‘Ghar ka khana’ to delivery apps – Indian food is changing, but you can’t blame the women

New Delhi: Foreigners aren’t the only ones with a problematic and limited understanding of Indian cuisine. Most Indians themselves don’t know much beyond ‘ghar ka khana‘. This is the exact problem that Australian food writer and historian Charmaine O’Brien faced while documenting and researching Indian food. Brien, who has traveled the country for the past 25 years, has studied the outdoor-indoor binary in Indian cooking habits. But there’s a new problem, she says – food delivery apps and the boom in supermarkets and cafes.

Charmaine O’Brien at a conference on how Indian food is on the move, at IIC, Delhi | Neera Majumdar/ThePrint

“Food doesn’t change on its own, things change food,” Brien said during a lecture at the Indian International Center in New Delhi on Tuesday. This external engine is, most often, the economy.

While urban India has more baked goods than seasonal produce and shiny-wrapped supermarkets than fresh produce, a quiet shift is taking place in our kitchens and our plates. This is the theme of Brien’s next book Routes of Connection: Journeys through India’s contemporary food landscape, release scheduled for early 2023.

Technology, working women and globalization are the main drivers of this change. But can we blame women for choosing convenient packaged foods over hanging out in the kitchen?

“I have been in many home kitchens across India, and I can count the number of times a man has cooked,” Brien said.

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How 1990s changed the indian plate

In Australia, almost all products look alike because they are grown with exports in mind. The strange, wacky-shaped tomato goes in the “wonky” bin at the grocery store. When you standardize food products, you compromise on flavor, Brien says. But when she first came to India more than two decades ago, that wasn’t much of a problem. The curd was homemade, the fish was tailored to your needs at Delhi’s CR Park Market, and the vegetables were in season. Waste was minimal. But it was the 1990s and India was about to change.

“First arriving in India in 1995, I entered a country in transition from a Soviet-style approach to economic and social growth towards a freewheeling capitalist future. At the time, I had no idea of ​​the change I was witnessing,” explains Brien, who is also the author India’s penguin food guide.

It was a kind of industrial revolution.

The indoor-outdoor food binary was rigid – homemade food was valued and placed on an altar. But a growing India meant an influx of international goods, technology and women getting more job opportunities. A trend that has only accelerated

through the decades. This led to ready meals, packaged foods and finally home delivery. Don’t forget, Domino’s revolutionized the game with its ’30 Minutes notafree hin toh‘ in 2004. When the money comes in, people look for something new, even in food. It started to break down the walls between home and the outside world, and Indian cuisine has been on the move ever since – now from the outside in.

“Food trends often start at the top. People want to imitate what they see,” Brien noted. You see other people eating at the latest food franchise, you want to eat there too. Brien said the latest comer is the health and wellness craze in urban India. A trend she saw starting with “WWW—Wealthy White Women” on social media.

On the one hand, this standardization and commodification of Indian food has led to a huge amount of food and packaging waste and compromises in quality; Brien remembers seeing brinjals wrapped in plastic wrap in a supermarket in Mumbai. On the other hand, it has been a blessing for women and, curiously, has led to a rediscovery of indigenous cuisines and recipes, especially on Instagram and YouTube.

Quoting singer Joni Mitchell, Brien said, “You don’t know what you got until it’s gone.”

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A love trap?

If you put the map of Australia and India next to each other, you will see the clear difference in land mass – the former is much larger. But if you go from Kashmir to Kanyakumari in India, the regional variety of food constitutes an entire encyclopedia. Sydney to Broome? More than 5,000 kilometers and just “a culinary culture”.

So how does an Australian author write and understand Indian cuisine? Brien knew that his main challenge would be not understanding the nuances of Indian cuisine, society and geography. But being an underdog also gave her a macro lens.

“Indians didn’t understand other people’s food culture,” she said.

There is also the trap of romanticizing an idyllic Indian past before the supermarkets swallow it up. Or the idea that women are preparing fresh food while working in the kitchen and delivery apps are “ruining” them.

“Women have been major agents of dietary change in India. And now women have changed,” says Brien. Food for thought?

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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