The folks at McCain, best known for frozen French fries (about which I have written before) sent me a packet of their newest product. When I saw the package I was a little surprised. While McCain has an admirable record of innovation (alu tikkis as well as frozen hash browns) the new product had nothing at all to do with McCain’s traditional potato-based lines. It was a frozen idli.
The concept of an instant idli is not alien to us. But most times, all we get is the idli batter in some kind of packet. We still have to shape and steam the idlis ourselves. I have seen frozen idlis abroad but by the time you have defrosted them, the texture is shot to hell.
The McCain frozen idli is different. You take the packet out of the freezer, put a frozen idli in water for 30 seconds and then heat it in the microwave for two-and-a-half minutes. By the time you open the microwave door, the idli has puffed up and seems identical to the sort of dish you are served at Woodlands or Sagar.
Of course, when it comes to idlis, appearances are not everything. Taste and texture are more important. So, it was with a degree of skepticism, that I put the idli into my mouth. While it was hardly the equivalent of an idli freshly made at home by a skilled cook, it was still perfectly acceptable.
I served a couple of idlis (with chutney) without mentioning that they were frozen. The people who ate them assumed that they had been procured from a nearby restaurant. Nobody thought they tasted odd and somebody even remarked how much better they were than the terrible idlis from our canteen. I can see the McCain idli catching on just as the alu tikkis and the hash browns have.
In fact, each time I go to the market I am astonished by the kinds of pre-packaged foods that are now available in India (or at least in the big cities). There are, of course, the global dishes that are now sold in our country. But there are also many dishes that are packaged specially for the Indian market. You get most kinds of Indian food in frozen form and you also get the ready-to-eat (no refrigeration required) Kitchens Of India packages which allow you to serve excellent Butter Chicken and the like at home. The Dal Bukhara is such a favourite that many NRI friends and relatives of mine take back dozens of packets.
Then, there are the refrigerated foods that are almost ready to eat. Each time I go to Defence Colony market I am astonished to find more and more (artisanal rather than industrial) foods that are nearly ready to serve. You can buy every kind of kebab, chop or cutlet there. All you need to do, in most cases, is pop them into the microwave or fry them on the tawa for a few minutes.
If even this minimal effort in the kitchen is too much for you, there are other options. Every morning, when I open my newspapers and fight through the ads that have taken over Page 1 to find the real front page or struggle to hold the paper given that the advertiser-funded so-called Page 1 is only a third of the normal size and therefore impossible to grip, I am further annoyed by the rubbishy leaflets and flyers that tumble out of the paper.
Most times, these flyers have been inserted by the newspaper vendor and consist of menus for takeaway restaurants. Takeaway food is not a new concept (some kind of waiters-on-wheels operation exists in most Indian cities) and most of us have ordered takeout at home at some point. But takeaway from restaurants always costs a lot because restaurant prices take into account rents, air-conditioning, waiters’ salaries, cost of cutlery and crockery etc. So effectively, when you order takeout, you are paying for restaurant facilities that you do not enjoy.
All over the world, there now exist takeaway restaurants which consist of no more than a kitchen and a counter (and just possibly a few tables) which survive on sending out meals at prices that are between a third to two-thirds cheaper than restaurant meals. That trend has now arrived in India. Consequently, it is possible to order takeout every night in most Indian cities without going bankrupt.
Both these trends – packaged food and the takeaway boom – mean that young people no longer need to worry too much about cooking when they come home. You can either phone for food and be sure that it will be at your doorstep in half-an-hour. Or you can spend only ten minutes in the kitchen and turn out an elaborate meal that includes Dum Pukht biryani, Dal Bukhara and Chicken Tikka.
When journalists write about the Indian food scene, they talk about an explosion of restaurants and a rise in adventurous eating. India is in the grip of a food boom, we are told. The Indian middle class is more interested in cuisine than ever before, etc. etc.
This is true enough. But what the hype misses is the death of local cuisine. Middle class people of my generation had mothers, wives or even (if they were slightly more affluent) cooks who made dinner for them. Not all of the cuisine was local but much of it had a distinct regional orientation. If you were a Gujarati, you tended to eat Gujarati food at home. If you were a South Indian, you ate food from your part of India. And so on.
That is now changing. If you are under 30 and do not live with your parents, then the chances are that you no longer eat the cuisine of your own region. Some of this has to do with lifestyle. These days both partners in a household tend to work making it impossible for the wife to fulfill her old role in the kitchen.
Servants are much more expensive than before, hard to find and seem more politically incorrect to have around. (When was the last time you saw the word ‘servant’ in print? Usually, they are referred to as ‘domestic help’ though, strangely, it is still okay to say ‘maid’, ‘cook’ and ‘driver’.) Even when cooks are hired they tend not to make any regional cuisine but churn out a mish-mash of what might be called metropolitan Indian food.
But it also has to do with options. In the old days, somebody had to cook. There was no alternative. Now, the markets are bursting with options. You can buy any kind of pre-packaged or frozen food. And ordering takeout has never been easier or cheaper. Plus, the prosperity of the last decade makes adventurous eating seem more affordable. This is not to say that people do not still cook. But young people no longer bother to cook the food of their ancestors. If you are invited home to dinner by a young couple then it is entirely possible that they will make Chinese or pasta or a facsimile of some fancy restaurant dish. They will consider it dull and boring to serve you a simple dish that their mothers used to make.
Obviously, I applaud the adventurousness. And naturally, I am thrilled that it is possible for hardworking young people to eat relatively well without having to struggle in the kitchen after a hard day’s work. But a part of me worries about the effect this will have on regional Indian cuisine.
Most of us still remember the cuisine of our ancestors even if we no longer eat it every day. But is that true of the generation that is just coming of age? And I’m pretty sure that it will not be true of their children who will have no clue about the cuisine of their regions.
An alarmist scenario is to compare the India of the 21st century to today’s America where nobody knows how to cook well, where regional cuisines have almost completely disappeared and everybody survives on frozen and fast food, worshipping such strange gods as Ronald McDonald and Sara Lee.
That may be an exaggeration. But equally, I don’t think we will go the way of Italy or France either. In both those countries, there is a flourishing restaurant scene where regional cuisines are venerated. When a Frenchman wants to go out for dinner, he goes to a French restaurant. But when an Indian goes out to dinner he never goes to a restaurant that serves the food of his ancestors. Even when he goes out to eat Indian, he looks for tandoori-type North Indian food which was never eaten by anybody’s ancestors.
You could argue that this is the way of the modern world. As societies advance, the middle class has less time to cook and so old cuisines are certain to die out. And perhaps you would be right. But I can’t help feeling that this is a tragedy in the making.