On the Table

On the Table: Food traditions fading as India modernizes

CorrespondentSeptember 17, 2013 

— It’s a familiar pattern. As countries advance economically, their food traditions change. We’ve seen it happen in the U.S.

Many of us over age 50 remember growing up with from-scratch meals, foods that today come out of the freezer, ready to heat. We eat canned soups in place of fresh, buy our bread off the shelf and consider cookies made from refrigerated, ready-made dough to be “home-baked.”

The same transition is happening in India.

On international economic measures, the country has moved from low-income status to middle-income. More people are working away from home, in factories and offices. They have less time to cook, giving rise to convenience foods and fast-food restaurants, albeit many with a decidedly Indian flare. Picture Dosa Factory and Curry Kitchen.

Visiting with a colleague born and raised in southern India gave me insights into how things are changing.

He described memories of his mother and grandmother soaking lentils overnight and then grinding them in a blender to make flour for bread. In later years, they took their lentils to a store to have them ground.

Today, the breads his family used to make from scratch are readily available in fast food restaurants or frozen in the supermarket.

He feels that many labor-intensive foods that were part of his family’s cultural identity are in danger of being lost to new generations.

We went to one New Delhi restaurant known for serving the foods his grandmother used to make. We ordered a favorite of his family’s – avial. It’s a blend of cooked vegetables mixed with a creamy coconut sauce spiced with green chilies and cumin.

Another dish, ennai kathrikai, consisted of eggplant cooked with onions, tomatoes and garlic in tamarind sauce. The entrees were accompanied by lemon rice, appam – fermented rice batter pancakes – and a selection of fresh ginger, tomato, coconut and tamarind chutneys.

Somebody spent a lot of time chopping vegetables, grinding flour and assembling ingredients the old-fashioned way to make that meal. They were the best Indian meals I’ve ever eaten.

Are they going to disappear with the arrival of Pizza Hut and KFC helping to usher them out of memory? Time will tell.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor of health policy and management at UNC-Chapel Hill. Reach her at suzanne@onthetable.net; follow her on Twitter, @suzannehobbs.

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