At a recent dinner in Delhi, one of the guests enthusiastically recounted the street foods he had enjoyed in Amritsar, which the Punjabis among us soon accelerated into a vigorous debate about where to find the best kulcha in Delhi. Not having any particular candidate to throw into this competition, I quietly sipped my cocktail and enjoyed the animated banter. As the topic eventually wound up, I said, “You know this conversation couldn’t take place in Australia.” This first caused a baffled pause around the table, followed by “What? What do you mean?”
“Yes, we love eating and talking about food, but if this conversation were taking place in Australia, we would be debating where to find the best Korean popcorn chicken, or Vietnamese bánh mì, or Malaysian mee goreng mamak, or even a vindaloo, just not any food that belongs to the country’s soil or the cultural heritage of the majority Anglo-Celtic population. What I mean is we do not have any native cuisine to deliberate over. Almost everything Australians eat and drink originally comes from somewhere else.”
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Yes, with the exception of fish and seafood and macadamia nuts, nothing we eat belongs to Australia.
This is the broad food background from which I came to India in 1995, when my love affair with the subcontinent began.
The “light bulb” moment
The only “Indian” food I had eaten until then was in Indian restaurants in Australia, which left me with the impression of a cuisine made up of heavy (oily) “curries” mined with mouth-burning chilli that all tasted pretty much the same. I flew into India under the impression that Indians ate the same “curry” across the continent and, extrapolating from this, that they were also one identical people. When I discovered the falsity of this notion it changed my life.
In 1995 I was a professional cook running a small catering business in Australia and harbouring an ambition to write about food history. This background meant I was primed to notice what people were eating. Travelling around India, I learnt that the universal “Indian” I imagined did not exist and the population was made up of people of many different ethnicities, who spoke different languages, inhabited different cultures, and, most significantly, produced, cooked, and ate a huge diversity of food that was influenced by all of the above as well as by history and geography. I had a “light bulb” moment: I had found my subject. I was going to learn and write about India’s food history.
While in countries like Australia with industrialised food systems, the cry for food that was “local, seasonal, sustainable” was emerging, India’s food system was already exactly this. I was interested in learning about India’s diverse regional cuisine, which might also be described as home-cooked food or traditional. In the years between 1995 and the publication of my book The Penguin Food Guide to India in 2013, it was this food that I focussed on. Still, I could not fail to notice how India was changing apace and its food was being taken along on this ride.
“The explosion in India of accessible commercially prepared, or “outside”, meal components has been a boon for women because these can reduce their cookery labour.”
The most potent influence on changing food habits is economic. In 1991, when India’s Finance Minister, Manmohan Singh, announced reforms to liberalise India’s economy, he hurled the nation towards a freewheeling, capitalist-consumer future. Combined with concurrent forces of urbanisation and globalisation, the transformation of India has indeed been unstoppable.
Its metropolitan areas have developed into megacities, and a large segment of the population are enthusiastic consumers of all manner of goods, including a vastly expanded array of gourmet, convenience, “fast”, and so-called “health foods”. It seemed as if I was witnessing something akin to the Industrial Revolution—with the Internet and digitisation rather than the steam engine being the potent technology catalysing social and economic transformation, leading to a better standard of living, an emerging middle class, and social mobility and aspiration. I could see how all of this was changing India’s foodscape. It felt like history was happening before my eyes. Wanting to capture this, I turned my attention from India’s living food heritage to documenting the pulsating transformation of its contemporary food culture, and the book that eventually became Eating the Present, Tasting the Future began to take shape.
- Since 1991, India’s foodscape has been changing rapidly
- An emerging middle class, social mobility, and aspiration mean that urban Indians have developed a preference for “fast”, and so-called “health foods” available in cafes and restaurants that look they could be anywhere in the world
- Another key transformation is the movement from inside, from home-cooked meals prepared in kitchens, to outside the home: the popularity of ordering food via apps means many Indians are welcoming more outside food into their homes
- As the range of convenience foods available to Indians continues to expand, home-prepared meals might become more simplified in future
- Also, more chefs from around the world will start coming to India to pick up new ideas and concepts for their own menus
What does India’s changed foodscape look like? Well, it looks like cafés and food stores that “could be anywhere in the world”. Places with menus, decor, and ambience hardly distinguishable from those in Sydney or San Francisco or London: everywhere it is quinoa salad, banana bread, cheesecake, “bowl” meals, Nutella hot chocolate, and Oreo shakes, thin crust pizza with minimal topping, a casual glass of wine, fussy coffee, craft beer, and artisanal chocolate and spirits. It also looks like foods with labels of the global wellness industry: “gluten-free”, “keto”, “vegan”, “sustainable”, and “super” are here to stay. These terms are actually nutritionally meaningless and do not necessarily make any food “healthier” unless you are a coeliac but inspire consumers to pay more. Many everyday Indian foods and dishes are also being repackaged, and repriced, with these same labels to appeal to contemporary consumers.
While I see wellness grifting at work in this trend, it might be a boon for Indian food producers if it means they earn better returns on their products. India-grown coffee offers a good example here. Until recently, much of the local bean crop went unremarked into commercial blends but there is a distinct trend now in the “could be anywhere” eateries to mark local coffee with place of origin, estate, and tasting notes. While consumers are definitely paying more for java distinguished in this way, hopefully growers are benefiting commensurately.
Another key transformation is the movement from inside to outside the home. Women have long done the work of maintaining India’s multitudinous regional cuisines: the majority of meals eaten here are still prepared by women in their kitchens, “inside” the home. The explosion in India of accessible commercially prepared, or “outside”, meal components or even full meals has been a boon for women because bringing these “convenience” foods inside their home kitchens can reduce their cookery labour and give them more time for other activities. The popularity of ordering food via apps to be delivered at the doorstep means many Indians are welcoming more outside food into their homes. The most significant changes that will take place with food in India in the future will be related to what people choose to cook and eat in their households.
As the range of convenience foods available to Indians continues to expand, I think home-prepared meals might become more simplified. However, I do not think Indians will ever lose their taste for the type of complex food someone once laboured over inside the home; they will go outside to eat it instead. The maintenance and development of India’s regional food cultures will shift more to restaurants. Finally, once India’s diverse food comes out of home kitchens into places such as restaurants, where it is more visible and accessible, more chefs from around the world will start coming to India to pick up new ideas and concepts for their own menus. And Indian chefs will also be more visible on the world stage: the next global superstar chef could very well be Indian.
Charmaine O’Brien is the author, most recently, of Eating the Present, Tasting the Future: Exploring India through Her Changing Food (India Penguin). She has been writing on the history and culture of food for more than two decades.