‘I eat pork outside. My mother still does not know that I eat it. If she gets to know, she will separate my utensils’, says Aman, a government servant from Guwahati. Aman comes from a Brahmin household and pork is a tabooed meat. ‘My parents do not eat in places that serve pork. It is seen as dirty. But I eat it outside.’
Many others, who are not Brahmins but are upper castes, echo Aman’s sentiments. ‘Pork is not something that mother makes. It is meat that you eat outside with friends,’ says Arijit, a banker from Guwahati. Most of their pork consumption happens outside the home, as their families, particularly mothers, do not cook or eat it. This is also not surprising, given the fact that it is generally women who are given the responsibility of being the bearers of tradition and rituals.
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It is not just that pork is not cooked at home. Serving pork in public feasts is not encouraged. An incident from July 2022 highlights this the best. Pork was part of the feast that was held during the central executive meeting of the Assam Literary Society in Upper Assam’s Sivasagar district. It was seen as insulting and offensive by many as guests included caste Hindus. This highlights the prevailing attitudes against pork among caste Assamese Hindus. Interestingly, Sivsagar is populated by several tribal groups who consider pork to be a delicacy.
Thus, although pork has attained visibility in eateries; socio-culturally, it is still associated with ideas of impurity and is not yet accepted as part of ceremonial and public feasts.
Views expressed are personal. The author is a sociologist by training and mostly writes on issues of food, culture, gender and media.
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