Friday, September 7, 2012

Food Movement in India and America: Differences and Parallels

How a culture adopts food choices changes over time. Obvious example? Well, the older Indian generation used to eat pretty much the same Indian food every day, prepared by the kids in the house or the hired help. Today, Indians have a wide variety of food choices... some good, some bad. Fancy-schmancy restaurants enter larger cities offering ethnic cuisine from other countries in Asia, Europe and elsewhere. Fast food chains provide relief for the large swell of dual-income middle class families who don't have the time to cook food anymore (let alone a 4-course Indian meal that takes 4 hours to prepare). 

Grocery shopping is an... interesting experience here, to say the least. Skip this paragraph if you're Indian because you already know what I'm talking about. Here, you have different categories of stores: specialty shops, stores that sell exclusively produce, and little pushcarts that sell fruits or veggies. A typical specialty shop sells grains, oils, nuts, rice, and not much more. These shops are tiny. A higher-end specialty store (like the ones that cater to expats) have a wider variety of well-established brand name coffees, goldfish crackers, jars of pasta sauce, oreo cookies, Haagen Dasz, Lindt truffles and Kindereggs. They also sell "unusual" items like hazelnuts, stevia sweetener, Himalayan honey, teriyaki marinade, etc. The produce shops have the latest, seasonal produce. Mangos during summer, pineapple, bell peppers, etc. Very few places sell both produce AND specialty items, and if they do, the selection of either tends not to be very impressive. This means it's common to go to three different stores for a single grocery run (at least, it's common for me: one place will have the corn I really want, another has my favorite brand of coffee, and the third has good salted peanuts that don't have a funny sulfur taste to them). 

Thus, the food movement is in a whirlwind state of flux here. India is getting this infusion of alternative cuisine restaurants, imports from big companies overseas, and it's becoming easier than ever to make a meal in less time. India is very much like the US was circa 1950: whereas before American families had home cooked meals meticulously prepared, the 50s welcomed manufactured food products for time-saving convenience. Unfortunately India is basically at this stage right now, where freshly made meals are giving way to convenience. Which is understandable, given the rising labor costs for cooks and more women choosing to work instead of preparing meals at home. 

The US is, however, in a neat transition as it relates to its own food movement evolution. During the 90s and 2000s, Americans were very much enamored with health food items: granola bars, whole wheat and whole grains, low-fat, low calories, etc. Large corporations shoveled these items off the manufacturing lines whether they were actually healthy or not (a big trend, for instance, was to sell 100-calorie pack cookies. Not healthy; but good marketing).

Now, the trend in the US is healthy and wholesome foods locally produced. The seller is often a person living right down the road instead of from a factory several states away. These foods are sold in small boutiques and farmer's markets. If you go to such a store, you'll find 15 varieties of organic olives, or 10 types of freshly bottled juices made with fruit from their farm. I like this trend in America because the result is fresh, local, organic and natural products. Furthermore, buying them supports your neighbor instead of a giant corporation that has no ties or interest in the community.  

Backing up to India again, this country is in a great position to cherry pick the best of the West and to ditch the not-so-great aspects of my original home. Though I sometimes wish India offered the same array of vegan products like the US does instead of purveying my country’s worst junk food products, I cannot condemn where India is in its development: Everyone in the US was once enamored by drive thru restaurants, deep-fried chicken and sugary breakfast cereal. It took 30 years before a large enough section of the population began waking up to the health risks of a fast food lifestyle.

While it’s true that most kids in the US are still connected to an IV drip of sugary beverages and devour microwave pizza, there’s a growing subculture. It’s full of eco-friendly hipsters by shopping at the farmers markets for organic produce. But again: this took 30 years to happen. So, I can’t blame India’s youth for finding the same appeal in the newness, edginess and well-hyped Kentucky Fried Chickens. It gives them a way of being different and seemingly more “modern and progressive” from their parents—a feeling revered by every teenager, no matter the country. To them, KFC is a symbol of embracing multiculturalism and nontraditional values. It’s a status symbol that says they don’t have to eat dal and rice like their more oppressed and less well-off classmates.

India will go through its own learning curves, shaped by corporate interests, an influx of money from development and a growing middle class with more income than ever. Of all of these factors, though, I hope it’s the growing middle class that has the strongest influence in shaping what’s ideally a healthy, cruelty-free country.

I cannot say what route India will take in the next 30 years. But if the country should continue to parallel the West’s own development, then I can paint a certain picture. While stopping by a fast food restaurant after watching the latest Hollywood (or Bollywood) blockbuster might seem like a way of connoting status, it may, at some point, be out of necessity due to its cheapness. Just as it is now in the US. If development continues at its rapid pace, it will make much more sense to build commercial and residential spaces than maintaining farmland. When the farms go, local food becomes more expensive; especially produce because it must be shipped in and is highly perishable. If multinational corporations begin advertising their quick and easy foods to the middle class, vegetables and fruit become considered a poor man’s food or boring (as it has no such marketing dollars). Maybe by now the government will start subsidizing agriculture and crop production to meet the needs of the growing demand for meat: with more money flooding India, the population can now afford what was before deemed a prized luxury. With subsidies in place, rice, corn and meat become the cheapest things in the country. Limited space and stricter zoning laws push out the local fruits and vegetable vendors. Enter the large grocery stores—they will of course offer fruits and vegetables, but gone are those locally grown, seasonal gems like chow chow and 4 different types of green beans. The shelf space will be so expensive that such stores will only sell conventional stuff like capsicum and brinjal (let’s hope it won’t be genetically modified—after all, limited farm land mixed with a booming population will mean the government will want increased crop yields).

And after a while, when India has had its gluttonous fill of fast foods and cheap imported biscuits, the nostalgia will kick in. The younger generation now grown up and saturated on the West’s influence will begin to opine for the days past. They’ll yearn for their great-grandmother’s homemade biryani recipe; maybe they’ll set aside a Sunday to make it and hope the kids will come over for a rare sit-down family meal. The kids will listen in earnest to how their parents used to be able to go to a coconut vendor and get fresh juice straight from the fruit instead of from glass bottles now only sold in stores. The parents will swap stories about the incredible variety of lentils once available in small corner stores, or how they used to jump over the fence to steal mangos from the neighbor’s house (“it’s where that new Starbucks is located… no, not that one… the one by Egmore Road, remember?”). They’ll grumble that the sapotas have gotten larger and seedless thanks t biotechnology, but don’t taste as sweet as the small ones they grew up with.

If things stay the course, this is probably a close vision of what India will be like. It’s not a whole lot different than the US is today. If this sounds disheartening, I can understand why… but don’t worry—that younger generation listening to those stories of yester yore? They listen. They want to bring change. In the US, it’s my generation listening to these stories and I certainly want to bring back those days of canned goods, family-owned stores and locally made items.

Here in India, I want to fight to keep those things around while they’re still here, too. But if the country should succumb to the whirlwind of imported plastics and partially-hydrogenated oils, give it a generation or two. Those homemade appam recipes will come back from the dusted cookbooks of your parents…eventually.

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