Home food culture

We Indians have a “home food” culture. Most people consider it immoral and “bad” to eat out, and more so to eat out on a regular basis. People who don’t cook food at home are termed as being lazy. I remember this story I’d read in Tinkle back when I was a kid. It was called “kaLLa giriyaNNa” (it was a translation of a Kannada story). In this story, the thief (kaLLa) GiriyaNNa is scolded by his wife for his “dirty habits of smoking beedis and eating in hotels”. Yes, traditional Indian homes look down upon eating out that much!

Till very recently, this was a result of caste taboos. People would refuse to eat food that was prepared by someone by another caste, and that led to a delay in the growth of the restaurant industry. When people traveled (even on business, and you need to remember that in India even today, a lot of business happens due to caste networks), they would try and stay with a relative, or a friend who belonged to the same caste, and would eat in their house. When I was a kid, outstation holidays were mostly restricted to towns and cities where we had relatives, and in case we didn’t have any, durable foodstuff such as bread (from our “usual” Iyengar’s bakery), biscuits and fruits would be carried, so that we could avoid eating out.

Thanks to this cultural preference, and the taboos associated with eating out, we have turned out to be a “home food” society. Most people cook in their homes on a daily basis, or at least attempt to do so. In my mind, this is clearly inefficient. Back when I was in Gurgaon when I lived alone and would cook for myself, I discovered the beauty that is economies of scale in cooking food. The incremental time and effort in making (say) three liters of Sambar compared to making (say) half a liter was small, and consequently, every time I made sambar, I would make it in large quantities, and keep it in the fridge and repeatedly re-heat. While this may not be particularly healthy (the wife blames some of my lifestyle diseases to prolonged exposure to this unhealthy habit of eating stale food), there was little else I could do in order to achieve said economies of scale.

There is, however, a better method of ensuring economies of scale, and on a much larger scale – restaurants, and this is the practice followed in most places elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately, the taboo against eating out means that for most people, visits to restaurants are “treats”, and restaurants have adapted themselves to accommodate this. When people eat in order to treat themselves, their primary criterion is taste. When you eat something once in a while, you don’t really care about the calories or sugar or triglycerides it contains. Consequently, food in a large number of restaurants in India is tailored for this kind of an audience, and hence is not particularly healthy. The main complaint that people have against restaurant food – that it is not healthy, and that one cannot eat that every day, does have its merits, but has a background in the culture of eating out only for treats.

From a national efficiency standpoint, this needs to change. People are spending way too much time and effort in cooking their own meals. It is ok to cook once in a while, but spending an hour of your day every day in front of the stove is a colossal waste of time. The answer lies in good quality restaurants that serve food that is similar to “home-cooked” food, in terms of health factor and taste. If there is a good number of restaurants that start doing that, it will drive a number of people to stop cooking at home (the early adopters are likely to be DINK Yuppies).

In some ways, this reminds me of the Chennai auto-rickshaw problem that I’ve described here and here. Restaurants don’t want to give up on tasty food and go the “healthy way” because they’re not sure there’s enough of a demand for the latter. People are not willing to give up home food in favour of restaurants because the food is not healthy enough! Again, this needs a nudge. And you can see some efforts in this direction. Back when I was in IIMB, I remember having dinner once at this place called Bangliana, which served “traditional” Bengali food at a reasonable price (a Bong friend who accompanied me confirmed that the food was quite authentic and “homely”). In primarily immigrant-dominated localities (such as Koramangala), you see more such restaurants coming up, and that is a good thing. If only it can spread and we move to becoming a restaurant-based culture, precious man-hours (and woman-hours) are bound to be saved.

PS: If the provisions of the Food Security Bill imply that we move to a “ration” model again, it would mean a step backwards, where everyone would be forced to cook at home. Or maybe the act could be implemented differently.. Say you could partly pay at hotels using your “entitlement points”.. Anyway, that is an aside.

4 thoughts on “Home food culture”

  1. Great analysis! From a mere selfish tactical point of view, have you come across any ‘healthy’ restaurants in gurgaon? Will help me a lot 🙂

  2. Interesting Analysis 🙂 I wonder how much of the problem is rooted in the “caste system” and how much it is due to “societal attitudes towards women working outside home”.

    I had sort of tied the “eat out culture” to the “level of employment among women” in society. As the trend shifted to where it was socially okay for women to work outside. There was no full time chef at home and you’d soon enough acquire a taste for eating outside and you’d soon have a flourishing food industry. For instance, the take off of fast food industry in the US ties pretty neatly to women going in to paid work.

    The prevailing social attitude also meant your average indian restaurant was an “all-male establishment” from which follows the fear of inadequate hygiene and the fact that indian restaurants have generally shitty service 🙂

  3. Notwithstanding the culture of eating out and health, the cost of eating out is key I guess.

    I guess in India there are restaurants that offer food at affordable prices on a day-to-day basis. We in London spend about £35 a week on groceries for a couple(we are vegatarians and so don’t spend on meat, otherwise I guess it is about £50). Average electricity spend per week is about £10 – £11. Even if we say we spend 50% of electricity on cooking (electric stove, microwave and oven), we get by in less than £45 a week. Whereas a meal for two outside is at least £18 without drinks. So that is atleast £125 a week (if not more considering that you have at least two meals a day)

    I think cost is the more prohibiting factor than the culture associated with eating out

  4. I think you’re forgetting an important factor here: the relatively easy availability of cooks in big cities in India. In Bangalore, we paid a lady to come in and make breakfast, lunch and dinner (all cooked in the morning) for Rs.1800. The only time either the husband or I stepped into the kitchen was on Sundays (which was her day off) or when she was on leave. My friends in Mumbai pay a little more and have a cook who comes in both in the morning and evening. It’s healthier than eating out everyday (even in comparison to home style restaurants), its cheaper, and your food preferences and eccentricities can be more easily accommodated.

    Another option is the dabba system that we have in many cities here. In Bangalore, I used to get a dabba. I paid about 30/40 bucks a day, and would come back home from work to find a dabba waiting for me in the balcony. Typically two phulkas, rice and 1-2 sabjis. Some of these dabba systems were run by housewives who hired a few cooks and delivery boys, but it was very much freshly cooked home-style food. The downside to this was that you don’t have much choice over what you eat.

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