In Bad Taste

How tech platforms further casteist notions of food in Chennai

Illustration by PP Thangam
30 June, 2024

In March, social media in India erupted over the launch of a “pure veg mode” by the food delivery service Zomato, which offered a separate fleet of delivery persons, in green uniforms, for orders from strictly vegetarian restaurants. The company was forced to withdraw this policy after it faced immense backlash, with critics arguing that, by segregating food delivery, Zomato was reinforcing casteist notions of purity tied to vegetarianism.

The history of food in India is tied closely to its caste-based society, where upper castes, especially Brahmins, reinforce an idea of vegetarianism as “pure” or more hygienic. These castes commonly regard food or utensils handled by lower castes as being “impure” or “polluting.” The idea of “pure vegetarian” food—which involves unscientific practices such as using separate kitchens for vegetarian and non-vegetarian food to avoid “contamination”—stems from Brahminical notions of purity. This has led to the marginalisation of the food habits of Dalits, Adivasis and religious minorities, especially the consumption of meat. Historically, other caste groups regularly imitated Brahmin food traditions such as vegetarianism, often as a way of signalling their social purity and superiority—many caste communities, even those not considered “upper” in the varna hierarchy, refuse to eat food prepared by those considered lower in the hierarchy than them.

But, while Zomato was forced to withdraw its policy, other technological platforms are regularly used to further casteist food practices. In Chennai, for instance, it is common to use online platforms such as Facebook for seeking and offering the services of Brahmin cooks. Several food service platforms promote Brahmin cooks and culinary practices while exploiting cooks from non-Brahmin castes. “Need a brahmin female cook in gowrivakkam for 5members.. breakfast,lunch and chapathi to be made for dinner it can be prepared in the morning need to come again in the agencies please. Thank you,” read a post on the Facebook page Housemaids and Cooks Chennai, which has over five thousand members. The platform connects cooks with prospective employers.

Pages like this do not restrict members from demanding Brahmin cooks exclusively. Other pages, such as The Happy Brahmin Home Cooks Group, with over three thousand members, are dedicated to the process. Posts asking for recommendations or contacts of Brahmin cooks are common on such pages, receiving responses from other members of the page providing contacts in comments. Websites publicly offer “Brahmin food” and cooking services, while sites such as Pujaloo, Brahmin Foods Catering & Food Suppliers, Mani Iyer’s Kitchen and Brahmins Group cater to Tamil Brahmin customers, in various cities.

Hinduja Verma is a multimedia journalist and translator currently working with HT Digital. She is interested in covering stories on politics, gender and caste. She is a recipient of the 2023 South Asia Foundation Madanjeet Singh Scholarship.