A raging social media debate on food menu of Kerala Youth Festival

The absence of non-vegetarian food has sparked the debate on social media platforms during the ongoing Kerala School Arts Festival in northern Kozhikode, popularly known as the 'culinary capital' of the southern state.
Representative Image
Representative Image

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: In a largely meat-loving Kerala, where official estimates put the non-vegetarians close to 70 per cent, there is a raging debate over the choice of food in an arts festival for school students that has even prompted charges of ''brahmanical hegemony.''

The absence of non-vegetarian food has sparked the debate on social media platforms during the ongoing Kerala School Arts Festival in northern Kozhikode, popularly known as the 'culinary capital' of the southern state.

Adding spice to the controversy, some netizens even alleged ''brahmanical hegemony'' in the kitchen of the art festival of children, billed as Asia's biggest cultural event at the school level, citing eminent culinary expert Pazhayidam Mohanan Namboothiri helming the catering team.

State General Education Minister V Sivankutty rubbished the charges and said the debate was totally ''unwanted'', even as he said that both types of delicacies will be included in the menu next year.

For decades, lip-smacking vegetarian delicacies have been served among participating children, their teachers and parents at the food pavilions of the annual gala, known for its massive participation of children. Like in the past, Mohanan Namboothiri and his team are preparing and serving dishes to thousands of people every day at the food pavilions of the festival.

However, some netizens questioned the years-long practice of serving only vegetarian items during the festival, triggering intense exchange of views in and outside social media platforms. A Facebook user charged that the ''vegetarian only'' menu in the festival was part of ''vegetarian fundamentalism'' and a ''reflection of caste belief''.

Another person, in his FB post, lamented that the presence of Brahmins in the kitchens of art festivals was the commemoration of the surrender of renaissance and democratic values at the feet of brahmanism.

One netizen wanted all kinds of food, including non-vegetarian dishes, to be served in such festivals organised by the government.

However, several FB users harshly criticised the debate as an attempt to give religious colour to food and to create division in the society. Reacting to the criticism and the social media debate, Mohanan Namboothiri said the vegetarian dishes were not his choice but he was acting as directed by the government.

''It is up to the government to decide whether non-vegetarian dishes should also be included in the menu. I have a good team who are experts in preparing non-vegetarian delicacies as well. What I am doing is the overall monitoring of their work,'' he said.

However, he said there were several technical issues with preparing and serving non-vegetarian dishes in an event like youth festival, where the number of people to be fed could not be ascertained exactly.

Citing the example of the state sports festival, he said non-vegetarian dishes are served in the event but it was not practical in the case of youth festivals.

''In sports festivals, there might not be much difference in the number of expected crowds. But, in the case of youth festivals, the number of people arriving at the food pavilion cannot be exactly calculated in advance,'' he said. Today, the number of participants as per the figures was around 9,000 but the total number of people who had food in the pavilions was over 20,000,'' Namboothiri explained.

When asked about the criticism, he said those who gave the lowest quotation would get the contract for serving food at the festival. Minister Sivankutty, however, said the state government was not adamant that meat should be kept out of the state youth festival. But, there are practical issues of preparing huge quantities of non-vegetarian dishes to serve such a massive number of people, he said.

He also pointed out the risk of serving non-vegetarian food to children as it may not be good for everyone alike. ''I really wanted to serve them mouth-watering biriyani. Not this time, but we can surely expect this next year,'' the minister added.

He said non-vegetarian items will be included next year and that modification will be done in the school manual. Rejecting the criticism of caste dominance, he also said no one has raised this in the last 60 editions of the art festival though only vegetarian food was served in all these years.

''Such a debate is unwanted,'' the minister said. Besides breakfast, lunch and dinner, snacks and tea and desserts are also provided at the food pavilions of the youth festival, sources said.

While appam-stew, idli-sambar and so on are served for breakfast, the traditional lunch spread includes rice, sambar, thoran, kichadi, masala curry, buttermilk and so on, sources said.

The dessert menu included varieties of 'payasam'. The menu would be different every day, sources added. The 61st edition of the Kerala School Arts Festival was inaugurated by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Tuesday.

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