By: Ruppa Kaur & Pawan Kaur
Majority of us have felt a connection with others through food whether it be at a langar hall, protests, events or inside our own homes. Take our word for it; food is one of the best ways to bring people together. In our case, Punjabi cuisine takes the win and is a staple in our everyday lives. We have had our mothers pack us pronthies when traveling afar to take a little bit of home with us. This got us wondering about the origins of Punjabi cuisine; how it became a means of our lifestyle, how gender and farming play a role and connecting to our religious upbringing.
Let us take a step back and ask ourselves what comes to mind when we think of the most popular dishes in Punjab. Surely, saag & makki di roti, kheer, and various street foods will make the list. A lot of the popular dishes originated based on how Punjab is set up; weather conditions, what is in season, and the working conditions. Punjabis are the masters of making multiple dishes utilizing one main ingredient. Take fresh milk for an instance; it is abundant in many pind (village) households since they have their own cattle. This explains homemade ghee, dahi, lassi, kheer, paneer, and the list goes on. These foods usually help farmers survive long hours in their keth (field) by giving them enough calories and keeping them full. After speaking to Sadaf Hussian (food historian based in India), we were told to hit the bazaars to get a better grasp on Punjabi food as “khana ki roh raiste peh hoti hai,” (“the soul of food is found in the streets”) and we could not agree more. A cha stall will give you more insights of what is happening around the state and a grasp on our culture versus going into a coffee shop.
Lifestyle and Gender Equality
Punjabi cuisine has truly become a part of our lifestyle from being a dominant part of our upbringing to a connection to our ancestors and roots. We grew up watching our grandmothers making specialties such as; pinni, kheer, and khoa while our mothers cooked the main meals for the day. Since men would be working outside, it became a norm to not include them in the kitchen. This is one norm that we are trying to break everyday in hopes of normalizing men cooking in Punjabi households. We spoke to Prav from @foodylens about his experience being a male in a Desi household who has a passion for cooking:
“Thankfully, I come from a very supportive and open minded family who has encouraged me to continue my passion for cooking. However, I am aware this is not the case with all men who share a passion for cooking. From what I have heard of other people’s experiences, they can often be discouraged and mocked for their interest in cooking, as it is not seen as the norm for a male to cook in some households. I am from the Punjabi culture and food is an essential part of our identity. Yet, sadly this all comes down to patriarchal gender-related stereotypes of women in having the responsibility of nurturing that leads to them being seen as having to cook, even within the 21st century. In my opinion we all work, we all eat and so it should be shared equally. Food creating is an artwork and anyone can fall in love with it, regardless of one’s gender. It is time people start understanding this and work together to help remove these unfair ideologies.”
The biggest commonality we found through cooking in a Punjabi household is that women are mainly responsible for running the kitchen. While, men are typically frowned upon when trying to cook or clean. Many have witnessed this first hand with our brothers and cousins being taught to work and make money. While women were encouraged to learn how to make rotiyan and serve so that one day they can become a good daughter-in-law. Although this mentality is slowly changing with our generation, it is a struggle that many of our Punjabi sisters have gone through and are currently facing. It is important for our male counterparts to stand with women to fight these gender inequalities.
Langar, established by Guru Nanak Sahib, was designed to maintain equality amongst all people regardless of religion, caste, gender, sex, color, creed, race, social status, or age. The passion to serve is in our blood and we do so through our food. Growing up, we have seen our moms lead their respective Gurdwara kitchens where women come together to make langar. The ideology that women should cook is seen in our Gurdwaras, although it varies between Gurdwara (some you only see men in the kitchen or a blend of both genders) but in general we have noticed women being the predominant cooks while men serve.
Along with Guru Nanak Sahib initiating langar, Mata Khivi played a huge role in organizing and strengthening the langar system, which she continued to nurture into Guru Arjan Sahib’s time. She preached equality and encouraged women to lead a life that was independent. Interestingly she is one of the few people mentioned by name in Guru Granth Sahib (Ang 967):
You can see here that, langar is based on what is readily available, and the importance of milk was acknowledged during our Guru’s times.
There are many references to farming in Gurbani. Like this one revealed to Guru Nanak Sahib (Ang 595).
Which reminds us of the farmers protest in India; it has caught worldwide attention and has held a powerful connection with Punjabis in particular. Farming and the mindset to grow, cook, and share food is a part of our being no matter our geographical location. The farmers protest has shown us coming together as a community via our multiple rallies, protests and social media presence worldwide. Another beautiful outcome has been the respect gained for our sisters, mothers, and grandmothers fighting alongside our brothers, fathers, and grandfathers. An assumption has been made that only men do farming, when according to Oxfam India, “the agriculture sector employs 80% of all economically active women in India; they comprise 33% of the agricultural labor force and 48% of the self-employed farmers.”
Another interesting take away from the farmer’s protest is its role in reshaping the gender roles and stereotypes that we had so concretely ingrained in our culture. We see images of men at the protest washing their own clothes, folding their blankets up neatly, sweeping the streets with a jhaadu (broom), cutting up vegetables, cooking, serving and nurturing the children, plants and environment at the protest sites. On the flipside, in many households the men came to partake in the protests while the women stayed home to run the household, family and farms. They became head of household and are managing the farms and farm animals in the absence of their husbands. Then there are also the women who came to participate in the protest and have been there side by side with their male counterparts from day one in the cold, harsh weather, shattering the stereotype of women as fragile or something that needs to be protected. All of these forms of contribution and participation are equally important and show us that gender is a construct, not a biological fact and it can be challenged and it can be changed.
Staying Connected to Your Roots with Food
Punjabi food has become a means of our culture, everyday lifestyles and we can owe this all to our beautiful history from the concept of langar to farming. The world has come to connect with our food through folklore, songs and our culture. Let us all reflect on our gender bias and become a generation which sees both men and women side by side whether it be in our Gurdwara kitchens or at home.
Below are ideas on how you can connect with our farmers, culture, and Sikhi:
- Keep our culture alive through the love of Desi food. Learn how to make some of your favorite dishes and maximize the use of ingredients throughout your meals like our ancestors. Here is an example of 3 different Desi dishes using milk.
- Learn how to make Sooji Karah and Karah Parshad with @whattheroti
- Stay informed & spread awareness on social media platforms.
- Donate to causes supporting farming families and/or on the ground like Khalsa Aid & Sahaita.
- Contact representatives and sign petitions.
- Support each other & speak up against false narratives.
- Find out the origins & how to make different Punjabi dishes.
- Understand the meaning behind Shabads.
- Explore ways to decolonize your diet.
- Host a langar for your friends, family, or those experiencing food insecurity and hunger.
About Ruppa Kaur & Pawan Kaur
Ruppa Kaur (Minnesota) and Pawan Kaur (Oregon) met through SALDEF’s leadership development program in 2012 and kept in touch ever since. They both are MBA Graduates and while working full-time during the day – they have a passion for community organizing, volunteering and creating youth initiatives during their free time. Their collective joy of cooking, discussing gender roles and the current farmers protests inspired them to create this article. Fun facts: Ruppa started her own bhangra team (@mnjawani) and Pawan started a food page (@whattheroti) featuring all the Desi dishes one can hope for.