Accidental Commensality: Eating, Belonging and Mazaa on the streets of Jaipur

Thesis: Nature-Culture-Sustainability Studies’22
Rhode Island School Of Design

A Digital version of the unabridged thesis is available at Digital Commons.
The hard copy of the thesis will be out soon and on the shelves of RISD’s Fleet Library


Commensality is more than just eating together at a shared table. "Who can eat with whom and what" is a divisive issue in India, where food and eating serve as functions of inclusion and exclusion. In this paper, I examine street food stalls in Jaipur as sites of eating together with strangers and ask, What forms of commensality do street food stalls enable? Can eating together on the street expand ideas about eating together in public? As part of my fieldwork in Jaipur, I observe the surroundings of street food stalls, participate in heritage food walks with guides, and document oral histories of street food vendors to demonstrate how accidental commensality emerges around these stalls. Using this research, I argue that the features of accessibility, belonging, and cultural memory, coupled with the affective dimensions of street food stalls, create intimacy and a feeling of mazaa that compels us to imagine an unexpected form of commensality through food.

Kachoris sold on the streets find its place in the royal court and become a feature of welcoming guests signifies its close integration with the culture, history and life of the city that feeds into accessibility and belonging to a collective.

The unique versions of kachori sold throughout the city instil a sense of place, and uniqueness of the food of the city that builds a sense of belonging and cultural memory shared by inhabitants of the city (Singhi 34).

I examine street food stalls in Jaipur as sites of eating together with strangers and ask, What forms of commensality do street food stalls enable? Can eating together on the street expand ideas of eating together in public?  (Singhi 7)

Accessibility that street food creates, enables collective eating of specific foods that create a sense of belonging which is tied to the memory of people.It shows you how access can create a sense of belonging that has the potential to be embedded in the memories of people that operate beyond the physicality of a street food stall…in the shared memory of people ( who understand that sharing a cup of chai is an invitation to belong) (Singhi 56).

It is as if there is a certain magnetic force that attracts people to consume the food on the street that compels them to let off some of the preconceived notions of street food or whom to eat with.  The mazaa of eating on the streets then encourages accidental commensality to flourish.

I argue that street food stalls as wall-less spaces enable a form of accidental commensality. This accidental commensality, often between strangers, is created through the features of accessibility, belonging, and cultural memory and the strong affective dimensions mainly those of intimacy and mazaa (Singhi 7).
As places for eating together street food stalls offer a unique sense of collective, belonging and access that is unparalleled from any other culinary experience in the city. In Jaipur right now, new food courts, cafes are being built, overshadowing stalls on the streets.
Street food stalls are wall-less , provisional spaces  filled with people that enable a form of accidental commensality (the unexpected and unconstructed ways of eating together) through food. Nevertheless, studying commensality, including accidental commensality, is just the beginning in understanding how food influences social relations. By considering commensality from a new perspective, we can imagine new ways to create togetherness through food.

Conversations around Chai

a food experience designed for the community to engage in the street-style culture of chai. This experience came to life in an Independent study with Professor Charlie Cannon at the Rhode Island School Of Design.


Imagining how the content on page, writings on food in this case, can be imagined as an experience out in the world. As a beverage that excudes convivilality, how do chai stalls on the streets of  India operate if they are taken out of their context and housed on the streets of a different country. To explore if food really unites us or builds communities, or it is more complicated and layered than that (it is).Imagining spaces, especially streets as places where people can gather and eat/drink together.

Chai pe charcha is not a novel idea, not a play on the chai ki thaddi, tapri that we see in every nook and corner of India. Instead, it is an attempt to reinforce the powerful associations with the beverage , the breaking of four walls, the (mostly) seamless flow of conversations around sharing a cup of tea and the mazaa of sipping a hot concoction on a cold day.

Vuja De

Vuja de is experiencing something familiar as if it were strange and unknown. For the event, I wanted to create something to evaluate the ability of gathering, the effect of having a cup of chai and reminiscing the memories of eating together. We handed out cards for people to fill out their favorite eating together memory and these were the few responses that we got:  
“ hot pot with family”
“Being a 6-year old and eating mangoes with my grandfather every summer afternoon”
“Golgappa stalls”
“Picnics at Lodhi Garden”
“Hosting tea parties with grandma”
“Thanksgiving in California”


With the success of our 'Chai pe Charcha' initiative which was dedicated to capturing the essence of those brief yet meaningful conversations that often vanish once the cups are empty. The idea for this column emerged from the valuable and thought-provoking conversations, participation, and moments of sipping chai that helped to temper the freezing cold.

Romanticizing the simple pleasure of sipping on a cup of chai, I want  to take a closer look at it.From exploring the cultural significance of chai, to showcasing the stories of the people behind your cup of chai.

Issue #1: dhoop & food

is a publication holding conversations around food, nature, culture, sustainability & design
Issue 1 printed in Jaipur

First spread of the magazine showing the transition from dusk to dawn with the contents of Issue 1

conversations around food, nature, culture,
& design

Ways of looking and telling have the ability to move, shift and nudge us. The extraordinarily ordinary sto

ries compel us to think and wonder.

Food then becomes a universal link, connecting us in unimaginable ways. Dhoop is a sincere effort to explore and document these food stories by finding them at an intersection of culture, nature, sustainability, and design.

The hope is to give artists and readers a space to use their magnifying glasses and find treasure in the smallest of details.

Photo: Rimjhim Patni

The prompt for Issue 1 was dhoop & food i.e. sunlight and food. 

dhoop as a publication mushrooms from our connection to food. That means just like mushrooms’ interconnected mycelium web; we understand food as a complex and multifaceted link having roots in known and unknown places. We have a theme for each issue, and open to interpretation.

As a publication based on stories and conversations around nature, culture, sustainability, and design in food, we comprehend the nature of these disciplines as fluid, ever-evolving and far from fixed. This platform hopes to enable co-creation of knowledge and finding wisdom in every detail.

The light from the sun sustains us in myriad ways.
The warm winter sun
The little specks from the cracks Or the filtered light through trees
The morning salutation
Or a cup of tea,
The peppered grains on a bedsheet,
Or the big glass bharni of achaar, bathing.

The #1 issue of dhoop wants you to look up, back, east, or west.
Think about the sunlight in its absence or presence, its relationship to food and you.”

“Land is fragile in relationship to unchecked human growth and demand. An intervention for the supposed betterment of land should be given the time and capital it needs for a smooth transition.”

Read more︎︎︎

Spring Loiter

At the blue accommodating yellow,
only to let it burst into purple, crimson and
deep sighs/the buds marking the arrival of spring, longing to bloom/at the polka-dotted ladybug, a proof of life/don’t touch, just look. the hidden nook, invisible, unless you stop/
stop and lie down under the generous canopy, it offers unconditional shade, shelter and breeze look up to know you are tiny/ but to also know the abundance it carriescaress the trunk, hug it even, like you would hug a loved one, gently with care/close your eyes, sometimes looking is listening, the sounds of water, the rhythm of your heart. flowers for the joy they bring without trying/ barefoot, feel the grass, the land, look inside/ pick what’s fallen, let everything else find ground, a home, maybe/preserve, if you must/this ephemeral feeling of spring/use what you have to, to make art.

Booth at RISD Unbound. Sold copies of the Zine.