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Anwesha Chakraborty - The Changing Culture of Eating



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The Changing Culture of Eating: Reflections in Indian English Non-Fictional Food Writing

India's middle class, post 1991, has been growing from strength to strength, in terms of numbers and the increase in purchasing power. This economic group, as explained by sociologist Satish Deshpande, is a 'median' classi , which the large section of the population aspires to belong to, given the comforts and material benefits associated with it. In my paper I will be commenting on the changing eating habits of the Indian middle class, with an increasing preference of Anglo-Euro-American fusion food, as reflected in the non-fictional, contemporary Indian English writings. I will attempt an analysis of the writings that reflect the food preferences of the cosmopolitan Indian today, and the transcultural identity that is created in the process. 

Food is an interesting cultural artefact—at one level it is a matter of sustenance, and at another, it is one of the most leisurely aspects of material culture. As Joanne Finkelstein (1999) argues in her essay “Rich Food: McDonald’s and Modern Life”, food is a form of entertainment and a pursuit of pleasure. Flouting the traditional Hindu temperance of satwik food, the city cosmopolitans today populate the growing number of restaurants, bars with tremendous enthusiasm. The popularity of food as leisure is reflected in the growing number of books on food. Food is a significant topic addressed widely by Indian English writers. It is no mean matter that the best-selling Indian authors who write in English are authors of cookbooks. This emphasises the importance of food in the Indian mind and the significance of the writings that are produced in abundance. Writing as an act of communication is important for us to consider with much seriousness academically.

The Indian Middle Class and their New Taste

Ashis Nandy’s “The Changing Culture of Eating in India: Preliminary Notes” was the starting point of my paper. Given the fact that cosmopolitan eating habits show a huge inclination towards Euro-American dishes, I was drawn towards his critique of Indian writers, especially from the media, who he believes to be the perpetrators of this new-age preference.

In India, one rarely finds nutritionists or columnists on food lamenting the growing popularity of fast food. McDonald’s is still viewed, as its advertisements claim, as a moderately fashionable family restaurant and Pizza Hut is seen as a haunt of the upper-middle class youth who have money to spare. (p. 12) 

Nandy writes in a disapproving tone about the popular media which, he believes, has aided the growth of fast food. He attributes the changing culture of eating partly to the popularity of celebrity chefs and their media presence, thereby criticising their role in popularising a variety of food which is fast becoming the urban malady. Fast food has not given rise to a counter-discourse in India which condemns itii

Chitrita Banerji's Eating India: Exploring a Nation’s Cuisine (2008) provides a counterpoint to the dissenting voice of Nandy’s. Unlike Nandy who criticises the media for upholding the rampant culinary influence of Anglo-American lifestyles, Banerji enthusiastically approves the positive image that India is sending out to the rest of the world about its tolerance in accepting and assimilating foreign ways of life. Eating India is an exciting attempt to bring together culinary nuances of multiple regions of India. In this food-travelogue, Banerji attempts to “explore the nation's cuisine”, as suggested by its sub-title. But the running theme of her book is the espousal of globalisation and not quite the multifarious Indian traditions that she tries to represent. Her appreciative attitude towards the fast changing consumption patterns rising due to mainly Anglo-American influences can be set in contrast against the criticisms levelled by Nandy about the same. While Nandy agrees, like Banerji, that India has always strongly embraced other cultures when it comes to matters of the kitchen and eating, he is disapproving of the fact that the recent changes have been actively supported by Indian English writers instead of being criticised on grounds of being unhealthy. Banerji herself is guilty of endorsing this change when she writes: 

The American motto that I had fallen in love with and internalized during my years as an immigrant—Change is good—could equally be a Bengali or an Indian one when it came to food. The facade of unyielding traditionalism is just that—a facade. So, is the idea of unmitigated regionalism. In reality, curiosity, experimentation and metamorphosis are all at work. (p. 30)

Banerji's tone, while appreciating the inclusive nature of Indian culture, is largely silent on the issue of side-effects of this new trend of eating. As Nandy points out, although the entire world is actively writing about the health hazards posed by the escalating consumption of fast food, India has remained quite silent and even approving of the growth as it is considered to be fashionable. The supporters of globalisation are not to be found only amongst policy-makers, but also popular writers in India. Banerji is one among these English writers who view this change towards an Anglo-American lifestyle as a move towards ‘development’. This is evident when she writes about the adaptations of Indian culinary habits with Western dishes, a typical example of globalised trends:

One evening in Ahmedabad, I saw a restaurant sign proclaiming the availability of 'Jain pizzas', that is, pizza without onions in the topping. Like so much in India, this, too, was an example of ingenious adaptation, being the other end of the spectrum from the chicken tikka masala pizza. (p. 209)

Banerji tends to attribute most of the changes in Indian culinary/gastronomic preferences to the influence of English. This is not quite an uncommon formulation if one follows the food literature that is generated in English in India. However, there is a strong dissent against such literature which is evident amongst the intelligentsia. Nandy is one such example. Pankaj Mishra, who makes a number of poignant observations on the early globalising trends in Indian cuisine in Butter Chicken in Ludhiana (1995), is another such voice.

Butter Chicken in Ludhiana is a travelogue which charts the author's journey through small-town India. It comments upon globalisation and its cultural effects in middle-class India. Like Nandy, Mishra points out that it is exposure to a globalised Anglo-American culture that has brought in the changes in eating habits. He is also vehement in his condemnation of the new Anglo-American lifestyle that the Indian middle class is too keen to adopt. This is evident in the following quote:

...it [provincial India] was...bringing forth a new kind of sensibility: one that could combine in itself a taste for strident politics, violent films, ostentatious architecture, lewd music, rumour-mongering newspapers and overcooked food. (p. 11)

In this comment, Mishra aligns the major cultural forces which define an individual/a group of individuals. With his use of derogatory epithets, he shows a kind of contempt typical of an intellectual, who is observing the degeneration of a large section of the population who are influenced easily by the west. The next quote will elucidate this argument: “The wedding-cake houses, the 'fast-food' restaurants, the Rap singer, the cheap perfumes: there was something profoundly pathetic about all of them.” (pp. 9-10)

In his book, Mishra traces the influence of Anglo-American lifestyle in Indian small towns through the major cultural artefacts which have come to our society as by-products of globalisation. And these are primarily the things that Mishra is sceptical about. He believes that Indian variations of what is Anglo-American is mere imitation, and to elucidate that he gives vivid descriptions of food items like a burger in a roadside shop which actually comprises “an alu tikki slapped between two buns”. When English-mediated food gets ‘translated’ into the Indian context, according to Mishra, they become mindless 'duplication'. It would be interesting to contrast Chitrita Banerji's standpoint on the same issue. While Mishra sees this assimilation as duplication, Banerji appreciates the Indian tendency to appropriate cultural items in order to make them suitable within the given social contexts.

An interesting aspect of what we consume of the global cuisine is also what is appropriated according to the preferences of the upper castes. In most of these multi-cuisine joints, one would not find beef and pork dishes, as they might hurt Indian sentiments. Beef and bacon are popular with many people belonging to the ‘lower’ castes as well as with many other communities in India which are perceived as being in the cultural fringes (especially people in tribal areas as well as the North East). It is probably a similar rationale which influences major MNCs like Subway and McDonalds to sell vegetarian sandwiches and McTikkis, and stay away from selling beef and pork.

India ‘Cooking’

Cookbooks constitute a major category of non-fictional texts in Indian writing in English on food and hence they deserve serious academic interrogation. These books comprise some of the most widely sold English titles in India. As Arjun Appadurai points out in “How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India”:

The last two decades have witnessed in India an extremely significant increase in the number of printed cookbooks pertaining to Indian food written in English and directed at an Anglophone readership. This type of cookbook raises a variety of important issues that are involved in understanding the process by which a national cuisine is constructed under contemporary conditions. Language and literacy, cities and ethnicity, women and domesticity, all are examples of issues that lie behind these cookbooks. (p. 289)

The popularity of cookbooks is visible everywhere now. Famous cookbook authors like Tarla Dalal and Sanjeev Kapoor are celebrities in their own rights; and they command a faithful fan following among the upper-middle class audience. Their visibility is ensured not just through print media but audio-visual media like televisions and blogs as well. Cookbooks form a part of a large body of writing, that also includes newspapers and magazines, which give a clear idea of a new, vibrant culture of cooking and eating that is not apologetic for espousing a lavish lifestyle, but celebratory of the growing purchasing-power of the Indian middle classes. With a large number of glossy advertisements of food and related-items, these cookbooks are some of the strongest signifiers of Anglo-American consumerism in India. There is a strong element of voyeuristic pleasure involved in turning the pages of a cookbook, as it transports the readers to a life of colour and plenty. Instances of in-built appreciation of the foods cooked, the restaurants visited and reviewed can be found all through these books, magazines, newspaper articles, and blog posts of acclaimed food writers like Vir Sanghvi.

The writing of food in English, while exhibiting distinct elitism and culinary narcissism, ensures that a large variety of food is talked about. If we examine archives of newspaper articles on food, we will see a clear pattern emerging in the variety of food represented—from the local, the regional to the international. While sifting through The Hindu archives I have come across articles in the column ‘Eating Out’, which range from 'In search of a fluffy omelette' (The Hindu, Metro Plus, Delhi May 26, 2005) in which Ruskin Bond shares his breakfast preferences, needless to say, omelettes, to something quite different in 'A date with dim sum' (The Hindu, Metro Plus, Delhi May 16, 2005) which talks about a Chinese food fest, to the more international sounding 'Purely Pasta' (The Hindu, Metro Plus, Bangalore March 26, 2005) which reviews an Italian restaurant in Bangalore.

Eating India versus Hungry India

The globalised image of India as an inclusive, progressive and developing culture has influenced the present generation's attitude towards eating. It is evident from the cookbooks and other popular print media that this new culture of eating is here to stay. Their popularity is highlighted by their unabashed candour in the espousal of a lifestyle of plenty. Moral scruples regarding eating and spending on food cast aside, Indian English popular writings on food have embraced the culture of desiring for more. So long as India remains open to more socio-economic-cultural contact with the developed world, this genre of writing only gain more popularity as the social life of English will get stronger and more powerful. 

What is extremely striking about food writings of the kind I have discussed here is the contrasting point of view they seem to present, when compared to the food choices and eating habits of the multitude of the Indian population. These writings, obliquely, highlight the great divide that exists in the economic and social fabric of our society—there are people who can afford the best ambience while consuming the most exotic food and then there are others, a vast population, who can barely afford a meal. In a country of abject poverty and extreme cases of hunger-related deaths, these writings on food and dining serve as grim reminders of the grotesque inequality that persists within India. What is probably more disconcerting is the fact that these writings reach out to a section of the society which uses these, in turn, to speak about the growth of purchasing power of individuals as a marker of ‘development’ of India.

Thus alongside these narratives of opulence, we need to pay attention to those other writers, like P Sainath, who address problems of the grass root levels of the society—the poverty, the hunger and the starvation which mainstream writers almost always tend to gloss over. Sainath’s is a resonating voice, as is his coverage of hungry India in Everybody Loves a Good Drought (1996). The Indian that he writes about is a shocking revelation to the average metropolitan, as he uncovers stories of mothers selling off their children for a meagre amount so that they can at least have one meal, or drought ‘relief’ funds being mishandled by the government and being given to private parties in the name of development.

i Deshpande used this phrase in one of his lectures at the University of Hyderabad in 2006.
ii There has definitely been a marked change since Nandy wrote this essay. Traditionally, Indian food habits are more to do with expediency than excess, as many of the new voices in media are highlighting today. AK Ramanujan observed the same in ‘Food for Thought: Towards an Anthology of Hindu Food Images”. He writes about the importance of dietary laws in Hindu philosophy to maintain good health. Now, we find a number of health magazines, cookbooks (the ones which emphasise traditional cooking) which criticise the new eating culture of the middle classes. There is a great emphasis on ‘wellness’ and preventive diets which this section of the media espouses.



Acknowledgements

I would like to thank K Narayana Chandran, Professor at the University of Hyderabad for supervising my M Phil dissertation on Indian food writing, and being the primary reason why I became interested in this subject. I would also like to thank Barbara Harriss-White, Professor at the University of Oxford for sharing her thoughts on the subject of eating and food preferences.

References

Appadurai, Arjun. “How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India”Food and Culture: a Reader. Eds. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Banerji, Chitrita. Eating India: Exploring a Nation’s Cuisine.New Delhi: Penguin, 2008.

Finkelstein, Joanne.“Rich Food: McDonald’s and Modern Life.”Resisting McDonaldization. Ed. Barry Smart. London: Sage, 1999, pp. 70-82.

Mishra, Pankaj. Butter Chicken in Ludhiana.New Delhi: Penguin, 1995.

Nandy, Ashis. “The Changing Culture of Eating: Preliminary Notes.” South Asia Research. Vol. 24 (2004): pp. 9-19.

Ramanujan, A K. “Food for Thought: Towards an Anthology of Hindu Food-images.” The Table is Laid: The Oxford Anthology of South Asian Food Writing. Eds. John Thieme and Ira Raja. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Sainath, P. Everybody Loves A Good Drought. New Delhi: Penguin, 2000.


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