Collen T. Sen is an Indian food connoisseur and author of several books on the subject, including Food Culture in India, a comprehensive overview of Indian cuisine. I recently had the opportunity to speak with her about food culture and traditions in India. Soon after our conversation, Sen set off for a trip to New Delhi. From there, she sent me her engaging observations on the remarkable changes she saw. This is what she had to say, in her ‘culture report’:
The food scene in New Delhi has changed so dramatically since my last visit six years ago that it feels like a different country. The entire city is being transformed into a modern metropolis, with highways, glitzy malls and upscale restaurants. Eating out, once a rare activity, has become a way of life for middle class Delhiites. Friends who wouldn’t dream of entertaining us anywhere but in their homes now invite us to the latest ‘in’ place.
The Indian capital’s upscale restaurants would be at home in New York or London. So far we’ve enjoyed meals at The Punjabi Grille and Singh Sahib as well as two restaurants specializing in Bengali cuisine, which was once impossible to find in restaurants: Brown Sahib and Oh Calcutta.
Alcohol was long frowned upon by middle class Indians and women rarely drank. Now, an Indian wine culture is emerging and a glass of wine with your meal has become de rigueur. India has started producing some good wines in the western state of Maharashtra—I liked Sula’s Chenin Blanc—and imports are also available, although prices are very steep. The disreputable ‘English wine shops’ of the past, small dirty stalls tucked into the corner of shopping strips, have given way to elegant wine and liquour stores with glass shelves and concealed lighting.
Shopping has been revolutionized as well. Chains like Sugar & Spice and Le Marche stock everything from fresh fish and meat (once purchased at open air markets) to imported and domestic cheese, Italian olive oil and dog food! Gone are the tourist bargains of the past, however; prices are the same or even higher than those in North America.
For many years, only a few people were allowed to import foreign goods. In the early 1990s, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (then finance minister) eliminated many import restrictions. Today, as the Indian economy grows at a rapid rate, more people have the money and time to enjoy the fruits of the good life.
-Colleen Taylor Sen
New Delhi, India
Images: Saptarshi Biswas (top), Johannes Bader (bottom).