How India’s Changing Kitchens Have ‘Modernised’ Food Habits

BBC's 'India on a Plate' From the Web

From the BBC series ‘India on a Plate’ – a look at India’s home kitchens by Amita Baviskar, published on July 25, 2016.

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Forty-five years after it was first published, Ruchira, an Indian cookbook in Marathi language, continues to be a bestseller.

Family eating
A picture of a family eating a meal in a popular Indian cookbook – Photo Ruchira

Readers turn to Ruchira for its consummate coverage of traditional vegetarian dishes of the western Maharashtra state. The recipes are classic, but the pictures that punctuate the book reveal the changing social world of urban, middle-class Maharashtrians.

The cover photo (above) shows a nuclear family eating a meal. The husband and two young children – a girl and a boy – sit at a dining table, and not on the floor as in earlier times. The woman, however, is not sitting and eating with them. In keeping with tradition, she is standing and serving them. She is smiling at her husband, whose expression suggests that he has just complimented her on the food.

On the table are puris (fried puffed bread), a vegetable curry or dal, pulao, a prettily arranged plate of lettuce, cucumber and tomato slices, and three kinds of sweets – a far cry from the items and layout of the customary Marathi thali. And, instead of the more traditional metal utensils, melamine dishes are being used to serve and eat.

Another photo (below) shows the ideal kitchen, once again straddling tradition and modernity. A refrigerator and a mixer-blender are prominently displayed, as is a soop (winnowing fan) and an old cast-iron mortar and pestle. Gleaming metal containers line the shelves alongside a row of recycled Bournvita – a local health drink – glass jars.

Indian kitchen
An ideal Indian kitchen straddling tradition and modernity featured in Ruchira – Photo Ruchira

There is a gas cylinder and a pressure cooker, and plastic flowers in a vase atop the fridge. One can easily imagine the miniature temple on a shelf where icons of household deities preside over this sacred space. This compact, neatly equipped kitchen exemplifies organisation, a vital virtue for the modern woman who must manage time and space efficiently for cooking – a task that still remains hers alone.

“I used to want a kitchen like that,” says Shubhada Deshpande.

In the 1970s, she was a young bride in a joint family in Pune that included her bank officer husband, two-year-old son, her parents-in-law and an unmarried brother-in-law who was studying engineering.

Gesture of hospitality

Every morning, she would squat on the floor to scrape coconuts on a whili (curved blade) and to churn butter from yogurt. Her mother-in-law would grind the shredded coconut into chutney on a stone slab. Now that Mrs Deshpande is in her sixties and lives alone with her retired husband, she still makes coconut chutney but in an electric blender.

Instead of churning butter, she buys ready-made, salty yellow Amul butter to spread on toast for breakfast. Her mother-in-law would not have approved.

When relatives visit, Mrs Deshpande makes sabudanyachi khichadi (savoury tapioca pearls) or saanja (savoury semolina).

It’s a gesture of hospitability to take the trouble to cook, instead of serving toast and tea. But it’s a faint echo of the elaborate meals of her mother-in-law’s days.

Modern gadget in kitchen
Each new gadget makes an incremental change in the kitchen – Photo Anushree Fadnavis/INDUS IMAGES

There is a tinge of nostalgia in Mrs Deshpande’s reminiscences about the labour that went into the lavish meals orchestrated by her mother-in-law.

“We’d be in the kitchen before dawn, doing an endless stream of chores, one after the other, non-stop. But we did things properly in those days. Now it’s easier: we take shortcuts; we buy ready-made things from the market. How can it be the same? The quality has gone down.”

Perhaps the biggest physical change for Mrs Deshpande, and for most middle-class women of her age, is that the kitchen has moved up from the ground to a waist-high countertop. Women now cook standing up, not squatting down. Tools like the coconut scraper have been redesigned to work on kitchen counters and with less muscular effort.

Incremental change

Mrs Deshpande and her female relatives and neighbours notice the new appliances in each other’s homes and in shops. Buying a hand-held blender, electric chopper or sandwich-maker that costs a couple of thousand rupees is seen as an investment in efficiency but it’s also an affordable way to indulge the urge for novelty.

These electric-powered gadgets are treated differently from other kitchen equipment. The bai (domestic worker) who does Mrs Deshpande’s dishes and preparatory tasks like kneading dough and chopping vegetables isn’t allowed to use or clean the plastic and glass parts.

Says Mrs Deshpande, “You know how careless these people are; she’ll scratch it or break it.”

Each new gadget makes an incremental change in the kitchen.

But these are small shifts compared to the advent of refrigerators in middle-class homes in the 1960s. This technology radically transformed food processing and storage.

Domestic cooks
Domestic cooks manage a lot of urban kitchens in India today – Photo AFP

Mrs Deshpande recalls how before the coming of the fridge, all cooked food had to be eaten or given away at the end of the day: “Everything was eaten fresh. We would manage the quantities so that nothing was wasted, though sometimes this meant that a dish I liked would be finished when we women sat down to eat after serving everyone else! ”

“Day-old food was considered stale. And now look, my daughter-in-law takes leftovers out of the fridge after two days, heats them in the microwave and serves! It might be convenient but it’s not healthy.”

New inspiration

The other big change that happened when Mrs Deshpande’s son became a teenager, was her exploration of food outside the Maharashtrian Brahmin repertoire.

In the 1980s, she baked a cake for the first time – without eggs and in a pressure cooker. She asked her husband for a table-top oven and, encouraged by her son and her peers’ admiration, started to bake regularly, even using the eggs that were once forbidden in their kitchen.

A separate bowl was set aside for egg-related operations. Once ready-made pizza base and cheese became available in the local grocery store, Mrs Deshpande began making pizza at home.

Now that her in-laws are no longer alive, a light meal of soup and pizza often ends the day for the family, a menu that was unthinkable even in the early 1990s.

Mrs Deshpande’s copy of Ruchira lies untouched these days. Now she turns to popular food writer Tarla Dalal’s cosmopolitan cookbooks and to TV cookery shows for inspiration in the kitchen.

Amita Baviskar is an independent anthropologist whose research concerns the cultural politics of environment and development.

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