Kheema Pav to Kasundi: Our Food Obsession
It is a well-known fact that we Indians love our food. It’s a large part of our day-to-day lives (of course), but also our Indian culture, our identity. You could even say we’re obsessed with food; if all 1.25 billion of us had to vote between “Eat to live” and “Live to eat,” I’d be willing to bet on a majority for the latter.
From the spicy explosion of the pani puri to the succulent, sugar soaked jalebi; crispy-fried onion pakoras to melt-in-the-mouth kakori kebabas, Indian cuisine boasts of a diverse array of dishes to satisfy almost any palate. And what’s amazing isn’t just the unending number of preparations our country has to offer, but the wonderful ways in which food connects us. For the mother sending a parcel to her daughter studying in the big city, all her love is packed into two dozen besan ladoos. To the single boy who’s finally scored his dream job, the perfect chicken curry is testimony to his independence. And if you have the time to listen to the friendly daadi next door, you’ll know her fondest memories are of days when she could devour fifty rasgullas in a single sitting. If there’s ever a lull in our conversation, food is always a safe topic to fall back on.
Every occasion, every milestone, whether miniscule or life-changing, has some ritual involving food. The customary dahi shakar before an important exam; the muh meetha karna that follows a large purchase; the little stack of parathas or theplas that are made with love for those starting out on a long voyage, the breaking of a fast with khajur—you’ll find them in almost every Indian household.
Our food fascination isn’t restricted to family and friends; it’s also a tried-and-true way to break the ice with strangers. A few years ago, my dad was taking a train from Mumbai to Chennai, seated next to a man who said he couldn’t stand to eat alone. Whenever he went on a long journey, he told my father, he always packed two boxes of biryani: one for himself and one for a fellow traveler whom he had yet to meet. On this particular trip, my father was the chosen one and he decided to go with his gut instinct (literally) rather than natural precaution. He accepted the man’s generous offer, and the simple meal led them to chat nonstop until they reached their destination.
I’ve made my own share of fleeting, food-based friendships, too. Five years ago, I was travelling from Mumbai to Delhi – a tedious 19-hour journey – and hadn’t packed any sustenance, since I’d left home in a hurry. I was quite satisfied with food from the train pantry, but a group of women in the adjacent coupe kept shooting me sympathetic looks. They were equipped with enough snacks, fruits, and juice to keep them occupied through several such journeys; I must have seemed a starving child in comparison. They asked me to join them and, though I politely refused at first, they would not take no for an answer. Soon we were munching on homemade khakhras and speculating about a heated argument between co-passengers. Sharing food and gossip—it’s like we were best friends already!
For some, this food-love has no restrictions; for others, it is specific to home-cooked food made by mothers or relatives. For the latter, travel involves a subset of planning that even professional agents can’t handle: detailed dietary agendas on what food should to be carried, how much of it, how long it will last, and in what containers it should be packed. I was once on a train with a large family of eight adults and three young children. They were the well-armed kind of travelers—you know which ones I mean. Not only had they packed many snacks, they had also appointed various relatives and friends to meet them with hot food at the appropriate stations along the route. Three times during our journey, one of the party’s younger adults would be sent to receive the package from an aunt or uncle kind enough to meet the passing train. Every such stop was followed by a short period of chaos and commotion as children were collected, paper plates laid out, plastic cutlery and glasses distributed, and finally, the hot meal served, accompanied by pickle and followed by mithai.
It was an impressive feat that happened no less than three times during the 36-hour journey. I, myself, was perfectly content eating lukewarm, mildly flavoured pulao out of a foil takeaway container—the standard fare of Indian Railways. But I must admit being slightly envious of the familial bonding brought on by these train meals. And I could smell the generosity of the family who had made the meal for my co-passengers, as strongly as the puri bhaji they ate.
And that is the secret of India’s food obsession—it’s not about food at all. (Well, maybe it is a little bit. OK, a lot.) While current generations might outsource the preparation of daily meals to a hired cook, there will always be the gajar ka halwa that is made in honour of a festival or special guest. The familial ritual and method of pickling mangoes every summer will continue in some households, even as others turn to Mothers’ Recipe. And while dispassionate pulao eaters can be found in almost every train, there are an equal number of those consuming home-cooked dal chawal from paper plates, because in India, food isn’t just food—it’s an expression of love.