Transactions in Taste: The Collaborative lives of Everyday Bengali Foods

Manpreet K. Janeja. Transactions in Taste: The Collaborative lives of Everyday Bengali Foods. London: Routledge, 2010. 185 pages, ISBN 978-415553742.

Reviewed by Meraz Rahman
New Mexico State University 

In her detailed, sensuous ethnographically based book, Transactions in Taste: The Collaborative lives of Everyday Bengali Foods, Manpreet K. Janeja takes her readers transactions in taste coveron an extraordinary journey to the middle-class “normal” everyday “Bengali” foodscape by illustrating the everyday ordinary common food prepared and consumed there. The book’s emphasis includes people living in both sides of Bengal- the Muslim Bengal of Dhaka in Bangladesh, and Hindu Bengal in Calcutta in the Indian state of West Bengal. Growing up in Calcutta, the capital of West Bengal, which is known for its rich food heritage, left a profound imprint on Janeja, who was mesmerized by the rich tastes, colors, smells, sounds, and touch of Bengali food. Various questions loom large in Janeja’s mind such as what was “Bengali” about so much of the food in Calcutta? How is food important in both East and West Bengali genealogies? And what was “normality” after all? (Page: xvi –xvii).

Janeja attempts to examine how food is a critical means by which Bengali Hindus and Muslims in Calcutta and Dhaka create a rational world and normality through the transactional “agency” that food acquires in its work of generating perceived normality (p.2). “Agents” can be objects other than persons, including  things and places, a perspective originally developed by anthropologist Alfred Gell in his book Art and Agency (1998) (p.19). By focusing on processes, preparation, storage, distribution, consumption, and disposal of food, this book illustrates the articulation of quotidian, mundane practices with a wider biography of social relationships (p.8-9). The book reveals the ways in which Bengalis (both Muslim and Hindu) attend to food and further explicates “the manner in which food as a thing-actant/patient mediate between other things, persons, and place –actants/patients” (P.24). Janeja develops a number of topics such as “foodscape,” “normality” and “non-normality.” She also examines the ways in which food emerges as “ordinary sacred,” how food evokes subjectivity in everyday life and hospitality transactions while producing everyday “normality,” the relationship between food and location, and lastly, how the preparation of foods in everyday hospitality relations elicits the modalities of ownership (belongingness, identity).

I want to highlight a few of the topics that I found most fascinating about this book. Janeja provided examples of relationships between the cook and the “desh” (region, area, district, native hometown, village, city, birthplace, country) in order to explicate the concept “desh as foodscape,” a concept Janeja develops to “describe the ability of food to bring forth the sense of place as particular configuration of relationship” (P.51). Janeja depicts the characteristics of a good cook and describes how her/his ability to replicate a recipe for the household can be considered as normally cooked in the “desh” of the recipient. On the contrary, the incapacity of a cook to continually replicate the everyday foodscape perceived as normal by food recipients is called “not-normality.” According to Janeja this is how “Desh as foodscape” becomes a theme for perceiving normality (P.52).  This book also provides its reader with the menu, philosophy, and the process of cooking of two restaurants in Calcutta and Dhaka to explain how “food reveals its agency in bringing forth temporal calibration of process of preparing normal Bengali food ‘traditionally’ everyday in restaurants” (P.138). The very definition of “normality” in this case differs significantly and suggests the ability of cooks working in these restaurants to continuously replicate “standard” Bengali food by excluding their respective “desh” as an actant. In order to make/create “standard” Bengali food, the cook tries to balance and modify the dishes (use and control of ingredients, cooking technique, process) to make them “standard” or “normal” in the perception of the restaurant staff and their customers (p.131).

This book may interest a variety of audiences. The book can be used as reference for anyone interested in conducting food studies, especially food studies of South Asia or a text for teaching courses related to food studies, food and hospitality, or post-colonial studies. It is useful not only because of its rich content but also for the research methods employed. The idea of food having “agency” can also be further utilized by policy makers to look at the collaborative work food performs (in the creation of normality/non-normality), and to devise food relief policies related to the assembled world of the people the policies seek to address (P.166).

Janeja provided the reader with an innovative account of the everyday foodscape of Bengali life, challenging readers to think about food differently and understand the power and ability of food to control and shape our identity, environment, and the creation of normality/non normality in our everyday lives. However, the prose of this book is pretty dense and inundated with footnotes, which makes it more accessible to academic audiences. The frequent use of Bengali quotes and phrases throughout the book enriches the ethnographic description, but will occasionally distract the reader.

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Filed under anthropology, Bangladesh, Bengal, book reviews, India

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