In this second in a series exploring food & identity in India, The Diplomat looks at the ties that bind people in India to their families, and the key role that women play in it all.
For over 100 years now in India, delivery people known as Dabbawalas have been delivering tiffin (lunch) boxes to workers, meaning many men can enjoy their wives’ homemade cooking delivered still-hot to their workplaces. Now, major cities are full of thousands of Dabbawalas crisscrossing metropolitan areas on bikes bringing tiffin boxes to hungry workers.
Madhu Gadia, renowned Indian cuisine expert and author of The Indian Vegan Kitchen, told me the Dabbawalas and tiffin boxes highlight some unique cultural values in India, including its ties to food. ‘This business still thrives today because of just how important it continues to be for Indian workers away from home to eat fresh, homemade food.’ She told me that it’s literally a way for a wife (or mother) to ‘transfer’ love through the food.
Indeed, one major theme that has become apparent in researching food and identity in India is the remarkable importance that’s still placed on fully home-cooked meals, despite ongoing modernization and urbanization and the increasing temptation of convenience foods.
As a result, food still plays a central role in keeping family bonds strong across the country.
The Importance of Sitting Down
Earlier this month, Good Magazine published an interview with Laurie David, author of the new book The Family Dinner, which matter-of-factly suggests that the ‘art’ of eating together in the United States has been lost, and argues that it's a custom that needs to be revived. In the interview, David suggests that sitting down with one’s family for a meal is important for many reasons, including keeping family history alive and helping children acquire proper manners and even higher levels of ‘self-esteem, resiliency, and academic achievement.’
Certainly, it seems many writers agree that, in India, there’s a broader general awareness amongst people of all ages and regions of the importance of a sit-down family meal. For instance, Namrata Nandakumar, a university student based in Bangalore, told me that in her opinion, ‘Food is important here, and we try to have all meals together as a family. It’s the time when we interact and share things about our day’.
Mumbai-based executive and writer Gaurav Jain concurred, telling me that he believes that the Indian family tends to bond over food. But he also highlighted another interesting point—in his experience, while people continue to bond with their parents over home-cooked meals, with siblings and friends ‘it’s almost always (through) foreign food’.
And for Bangalore-based student Nirmal Uddhaorao Raibole, who grew up in Maharashtra state, the benefits of a family meal are obvious: ‘Food is the time for us in India where whole families sit together after a long day and we can have long conversations. It helps a lot in making the bond stronger in the family.’
Gadia went on to tell me that in India, food is something that’s simply meant to be eaten with the family. She said it’s very rare for people to eat by themselves and adds that cooking is just ‘something that mothers take huge pride in.’ She added that it’s likely something to do with traditional Ayurvedic thinking, which is still ingrained in Indian cooking—‘you’re not supposed to be disturbed when you’re eating, you should calm down.’
A Key Ingredient: Mothers
Gadia also reminded me of the great value placed by Indian families on a unique, secret spice recipe kept by each that’s a source of pride for many Indians and passed down through the generations. She explained: ‘Families seem to have their own little mixtures of how they season the food…you tweak it and everybody seems to have their own: Garam masala for the Northern Indians or for the south it’s sambar podi. Those are your own personal family blends.’
She said that in her experience, people like to talk about these little touches, and will often be overheard saying things like ‘This is my mother’s masala recipe,’ or ‘This is my mother-in-law’s samba powder and I always bring it from India because she makes the best.’
Gadia added that this unique part of Indian identity seems centred on females: ‘I’ve never heard anyone say this is my father-in-law’s garam masala,’ she mused, ‘women are the ones who for the majority of the time are in the kitchen’ and Indians tend to be proud of their wife's or mother’s or mother-in-law’s ‘one-of-a-kind’ food.
Gadia’s observations chime with those of Diplomat contributor Sunny Peter, who says his mother cooked for him his whole life until he moved away from his hometown of Kerala. Peter told me that he still loves to eat what his mother cooks when he goes home for holidays or vacation but that often it’s his wife (not him) who cooks the family meals.
Another Diplomat contributor, Rajeev Sharma, similarly told me that his mother cooked for him, his sister and father until the ‘last couple of years before her death, when she was bed-ridden,’ and that now his wife ‘cooks virtually every day, although she is working and an associate professor at Delhi University.’
Nikhat Aslam, a professor at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media, told me how cooking has helped her bond with her two sons over the years:
‘Often, when there are guests home for larger dinners or gatherings, both my boys will willingly help me put things together in the kitchen…It’s easy to bond, share jokes, talk about problems and even offer words of wisdom when sprinkling dressing over chicken. It’s far easier than sitting face-to-face and having that serious talk with “mother”…Socially and emotionally, cooking has helped create interesting and long lasting bonds within my family,’ she said.
Nandakumar also pointed out that in her opinion, ‘teaching a daughter how to cook and passing on one’s family recipes are an important way for parents and children to bond,’ while fellow student Anjali Mangal said that it might also impact how women entering marriage might feel about themselves: ‘In Madhya Pradesh, it's said that if you want to impress your in-laws, prepare good food for them. After marriage, the first challenge that a girl faces is to prepare good food for her in-laws.’
Next, I’ll look into this aspect of food and identity in India—food ties that bind people to their home and instil a sense of community.
Images: Mumbai Dabbawala by Steve Evans (top), by Paula Rey (bottom).