New Emissary

A New Indian Foodscape

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New Emissary

A New Indian Foodscape

Will the changing ways of food consumption in India also mean change for society on a larger scale?

In this sixth and final entry in a series exploring food and identity in India, The Diplomat looks at what the future might hold for the country’s changing food landscape.

Thanks to factors including the Commonwealth Games held in Delhi this year, the quickly expanding IT sector and being frequently matched up with China as a rising Asian superpower by media and political commentators, India’s global profile is undoubtedly growing. Under such circumstances, transformation is, to a degree, inevitable.

Through this series on food and identity in India, it’s become evident that the consumption of food across the country is also in some ways being swept up by this movement, especially in urban areas.

When I spoke to one of my chief consultants on the topic, author Colleen T. Sen, she told me that the whole restaurant culture that’s quickly emerging in Indian metropolises such as Mumbai and New Delhi is a very new phenomenon. Unlike in China or the West (since the 1960s), she said, Indians have never had much of a tendency to eat outside the home—until now.

Sen mentioned that one particular surprise for her recently that cemented the reality of this transformation was hearing of restaurants in Delhi that have started to display their chefs names outside. ‘Until very recently, chefs were seen as a low status professional,’ she explained, citing as a good example the contrast shown through the films Monsoon Wedding from 2001 and 2007’s Cheeni Kum. In the first, an Indian father is mortified by the idea of his adolescent son wanting to become a chef, while in the second, a romantic comedy which was released a mere six years later, one of India’s most admired veteran actors, Amitabh Bachchan plays the lead male character—a chef.

Sen added: ‘This is becoming a profession as opposed to just being kind of like a servant, and there are cooking shows on TV now that are widely watched as well…the whole notion of food in India is changing.’

New Trends and Dying Traditions?

Even more so than in many other cultures around the world, home-cooked food that’s eaten with family is a fundamental part of society in India. Far beyond the simple fact that they like doing it, it’s also become inextricably tied to individual, family, and community level identities. So, will the changing ways of food consumption in India also mean change for society on a larger scale? Will more people dining out strain the country’s unique family and community ties and traditions?

According to food expert and author Madhu Gadia, who I’ve also consulted throughout the series—not really. In her opinion, although more young people are moving to urban areas like Mumbai or Delhi to seek career opportunities, they aren’t so far losing touch with their food…and therefore their family values. ‘Ultimately, the family bonds are still very strong so far, though who knows what’s going to happen 20 years down the road or so. (But) the younger generation I’m seeing is still keeping it important,’ she told me. Gadia cited the example of her friend’s son and wife who both have careers but still live with them, and explained that this isn’t at all unusual in India. ‘They’re not even thinking that they earn money so they can live separately,’ she said. ‘Some do, but a lot are still taking their family traditions seriously.’ Gadia added, ‘Plus they’re getting food made for them by their mothers…how bad can that be?’

Also important to keep in mind is that the number of people who can choose to eat out is still a small fraction of India’s entire population. As Sen reminded me, ‘People have more money…they’ll go eating out now. But this is still a very small class. How many people are there in India now? Over a billion? How many of them can afford to go out and eat in restaurants? Very few.’

Manpreet K. Janeja, author of the 2009 book Transactions in Taste: The Collaborative Lives of Everyday Bengali Food, also shared with me an interesting example on the topic of Indians finding ways to balance the traditional with the modern within the changing scope of cuisine and cooking. She told me how in Calcutta, for instance, there are growing numbers of ‘swanky food halls that have opened,’ where a lot of upper and middle-class Bengalis and people from other ethnic groups are increasingly shopping for food.

She told me that when she recently went in to one of these food halls, she was surprised to discover a man working there, cleaning and descaling fish, using a very traditional Bengali knife, or bonti, which in some ways seemed totally out of place in the ultra-modern setting.

She explained that such an act shows that ‘people are learning to adapt and learning to negotiate the shifts and changes in their environment.’

A New Indian Foodscape


Meanwhile, on a larger scale, there seems to be another food movement sweeping the world that’s attempting to bring elements of the past into modern eating. Janeja told me she sees signs of this trend in the UK where she’s based, in the flood of cookbooks and cooking shows that are increasingly focusing on ‘traditional home food, traditional British food, traditional English food and going back to older recipes or versions of them,’ she says.

‘There’s an attempt to go back and hold on to or revive a watered down version or a version (of cuisine) that’s more suited to the contemporary demands of time and work pressures, etc. And there’s a lot of emphasis on tradition,’ she said.  

Janeja also mentioned that in her opinion there’s also in this new ‘patenting of food’ a link to the notion of ‘Terroir’—which in popular culture is becoming a term that means local, safe, traditional and ethical. This is something that 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 also brought up when I spoke to him about food and identity.

Alongside the globalization of cuisine there’s opposition with the return to the local, the “authentic,” the specific, special food, grandma’s recipes,’ he told me, calling it ‘Terroir’-ization’. He added that in many countries in Asia this is also an emerging trend, although it’s still only happening at a moderate pace.

All this said, it seems likely to be some time before most of India will want to start sentimentalizing or branding its traditional cuisine, as it’s still only a very small percentage of its population that’s able to afford eating away from home, which is helping keep family ties and values strong.


Images: Courtesy of Dine.TO., AbhishekC / Flickr (bottom).