Gender and Food: Over Biryani
There are men, there are women, there are people who are in between and I just kind of feel like I am looking at them from the outside and I am picking bits that I like… and I am picking different presentations that I like and they form a part of who I am.
That is how Sachal explained their non-binary gender identity. We talked for hours before sharing Biryani - a popular rice dish in the South Asian cuisine with many versions across the Middle East. In Kurdistan for example, you will find its close relative - ‘Arabic Biryani’ - laced with saffron and vermicelli. The vegetarian Biryani I made for Sachal blends the ingredients of several traditions, as you will notice below.
Born in Pakistan and raised as a boy, Sachal moved to the UK when they were twelve. Racism was rife where they lived. They were bullied, discriminated against and became acquainted with racial slurs that reduced them to an ethnic entity. As they became more isolated, Sachal’s relationship with food began to change, in parallel with their relationship to their body, and - perhaps unbeknown to them - gender.
“If I change my body in some way, either it reflects something about me on the inside or it will change the way I am perceived on the outside. There are permanent parts of my body that I could never change and ways that I came across to white people that I could never change - my nose, the colour of my skin...
So Sachal settled on whatever they could change. Their relationship with all food, let alone Pakistani food, dwindled. As their appetite waned, Sachal grew their hair long, made themselves skinny and did away with masculine behaviours.
Research suggests that transgender people, whose assigned sex at birth does not match their gender identity, are more likely than cisgender people, whose assigned sex at birth matches their gender identity, to form a disordered relationship with food. Equally, the relationship between anorexia and body dysmorphia (the dissatisfaction with one’s own body and the perception that it is flawed) is well established(1). Gender dysphoria (the feeling that a person’s assigned gender or body at birth does not reflect their true gender) and body dysmorphia … where do they overlap and how does one inform the other?
I wondered if food is a tool to control gender through altering physical appearance.
In Sachal’s case, they are not sure that it was. They believe that their relationship with food and the experiences that took place - gender identity, racism, physical appearance, sexuality and home - certainly informed each other and existed along parallel lines… but the role that food played as a tool to shape and control the changes they experienced, remains uncertain.
Years later, Sachal would find themselves in a flat, sat on the stairs, reflecting on the friends who have ‘come out as non-binary’, wondering, if they too belong to a spectrum of gender identity that is not exclusively feminine or masculine. They did. From ‘he’ to ‘they’, Sachal stood in their own truth, reconciled their relationship with food, country, body and self. Today, with locks of hair draping on the right half of their face, jewellery in the left ear lobe, a delicate knitted turtleneck, jeans draping over odd socks, Sachal's genderqueer identity permeates through their beautiful physical attributes.
Eventually, going back to Pakistan became a positive experience, just like food. As we wrapped up our conversation, I felt eager to offer them the meals they cherished as a child and re-cherished again as an adult. In the days and weeks ahead I continued to reflect on food and gender, often wondering: are we starving away more than flesh?
Perhaps this question no longer matters - not in this story. Perhaps their discovery of their true self and their acceptance of it - gender, sexuality and identity - is what lingers after the remains of Biryani decay.
I asked them what it felt like to exist today, as a non binary person, born in Pakistan and living in the UK...
“I mean, great in some ways. I love being me”.
Listen to our episode on The Lesbanese Cook Podcast (also available on all podcast distribution channels)
1) Diemer et al. 2018. "Beyond The Binary: Differences in Eating Disorder Prevalence by Gender Identity In a Transgender People". Transgender Health. 3(1). pp. 1-23.
Biryani is a very versatile dish, my friends. This recipe is not set in stone. It has room for your creative input! If you prefer other or more vegetables than the ones I chose, then please use those to your heart’s content. Here it goes, friends:
Prep 20 mins
Make 30 mins
Total 50 mins
Author: The Lesbanese Cook
Yield 4 people
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 2 bay leaves
- 4 cardamon pods
- 4 cloves
- 1 potato (chopped into cubes)
- 1 carrot (chopped into cubes)
- 1/2 cup of peas
- 1/2 cup of beans (snap or runner)
- 1 clove of garlic, crushed
- 1/2 tsp of ginger, finely chopped
- 1 tsp tomato paste
- 1/4 cup of yoghurt
- 1 tsp gram masala
- 1/2 tsp chilli powder
- 1/2 tsp cumin
- 1/s tsp caraway
- 3 cups of coconut milk
- 1 1/2 cups of rive
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tsp saffron
- Salt (to taste)
Heat the olive oil in a wide based pot on medium heat. Add the cardamon, bay leaves, cloves and cinnamon for a couple of minutes, until their aroma is released. Add the onions, fry them until they turn light brown. Add the garlic, ginger and tomato paste.
Add the vegetables and coat them in the yoghurt, gram masala, cumin, caraway and chilli. Add the rice to the pot and cover with the coconut milk water. Mix everything together well then add the saffron and salt (to taste). Bring to boil, the bring to simmer and cover the pot for about 10-15 mins or until the water has been fully absorbed or evaporated. Add vermicelli at the end, if using, and feel free to add salt to taste.