The spell of food

Have you ever been asked to throw salt over your shoulder? Or perhaps break an ash gourd outside your house? The world of food and charms is connected, writes Khushboo Ramnane
Last Updated 07 May 2022, 19:00 IST

Once when Megha Agarwal’s toddler son was crying constantly without any understandable reason and getting hurt often, her mother went into the kitchen and came back with salt and dry red chillies in her hand. She moved it clockwise and anticlockwise from his head to toe. This method or as they say in local dialects, this totka is used to remove nazar, drishti meaning ward off the evil eye. As it is known, food is much more than just sustenance. Food is used to exert power, it’s used to show a social standing and plays a role in rituals of significance. When asked what does salt do? “It just worked I guess, and I think salt has properties to absorb negative energy.” She answered. Not necessarily researched or mentioned in texts, people started believing in such rituals from personal experiences and it got carried from one generation to the next. After years of practice, they became a part of our kitchen lore.

Does food truly have the energy to ward off the evil eye? Pranic healer Harpreet Kaur Khurana from Belgaum defends, “All our pranic healing sessions are conducted with a bowl of water with rock salt in it. Whatever negative energy is removed from a person is disposed of into this salt water.” Explaining further, “Sometimes when we go to someone’s house or a restaurant, we say the vibes were not good. Each person, place and thing throw energy at you. There is a thin line between superstition and energy. In pranic healing, we don’t encourage superstition but I have studied the prana, which is the life force of many food items. Salt is used in pickles as a preservative, it neutralises negative energy. Garlic has its own property and this is based on science. Ash gourd is one item which has the highest prana (life force), that’s why people put it outside their homes and offices. It purifies the energy around.”

In a recently concluded food studies workshop by Mythopia, a Mumbai-based knowledge sharing venture, Ragini Kashyap, food researcher and educator took a session on Food and Taboo. She says “many superstitions were embedded into society at some point, to either assure a certain type of thought, feeling or behaviour amongst communities. Nazar is an interesting example, relevant across Central Asia, the Arab world, and the Indian subcontinent. While some may use dried chillies, others may use a black dot, or wear an amulet to protect from the evil eye. She adds, “It’s not exclusive to any one community. Ismaili’s have a ceremony for the groom called the ‘egging’ ceremony, where they use eggs, and foods like mayonnaise and ketchup on the groom, similar to a North Indian haldi ceremony. Many cultures believe in looking a certain way before the wedding day.

Symbols like fish, wheat and pig have been prevalent in the European continent with Gods of grains and agriculture too. Professor Sneha Nagarkar, Department of Archaeology and Centre for Extra-Mural Studies, University of Mumbai tells us about the Maharashtrian ritual of Bhakar Tukda Owalane.

“Owalane means to do aarti. I am not aware how it came about, but we do this when welcoming a newly married couple or someone who has come home after a long time or a long journey. We throw bhakri and water outside the house premises. From the few Vedas and Puranas that I have studied, I haven’t come across a mention of such food practices in the texts yet.” As Ragini says, “food practices “and in this case food rituals “are acquired by enculturation.”

Dr Kurush Dalal, archaeologist, historian and culinary anthropologist lists the Parsi practice of cracking coconuts and eggs, “In Parsis, while bringing a newly married couple into the house, there’s the whole works of cracking a coconut and egg on the floor. A thali filled with water and some rice grains are also used. I have observed similar practices across the board in Hindus, Muslims and Jews.”

Food and rituals continue to be linked inextricably as they give solace to the ones involved. It gives a feeling of protection to them and their loved ones. Rashida Cutlerywala did the Bohri ritual of Sadka when her friend took ill. “To ward off evil eye, Sadka thali uses various dals and oil to be given away to the underprivileged along with some money.” Nimbu Mirchi (lemon-chilli) stringed outside shops as an offering to Alakshmi (Goddess of misfortune), breaking of ash gourd during Dasara in South India; every region, every community has its own charms and rituals. What one must however do, as they follow these and other practices, is to ask questions. Why are these followed and how do they work?

Beliefs across the world

Rice has always been a strong symbol of health and prosperity. It was believed that rice would appease evil spirits so they would not harm the wedding couple. Throwing rice was meant to bring happiness, fertility, wealth and prosperity to the newly-wed couple.

The ancient Egyptians thought onions kept evil spirits away. When they took an oath (made a promise), they placed one hand on an onion. Europeans who believed in vampires sprinkled mustard seed on the roof of their homes to keep them away.

In Japan, during the festival of Setsuben, beans are scattered in dark corners and entrances of the home to drive out evil spirits.

In China, long noodles symbolise a long life. If you’ve ever cut your noodles into smaller pieces before cooking and serving them, you have probably shortened your life span as well, according to Chinese superstition.

While spilling salt is considered bad luck, on the flip side, tossing it over your shoulder would mean luck regained!

(Published 07 May 2022, 18:54 IST)

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