Published in Times of India, Consumer Edge, Mumbai, December 2006
Gods in India love food. Rituals such as yagna and homa are all about providing spoonfuls of butter to a chosen deity. No puja is complete without bhoga and prasadam. Gods in India are also rather fickle about what they are served: Ganesha wants modakas, Krishna wants butter, Shiva is content with raw milk, Shantoshi-Maa seeks bengal gram and jaggery, village-goddesses like lemons and chillies, Bhagavati feeds on roosters, Durga accepts buffaloes, Kali prefers goats while Pitrs or the forefathers insist on mashed rice cakes as they are all ‘toothless’ like yet-to-be-born babies.
Fed well, gods can be generous with their blessings, one reason why an Udupi restaurant in Mumbai will serve its first cup of coffee not to the customer but to the ‘gods of the elements and the directions’ and why an orthodox housewife will serve food first to the crows, and only then the gods and finally the family.
Food is not only an offering to the gods. Food is God, or should we say Goddess? Food is Shakambari, born of Bhoo-devi, served by Annapurni. Food must not be touched with the feet. At one time, leftovers were never discarded in a garbage bin. They were either re-cooked or lovingly served to the cow or the dog. Nearly 3000 years ago, food was eulogized in the Taittriya Upanishad:
From food all creatures come
By food they live
In food they live
Into food they pass
Food is Brahman
Only they eat
Those who know
They eat their God
Food, the chief of things
From food all beings come to be
The universe is made of eaters and eaten
What eats is eaten
What is eaten also eats
An ancient Indian proverb states, “You are what you eat, and what you don’t eat.” Amongst other things, you are Hindu because you don’t eat beef, you are Muslim because you don’t eat pork, you are Jain because you don’t eat garlic or honey, you are Brahmin because you stay away from meat, you are Bengali because you love fresh water fish, you are from South India because you always end your food with curd rice, you are Gujarati because you love the taste of dhokla, chat and chatni.
What we eat or don’t eat, in other words, our identity, is determined by the mother of the household. Otherwise known as housewife or homemaker, she is the ultimate Goddess of the Kitchen, nurturing heaven and earth, heroes and villains. In the Ramayana, she was Sita with her rasoi. In the Mahabharata, she was Draupadi with her thali. In the Puranas, she was Lakshmi and Gauri who made Vishnu and Shiva go hungry because they dared disrespect food, considering it inferior to the soul.
Despite all the winds of change brought in by the 20th century, even today, the mother still controls the kitchen. It is the space she rules. Through her food she transmits emotion and affection to her world. With her food she manages the well being of her family.
Once upon a time, the Goddess of the Kitchen was not allowed to step out of the house. All provisions came to her: from the fields, the orchards, the village pond, the kitchen garden, brought in by the servants or her husband who went to the weekly bazaar or the hawker who came to her doorstep every few days. In the rare occasions when she was allowed to travel, such as a pilgrimage, she was expected to carry her pots and pans with her to cook for all during the journey.
Then she moved to the city. There was no field or orchard or kitchen garden. No servants to help out. Children who had to be ready for school early in the morning. Her husband left early in the morning and often came home late, too tired to go to the bazaar. She had to go to the market herself. She had to buy the grain, the pulses, the fruits, the vegetable, the spices, the fish and the meat herself with the monthly food money her husband gave her. It was there that she discovered the art of haggling, an art that enabled her to save, hence earn, many a rupee.
As joint families gave way to nuclear families, as the mother also had to go out and start working and earning money for the family, the pressure of managing the kitchen became too much to bear, even when the man of the house was supportive.
The market heard the cries of the Goddess, provided her with ways to cook her food faster – pressure cookers were invented, pre-pounded spices were created, pre-mixed masalas were sold. The mother tried her best to provide home-cooked food to her family, getting up at ridiculously early hours before school and office, but the going became too much. She reluctantly turned to ‘instant’ food, allaying her guilt by buying packaged foods that claimed to be full of nutrients and garnishing it with a bit of ‘coriander’ to make the freeze-dried microwaved food look fresh and homemade. At the worst situation, she submitted to the temptation of ‘outside’ food.
The Goddess once looked down upon outside food. In fact, even today, in many parts of India, ‘eating outside’ is a colloquial metaphor for ‘going to a prostitute’ – it pollutes your body and your mind. But that has changed. The world became more tolerant. Home food became routine and boring. Outside food became exciting. An adventure. A chance to explore cultures and worlds outside the narrow confines of the home. Was it the result of globalization, migration, westernization? Nobody is quite sure. Housewives, who spent the week staying at home, demanded that they dine outside on weekends; husbands who ate outside all week long and looked forward to home-cooked simple fare on weekends had no choice but to submit to the Goddess. And the market responded to them too. High end hotels catering to high-flying executives now provide special room-service menus called ghar ka khana after 8 pm.
The world of the Kitchen Goddess is now poised to change once more. Markets will soon to be replaced by Malls with their supermarkets. There will be no more haggling. No more talking to different vendors, arguing over the price of lemons and coriander and potato. No more discussing the weather, health, politics, family. No more ‘why did you not come last Tuesday to the market, madam, all well?’ conversations. Everything will be pre-haggled. She will soon be entering an air-conditioned world of discount coupons, festival bargains, monsoon sales. The personal touch of the fruit seller and the grocer will be gone. The vendor will be a faceless entity: a large powerful corporation. And the person assisting in the various shops will be nothing more than nameless uniformed helpers, following a Standard Operating Procedure, uninvolved in the purchase of the goods they are selling, a small cog in a huge process chain. That connection created by haggling which transcended the transactional level will be gone forever. The mandatory visit to the ‘chat-wala’ before going home will be replaced by the visit to the lavish ‘food court’. And the Goddess of the Kitchen will have to learn the art of ‘stocking’ food, something that was once restricted to beans, pickles and papads, for fruits and vegetables were always fresh in India and easily available next door.
In a world where food is increasingly becoming a lucrative retail commodity for the likes of Wal-Mart and Reliance, it makes great sense to understand the cultural context of food. Who are the ‘eaters’ and what is ‘eaten? And why? More importantly, how do the ‘eaters’ get to the ‘eaten’? At the heart of all retail research related to food will be the Kitchen Goddess – everyone’s mother.