“Sil Batta” A traditional grindstone used to break down spices

After finding disparity in general literature with the sources, I have begun to look at another angle of research, interviews (or more formally, Oral Histories). As of today, 2 interviews have been conducted with the family members of friends, asking about their specific blend of Garam Masala and the connections to the place they came from. As of now, most of the families I have lined up are from the Northern regions of the continent, namely Punjab. The only exception was one family that was originally from Punjab but then migrated to Bombay. Considering the individual and personal nature of this style of primary source collection, the point is not necessarily to try and get as many as possible, or even that much of a range. However, I will have to do some searching to find families that represent the South of India to get a better understanding of the part of my essay concerning food nationalism and regionalism.

The question now is how to make it work within the context of my essay. Although in the past I have worked with primary source material, most of them were related to political history or specific events. How do historians analyze primary sources when looking at social history? This is especially challenging as interviews are notorious for digressing if the interviewer is not careful in selecting the right questions. This form of research seems to lend itself well to a combined framework of micro and comparative history (strangely enough) where the narratives and customs of individual families can be subsumed under the larger questions regarding health, perceptions and spices. Most of the questions I have asked fall largely into three categories. Firstly, the contents of the spice mix itself, what are the proportions? What are the main spices that feature? Secondly, you have the rationale or story behind the spices used.

Thus far, the overarching narrative found in popular media and literature (including the famous, Wikipedia) is that Garam Masala is a mix that is used to introduce heat to the dish. The very name Garam is taken from the Hindi word for “Hot” ( गरम), and Masala is used to refer to a spice mix of any sort. From the current understanding I have, the word Garam is used to describe a “warming” heat that hits the palate gradually and towards the end of the bite of food, whereas a “sharp” heat is referred to as Mirchi (मिर्ची) also used as the term for chilli. This very linguistic difference in understanding how “spiciness” is understood lends itself well to the kind of cultural analysis that transnational history is suitable for. From this small culturo-linguistic difference, I can examine literary perceptions from a variety of sources but in particular colonial and post-colonial sources. In my mind, this would fall under social history of sorts, extrapolated under the lens of microhistory. This entire conceptualisation of Garam Masala being used for heat was entirely overturned when one of the interviewees described how their family used Garam Masala not as a way to add heat to the dish, but rather aroma. This simple variation from mainstream views of the mix alone is a testament to the utility of microhistorical interviews as a form of research. Albeit when the right questions are asked.

The second overarching topic that was broached was family origins and regionality. The purpose of this question was to tease out whether geographic and/or cultural features have an impact on the constituent spices of Garam Masala. The most obvious “common sense” point is that families and people in certain regions will have access to different ingredients because of regional availability, but I wanted to figure out whether there were spices that transcended regional differences and were present in all Garam Masalas. Thus far, Cumin seems to be an inescapable staple in most mixes, but we await further information. I also endeavoured to ask about perceptions between north and south, in an attempt to tease out the similarities and differences across the subcontinent. The perception that Tamarind is widely used to introduce an acidic component to dishes was something that was mentioned by both interviewees, whereas in the North the usage of Amchur (dried mango powder) and Anardana (dried pomegranate seeds, and unique to Punjab) were used. The relationship between regional food differences and perceptions of why these differences occur were very useful in creating the basis for understanding possible avenues of cultural and political divides, as well as the formation of regional identities.

The final question was regarding the relationship between health and spices. This question was mostly driven by the existing research that I had seen in the preliminary search for sources. The main difference was that the information available on engines such as google scholar were primarily focused on scientific analysis of compounds in spices, whereas one interviewee expressed that the knowledge being passed down about the anti-inflammatory nature of certain spices was passed down generationally. This contrast between generational and academic knowledge is something that will be further discussed in historiographical analyses on the topic.

All in all, with the sources, that Charmaine (thank you very much!) has provided as a baseline source for reading, and several interviews conducted, has formed a solid basis for some sections of the essay. Now several questions come to the fore. Firstly, whether interviews are “admissible as evidence” for essays, and how to make the best use of the information provided.

Long last, the road forward is beginning to look a little clearer.

“Why do you ask?” Forays into Social Microhistory, and Asking the Right Questions
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