Manu’s text or Manusmriti, with its multiple involutions, is probably the provenance of most of the taboos involving food and potation observed by Suvarna Hindus. Palatability has always been culturally shaped and socially controlled. The laws of Manu, with their gubernacular regard for purity, proscribe the eating of scavengers. In fact, Manu’s tract on food is quite daft and picky about animals considered licit and considers the fish a scavenger, perhaps on account of effluents that find their way into water. But Manu’s interdicts are not instructive on cuts and prepared meats. And there is no scale of feelings offered for offal. Perhaps eating the refuse of animals was a natural act of abomination, not worthy of Manu’s prejudice. Abhorrence, for Hindus, has ended in avoidance, or perhaps vice versa.
Suvarna Hindus are abstemious meat eaters. Meat eating for them is the consumption of skeletal muscles. Of fish, fowl and mammals. Solid organ consumption is uncommon. Hollow viscera is almost always discarded or used for feeding domestic pets. The Subcontinent in general is squeamish about viscera. We don’t have a robust offal eating tradition. The Subcontinental goshtkhor (meat eater) wants to bite into fibrous tissue. He wants the sinews and the myofibrilar goodness of striated muscle. Rump, thighs, shanks and the breast are his comestibles. He’ll attempt trotters, gurda (kidney) and kaleji (liver), but is generally wary of squishy and sappy parts. A paté or parfait from liver is not part of his heritage. His kebabs are myofibrilar. Even his ersatz meats, soya nuggets or jackfruit, are analogous in taste to muscle. His imagination runs dry beyond the fillet.
Offal includes parts of the animal that fall off during and after slaughter: the intestines, the solid viscera, like liver, spleen, lungs and sweetbreads, that is, pancreas, thyroid, thymus and blood. The Hindu offal scale, with objects in the ascending order of repulsiveness, would run from liver to kidneys, tongue, sweetbreads, then to brain, tripe, testicles and eyes.
Offal eating, commonsensically, has its origins in exigency. In wartime periods of the 20th century, offal was perhaps the only nourishment not rationed in Europe. Trotters and tongues and viscera became popular in the Depression years in America and Australia, with no one willing to waste a scrap. Chitterlings or pig’s large intestines, once given to African slaves for sustenance, became traditional southern soul food. The word itself, related etymologically to the German abfall (waste), has this pejorative sense prevailing strongly. There seems to have been, from very far back, a custom of the internal organs of newly slaughtered animals being given away to the lower orders, the whole sad history of offal consumption unloading itself onto the semantics of ‘humble pie’ or umble pie—a pie made from umbles or innards and scrap that subalterns ate—the offal of society eating offal. ‘The upper class ate the choicer meat while the servants and inferiors ate Umble Pie.’ Offal eating trends presently have no relationship with the Human Development Index. Offal in European gastronomy is haute cuisine, beloved of plutocrats and epicures; in Africa and parts of the Orient, it is a plebeian belly warmer, and makes economic sense.
So there’s the subversive and subaltern aspect of offal eating—the whole metaphor of the digestive system. And then, there’s the dialectic of delicacy and repugnance. The presiding notion in that matter being: eating offal is proof of epicurism; the sense of refinement somehow inseparable from the sense of repugnance. Good taste is seen so often to be defined by distinction from bad taste. Foie gras, the fat laden, diseased liver of duck or goose (enlarged to ten times its normal size) represents the pinnacle of French delicacies, one of the ten significant flavours of gastronomy.
Less exalted forms of offal are commonplace in many cultures. Tripe, made from the walls of the first and the second stomachs of cattle, is a customary finding on menus across Europe. The famed English breakfast would stall without the black pudding (sausage made from congealed goat blood). Faggots, made from the spongy organs of the pig, that is, lungs, liver and the spleen, are being conspicuously revived in the English west midlands. Scotland’s national dish, still, is Haggis: sheep’s stomach stuffed with minced liver, heart and lungs.
Metropolitan America, for some reason, lacks the aptitude for eating offal. But Scrapple is an exception, coming from the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition, containing every bit of the pig, except perhaps the squeal. On the Subcontinent, though I have no objective metrics to assess its popularity, a stew of Siri-paya (head-trotters) has endogenous appeal amongst Muslims of north India. The nahari, served ever so often with bakre ka maghaz (goat’s brain), is an emblem of the Islamicate food of Dehalvis, of the meat eating aspect of their habitus.
For lacto-vegetarian Sanatani Hindus, meat eating is an aberration to be explained. The great 21st century upsurge in Hindu/ Jaini consumption of gosht (meat) is about us, but Hindus are not devoted meat eaters. Hindu carnivory, in particular, has a trained incapacity for enjoying offal. The Subcontinental habit in general is to demeatify with marination and condimental treatment, to take its smell and animal essences away (gosht ki bisand khatm kar dein). A sense of foreignness hangs around starkly prepared, minimally seasoned meat. The Hindu meat-eating logic is to take the sarcophagan view that distances meat from its animal origins. The barmy French and other suchlike traditions take the zoophagan view, acknowledging the living in meat, thereby celebrating offal. We’re not particularly fussy about our meat as long as it’s fresh; not for us the incarceration of animals to atrophy their muscles (so that they’re tender), or the force feeding of migratory waterfowl to produce fatty livers. But for us the excesses of methane-producing masala. It’s not the meat that is important; it’s the bomb it subsequently becomes.
As regards offal and Dilliwallahs, it is not an unexamined prejudice. The Ahl-e-Dehli, prandially, are well disposed towards muscles—puth, raan, pasli, dast (rump, hind leg, fore limb, ribs), but are not averse to eating organs that filter urine or produce bile or sperm. Punjabis, the aristocracy of the city, are favourably inclined towards the gurda kaleji kapure maghaz repast. Kayasths of the shehr have accorded solemnity to the testicle— in the form of a piquant kapure recipe that is seasoned, in the end, with crushed cloves, cardamom and saunth.
But, the Dehlvi Hindu eschews hollow viscera and issues an apologia. Why eat bowels and digestive organs, whose primary function is to produce faecal matter? Why eat the domicile of salmonella and yersinia? Even if it comes with sauce, slaw and corn bread by the side, or in a particularly nuclear and red-coloured curry.