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  • Food in the Indian Ocean World: Mobility, Materiality, and Cultural Exchange
  • Krishnendu Ray (bio), Kathleen Burke (bio), and Stephanie Jolly (bio)

the indian ocean world has emerged as a major area of research over the last half century, although compared to the Atlantic, it is less visible to nonspecialists (Pearson 2012). Historiographically, the writings of Annales historians on the Mediterranean and the subsequent work of Atlantic historians have vivified oceanic histories (Hofmeyr 2007). With the rise of East Asian economies in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the Indian Ocean region’s strategic importance has reemerged, connecting the rising economies in the East to the established ones in the West via the densest networks of shipping lanes for container ships and energy supplies. Further underlining the importance of this region is the deployment of various kinds of hard and soft power between emerging and declining superpowers, such as China and the United States. Soft power is deployed in part by naturalizing epistemic frameworks to study these regions, such as within the dominant frame of area studies and nation-states under postwar American hegemony or as Belt and Road Initiatives within the reemergent Sinosphere. Approaching the Indian Ocean world as a unit of analysis is one way to account for the reorienting world economy, connecting it to the long history before the rise of the West, while sidestepping a wholly Sinocentric view, as we will show.

Scholarly attention toward the Indian Ocean region has already provided a number of insights, some of which appear obvious in retrospect: (1) history does not happen only within the landed territories of nation-states; (2) much of that connected and contested history is borne by contact, including conflict across oceans; (3) natural forces, such as the monsoons, play a crucial role in shaping everyday lives and livelihoods; and [End Page 2] (4) understudied domains of Afro-Asian-Austronesian worlds illustrate connected techniques and everyday technologies, including boat building and sailing, domestication and dispersal of food crops, provisioning, and even elite notions of gustatory style, which we will develop in the last section.

Food studies tends to be Euro-American-centric owing to its genealogy in certain disciplines within nation-states such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Italy. This essay intervenes in that narrow discourse that assumes that transnational connections are modern and Western (see the editors’ introduction to this issue). Connections across the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean world go back to antiquity. The spice trade is, of course, ancient; so, too, is the circulation of stimulants like betel leaf and areca nut, qat, coffee, and tea; the dispersal of staples like rice and millet; and the supply of specialty comestibles, such as sea cucumber and swallow’s nests. In paying attention to circulating biota, and to conceptions of what is edible and what is not, what is tasteful and what is not, what is good to eat and what is not, we reconfigure the story in the following pages to highlight what has been made invisible by our contemporary presumptions and epistemologies of the North.

The Indian Ocean world was the domain for robust forms of capital exchange and commerce, commodities and gifts, dominating claims and counterhegemonic moves in the taste for currencies, foods, and textiles. Here we pay particular attention to the period before European hegemony and to things beyond its reach as we synthesize the secondary literature on the connected histories of food in the Indian Ocean world, keeping in mind a multidisciplinary, primarily nonhistorian Global Asias audience, to articulate the theoretical stakes of the study of material culture, especially food.

We begin by discussing the formation of a discontiguous region, connected through trade and trade winds of the monsoon, driven by the shape and size of the continents, drawing both from the archaeological and the historical records to establish the presence of shared staple ingredients and aromatic botanicals. In the next section, we provide historiographical evidence for aesthetic practices and trade connections across the Arabian Sea, underlining both its antiquity and its pulsating ebb and flow. The third section reexamines coffee’s and qishr’s dispersals, looking East rather than West, illustrating what is missed...