Indian Food

Indian and South Asian food in the UK is improving, and reflecting the authentic flavours, techniques and regional differences of that part of the world better. Hurrah!

But with that has also come a realisation that standardisation is creeping in. I’ve held back my opinions on Indian and South Asian food, partly because I wanted to understand how and why this was happening, here and in India.

Here are some musings …

In so many part of the world the cry for ‘diversity’ is being heard ever louder.

There’s a solid reason for this, and food is one way of understanding why the cries are as loud as they are.

Food is a palimpsest, a mirror, which reflects what’s happening and helps us understand why.

“The circumstances which surround different classes and individuals, and shape their characters, are daily becoming more assimilated. Formerly, different ranks, different neighbourhoods, different trades and professions lived in what might be called different worlds; at present, to a great degree in the same. Comparatively speaking, they now read the same things, listen to the same things, see the same things, go to the same places, have their hopes and fears directed to the same objects, have the same rights and liberties, and the same means of asserting them.”

John Stuart Mill – On Liberty

On a recent trip to India, after a gap of many decades, what struck me most was just how hard everyone worked. Industrious, capable, bright and go-getting, everyone was hard at work, making a buck and largely doing so with good humour. Yet there were differences in people; in classes, income groups, religions and observance, expectations, educational attainment, health, the way they dressed … human diversity. Yet on that same trip, I also noticed that every restaurant or cafe I visited in North India served a startlingly similar menu, albeit with very slight variations in spicing and presentation.

As a child, I always recalled that our family motto “good food is everything“, was also paired with the unspoken understanding that ‘our food’ was distinct from other families’ food. This difference wasn’t rooted in snootiness or separation, but just a simple understanding that each family had its own distinct food culture. The distinctions among families with Hindu roots were partly caste based, and also custom bound. In the face of invasion by Muslim overlords, the distinctions announced a kind of resistance too. But over time, especially in the Punjab, the Mughlai imprint became harder to shake off, chicken and lamb was eaten, dishes evolved.

So, is Mill right? Is the standardisation of the means of production, communication and, at least in theory, rights and liberties leading to a standardisation in food culture? (BTW – rights and liberties are NOT under question here)

Breakfast at Raas Devigarh – Delwara Fort Palace

I’m sure the manner of our travel and the places we stayed in played a part. But even when we went off-piste the encounters with food were ‘familiar’.

Then, talking to older relations, it hit me.

Despite having been a highly urbanised culture – India’s larger cities were legendary in their scale and planning up to the 18th Century – population growth and, in the 20th Century, mass industrialisation, a burgeoning service economy and booming technology sector have changed the character of Indian cities, population numbers, and the way people live and work.

Take Delhi – it had a population of just over 405,000 at the dawn of the 20th Century  with distinct districts for the various trades.

Bear in mind this was a ruined city, just recovering from the mass slaughter and looting carried out in revenge for the 1857 uprising and which decimated Delhi. At its height, Delhi had a population close to 1 million in the 16th and 17th Centuries, making it one of the world’s largest cities. The sense of ruination must have been palpable – with huge impacts on the culture of the city too. It’s worth remembering that New Delhi was not build on ‘virgin’ land, the old city was vast.

At the dawn of the 21st Century Delhi’s population was officially numbered at more 13,700,000!

That’s messed up by any standards.

Add to that the enforced population exchange which took place at the Partition of India, something few wanted, and during which tens of millions crossed borders between what is now Pakistan and India amid scenes of violence and aggression which shattered what remained of the syncretic Mughlai culture. The regions most affected were Punjab in the North West of India and Bengal to the East.

There’s more detail on the reasons for Delhi’s population explosion and development, along with a historical look at Delhi here and here.

Dissolving boundaries

The dissolving of boundaries of caste (though still too gradual), religious and ethnic affiliations (ditto), as well as the change in trades carried out in India’s cities has seen a corresponding change in working hours.

People are disconnected from the land, going to a place of work for an employer rather than working from home at a craft of their own, or on their land. For those of us living in the UK – we’re talking about six to ten generations removal from the land. That’s the only explanation which might excuse bread sauce [joke].

A host of other shifts have, in a very short time, led to a standardising of expectations (generally in what might be seen as an ‘upwards’ trajectory).

Food has become something which needs to meet the requirements of all, not just a few – a canteen or cafe culture almost. And, until the 1950s, Indian food was rarely cooked and served in restaurants.

For Hindus and Sikhs, restaurants were virtually unheard of in India. And the few exceptions there were, were off-limits to the majority of (non-white) people. Food for Hindu and Sikh families was eaten at home … we’re back to ‘our food’.

For Sikhs perhaps the only exception to that rule was the practice of Langar, eating communally prepared food in a communal dining hall (usually at a temple) open to everyone regardless of faith, caste, trade or station in life to underscore the founding Sikh belief in the equality of all.

Muslim families, less tied to pre-existing caste traditions, had a culture of bazaar food which transitioned easily into a kind of cafe culture in the early 20th century. Parsees (Zoroastrians originating from Iran) had long been resident in India’s Western coastal cities, and because they were free from caste restrictions of rules of purdah, adopted a more go-getting approach to trade and industry, becoming shipping magnates, practicing trades not ordained by caste, and developing large scale industrial enterprises like global giant, Tata. Parsees enthusiastically adapted early 20th Century cafe culture, creating places which catered to everyone and which mirrored the changes taking place in society and work.

By the mid 20th Century, and especially in a situation where millions of refugees descended on Delhi following partitions caste observance was an impediment to survival – food was nourishment, regardless of whose hand it came from – and given that it was Punjabis influenced by Sikh traditions who were displaced, the Langar model took hold.

The influx of new working patterns and the urge to rebuild the nation following the devastation of partition, as well as the new, forward-looking spirit of the age, encouraged people to look outwards.

Communal dining was no longer taboo.

Compared to the past, more meat began to be eaten.

Caste or religious observance be hanged when you have 30 minutes for lunch …

The ‘style’ of life

Another factor touched on in the conversations with elders focused on the way families lived.

Into the mid 20th Century, families in India and the Indian diaspora tended to be larger – along with the family units we’ve ‘normalised’ (Mother, Father, two children etc.), grandparents, unmarried aunts or uncles, and perhaps less well-off nephews and nieces lived cheek-by-jowl in the same houses with servants (and sometimes their families) … we’re talking about up to 50 people in one household.

A 16th Century Haveli in Jodhpur – it now houses two schools and a medical centre

You can see that story in the streetscapes of modern Indian cities, where old Havelis (mansions which accommodated large families) are now replaced by apartment blocks with smaller families or young couples living behind closed doors – the houses got smaller just as the families have. Servants were let go, or decided they’d rather do something with better prospects. Who can blame them …

People are taller


People are taller, especially the younger generations. Others carried more weight than previous generations.

I’m not surprised. People are eating more protein – mainly meat. And North India always did have a way with cooking meat.

It was always said that you could always spot a Punjabi in India as they were the tall ones – food was usually plentiful in that part of India hence it being desired by so many over its long history.

I know I stood out at times in crowds, literally head and shoulders above most people, but not always, and less so in the larger cities.

Amber Fort
Me at Amber Fort, Jaipur.

I think Mill was on to something.

Standardisation, or homogeneity, does grow out of the way our system works. And all the markers of ‘gentrification’, from the way people live and how and to what they eat, become standardised as everything becomes ever more aligned.

There’s a lot of good in that – it’s not all bad – change can deliver positive benefits. At what cost to the environment, the body, and the psyche?

In the face of such change, ‘our food’ becomes harder to maintain; you could peel and chop the onions that come from your farms, and deal with the meat or veg you’ve had a hand in helping to grow, or you could cut corners because you’ve got to fit in a full-time job too … maybe, eat out instead.

Perhaps the way Mum made it is just too darned time-consuming? 

There’s a part of me that’s sad about that. 

I think if we stop cooking, and stop maintaining some of those cultural memories, we stand to lose something greater about ourselves, and possibly even lose our resilience against those who profit most from standardising and therefore profiting from every aspect of our lives.

Is mass farming and ‘food production’ really all that great? I rarely eat ‘ready meals’ – though I did buy a pie the other day – but, I typically cook veg whose provenance I know, ditto meat on the once a week we eat it.

I’m not sure the ‘model’ we’ve been sold as ‘ideal’ is all that really – I haven’t for a very long time. 

There you have it.

That’s where my doubts are …

I’m going to try and do my bit by carrying on some of those culinary traditions and the stories they preserve, along with simple means of production, while upholding the family drive to make things better for all too.

It’s my way of buying time for me – my little, personal, act of rebellion.

Will you do the same? Please do. Let’s reconnect. Before it’s too late.

Because without a sense of history – of how we all came to be who we are, where we are – we are doomed to focus on characteristics and cultural elements to try and define others as different, something to fear and protect yourself against.

Perhaps what we really should be protecting ourselves from is monoculture, and the sterilising standardisation of ourselves.