It’s everywhere—on weekend news channels, in bookshops, in general affairs news magazines and specialized journals, in every second TV commercial, on hoardings, at the water cooler, in films where the chef-as-hero could be a straight-laced 60-something vegetarian or a wisecracking 20-something hunk.
Food plays a far larger part in our lives than the moments spent consuming it at the dining table or on the living-room couch. There are several stages to each meal—conception, construction, consumption and conversation, whether at the workplace or on a foodie blog—and at each is a plethora of choices. Fresh, frozen or organic? If processed, Indian or imported? Eating in or out? Cuisine? It’s a game the whole family can play, where everyone has a vote—even pre-teens have sharply defined tastes that demand satiation.
It wasn’t always like this. Back in 2000, food was just another domestic activity, leavened by occasional splurges—a meal out, a pizza in—that satisfied not necessarily because it was a really good meal but because it was, well, different. Think the missionary position with the occasional venture into fantasy. Now, thanks to liberalization, cheaper foreign travel, a relatively healthy conversion rate and all those TV channels, we’ve got the full Kama Sutra (and it’s not just me delving into food porn—why does every food ad have to be so suggestive?). As the world got smaller, our menu got bigger.
Bon appetit: (clockwise from top) A display at a supermarket. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint; Chettinad-style pomfret. Atul Chowdhary; and food being prepared for a south Indian wedding. Dinodia
Food is now a 360-degree experience that syncs seamlessly with our activities and concerns. Read up the latest theory on cholesterol, buy the broccoli and steam it; watch that documentary on Tuscany and, within the hour, dig into pretty authentic Bistecca Fiorentina; smell your neighbour’s Chicken Chettinad cooking and call up your home-delivery service for two full servings. In short, the classic Watership Down treatment—you can read the book, watch the movie and eat the pie!
This decade has seen the ubiquitous “Continental” broken down into French, Italian, Spanish and Greek, with bits of northern and central Europe thrown in, “pan-Asian” incorporating everything from Japan to Java and Mediterranean implying anything from Lebanese to Moroccan. As the rupee strengthened, and as Indian companies increasingly hired expat workers, eating foreign became a far more authentic experience. One could now easily import ingredients—fish, flesh and fowl included—and even hire kitchen talent from abroad.
The corollary to this has been the opening up of India’s cuisines. The traditional main strands—north Indian (Punjabi and “Frontier”), south Indian (idli-dosa and Keralite)—have fanned out into an array of sub-cultures from the ubiquitous (Bengali, Goan, Gujarati, Awadhi/Hyderabadi) to the more specialized (Mangalorean, Konkani, Kashmiri, Mewari, Oriya). Their clientele is the curious foodie and also the “domestic” migratory expats. Bangalore has at least a dozen specialized Bengali restaurants that tap into the large IT/media workforce from the homeland.
There is also considerable work being done to restore forgotten cuisines. Academic Jacob Sahaya, for example, has made practical use of his knowledge of ancient southern Indian cuisines (one of his restaurants, Rasam, in Chennai, offers Kongunadu food). Bangalore’s Kanua recreates traditional Mangalorean food with everything—vegetables, utensils, even yellow flame to cook on—as it used to be. And both do it without busting your bank balance.
With choice, though, came excess: the meal that cost a king’s ransom and didn’t really taste of anything; the two espressos at the new coffee bar that comfortably cost a couple of hundred bucks; worst of all, the lavish Sunday brunches that made us eat more than we should—and waste the rest. Then things slowly went pear-shaped—first of all our bodies, which led to the cry for healthier food. That’s when Med cuisine, with its olive oil, grills and vegetarian dips, really took off. Next up was Japanese, which went one better by steaming or simply serving up raw.
But the worst of times has brought out the best of times. Along with health issues, the crunch on time and money for the middle-class working Indian shaped the daily diet and eventually effected probably the most significant change in the noughties: Eating In became the new Eating Out.
Yes, eating in has never been as much fun as it is now. You don’t need to be a master chef to enjoy working with food. Walk through your local (super)market to see the best produce from home and abroad; hit the homeware store for the really fun stuff, the kitchen tools which, even if completely impractical, look great on the counter. Get the finest linen and the funkiest tableware. Stock up on the best spirits. Raid your local bookstore for a cookbook on any cuisine. Set aside a couple of hours to work up a meal and an appetite.
Everyone’s cooking. A friend of mine newly located in Bangalore spent months pining for khao swey; eventually, he found a suitable recipe and just did it. Actually, he had help—another friend, also in her mid-20s, with whom he’d often spend afternoons trying out new recipes.
The girl recently got married and among the gifts she waxed most about was a kitchen set of unusual implements; it wasn’t the Le Creuset she’d dreamt of but a pretty nifty substitute. It reminded me of a visit to Germany when my wife’s eye fell on a simple salad spinner. She was loath to leave it behind till I pointed out that Mother Nature could do the same trick back home.
Everyone’s writing, too, liberated by the democracy of the blogosphere. Just as you needn’t be a great chef to enjoy cooking, you needn’t be a food scholar to write about it. A recipe will do, or at least an opinion on the new place in town. Television has largely dispensed with the Cordon Bleu chefs; instead we have PLUs deconstructing their work (though I kind of miss Roopa Gulati—the medium desperately needs her elegance and authority). As Yan said many years ago—if he can cook, so can you!
But it hasn’t been all good news; some trends are depressing. Take wedding fare—especially the food at a Bengali wedding. To any Bengali reader out there, when was the last time you had an authentic Bangali meal at any wedding or reception? It’s usually a mish-mash of generic north Indian (paneer malai kofta, anyone?), faux Continental (Beckty Fish Coriander, at the last wedding I attended) and some “Bengali” staples such as biryani (can rarely go wrong with it) and chholar dal, never mind that they don’t go together. Up north, the relative affluence only means more cuisines: All you need is Thai, Italian, an extended salad bar for the veggies and a couple of live counters.
Thank heavens for the south Indian Hindu wedding. I’m no expert but, having eaten at Malayali, Kannada and Tamil weddings over the past couple of years, I can vouch for a few things. One, they may have a shorter menu than before but they don’t muck around with it—no IdliManchurian. Two, they follow the prescribed order of eating, which can only improve the experience. And three, they are largely sit-down, which lends a serenity and sanctity to the proceedings.
So what does the next decade bring? Here’s a prediction: One hot cuisine, at some point, will be Central African. It’s cheap, easy to recreate, blends with our climate and, best of all, is full of flavours. Next, a wish: that we do something about the food our children eat, provide enough food for those who don’t get it, and the right kind of food for those who do. Finally, for the decade gone past, a vote of thanks: After all the gimmicks, the degustation menus, the celebrity chefs and cuisines nouvelle, only one thing will lure the discerning customer away from his own kitchen: good food.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo. He believes the best way of keeping one’s sanity in the mad world of cricket is by living the food life, from conception to conversation