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India’s Food That Binds

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New Emissary

India’s Food That Binds

Does Indian food in particular have the ability to nourish people with a sense of home and community?

In this third in a series exploring food & identity in India,The Diplomat looks at the way Indian food ties people to their homes and also instils a sense of community.

‘It’s just what you grow up with. I think those flavours are immersed in your mind and your tongue and your soul…and so therefore you relate to it in a different way.’

This is the essence of Indian food for many Indian people, according to author and nutrition expert Madhu Gadia. Indeed, there seem to be particularly deep and complex connections between cultural values and food in India. I certainly can’t imagine feeling so connected to the food I grew up with—a mish-mash of cultural influences including traditional Japanese, spaghetti, pizza, stew and more.

Yesterday I talked about food and identity in India and how for most Indians, it seems, sit-down meals bring them closer to their families and are an important ritual that female members play a key role in sustaining. But, there also seems to be more to home-cooking here—it gives people in the country a strong sense of connectedness to home and community as well.

Food for Community Spirit?

Gadia, a native Indian who has lived in the United States now for over three decades, told me that in her opinion, the bonds developed over meals in India extend to the broader community. There are ‘more community bonds being made than in the West,’ she says. ‘These ties extend out to the neighbours and the local community.’

The kinds of communities she describes, still prevalent across much of India, are tight-knit ones in which, ‘If you go to somebody’s house, it’s nothing. You don’t announce you’re coming. You just walk over. Going to your neighbours and borrowing a cup of sugar or milk is easy, it still happens there…It’s just the way it is.’

University student Ananda Siddhartha from Bangalore told me that in her opinion, food is also important to people because it’s one of the ways in which a community or region’s culture can be ‘shown off.’ She explained that where she comes from, ‘Locals are definitely proud of their cuisine.’

And it also seems that in India, even snacking can bring closer community ties. According to Gadia: ‘When you think of snacks (chaat) in India, it’s very social. You go out for a plate of chaat.’

Home is Where the Meal Is

Indian cuisine varies widely from place to place, with each region having a unique ‘line’ of cuisine and flavours. So, while Diplomat contributor Sunny Peter, who grew up in Kerala state but is currently based in Mumbai, says he doesn’t find adapting to a new area a problem, he adds for many it is much more difficult. ‘I’ve known people, particularly my friends and family, who find it very difficult to adjust to food habits when they travel beyond their home states.’ But Peter did admit that anywhere in India, ‘when someone tells me there I could have Keralite food somewhere, I don’t mind going that extra mile to relish it.’

Meanwhile, Manpreet K. Janeja, author of the 2009 book Transactions in Taste: The Collaborative Lives of Everyday Bengali Food, told me that these days it’s also increasingly easy to find a ‘taste of home’ wherever you are in India. She pointed out, for example, that these days in urban India, there are far more Bengali restaurants than before, ‘where you go out to eat home-cooked food.’

Colleen T. Sen, author of Food Culture in India, confirmed this when she messaged me from New Delhi last week to tell me that she’d discovered ‘two restaurants specializing in Bengali cuisine that was once impossible to find in the city: Brown Sahib and Oh Calcutta.’

Another growing trend in India is hiring somebody to come and cook at your home on a daily basis. According to Janeja, women who hire these cooks will usually choose one specifically from their own hometown or village. She described a typical exchange between a ‘mistress’ and her cook, also described in her book, to me: 

‘The cook says “How should I cook the food today and what should I cook?” and the mistress replies, “You cook the fish like you cook everyday and you do the vegetables like you do everyday.”’

Janeja suggests that the expression, ‘like everyday’ (not every day) carries with it a sense of ‘normal,’ that might also be tied to a sense of ‘home,’ in such situations. She also explained that ‘this is the role that food plays in bringing forth people’s sense of normality and living in a “normal” world.’

India's Food That Binds

All this said, of course, food and identity are deeply entwined outside India, too.

When I spoke to Peter Scholliers, vice president of the International Committee for the Research of European Food History (ICREFH) and author of the book Food, Drink and Identity, he told me that the fascinating interactions between food and identity in Europe are what initially drew him to his current line of work. Scholliers, who I spoke to on the topic of food and identity while researching this series, told me that he himself started as a social and economic historian, which involved a very quantitative approach. However, he realized while finishing his PhD that there ‘is more to bread than just its price: the quality, composition (wheat, rye), the place where it’s bought (co-op, baker, chain store), and so on,’ and so he moved into studying the more social aspects of food and identity.

Next, I’ll look at India’s interactions with the West, in terms of food, and ask whether India has or needs a national cuisine.

Images: by International Livestock Research Institute (top), Sixtybolts / Flickr (bottom).