Food is a stimulating site to understand any society as reflected in this famous quote by famous food scholar Jean Brillat-Savarin, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are.” In times like ours, where the boundaries between the ‘traditional’ and the ‘modern,’ the ‘local’ and the ‘global,’ the ‘urban’ and the ‘rural’ are getting blurred, food can reveal the changes and continuities in socio-cultural practices in a society.
It will not be an exaggeration to state that one’s identity is closely related to what one eats. It is particularly evident amongst people living outside their countries as food becomes an instrument for these individuals to maintain and display their ethnic and national identities. Food becomes closely associated with ‘memory’ and ‘nostalgia’ amongst diasporic groups that try to hold on to their ‘local’ habits in a global setting. For many ‘upper’ caste Hindus residing abroad, a vegetarian diet becomes a primary tool of distinguishing themselves from others. In a largely non-vegetarian world, by non-consumption of meat, these people create distinctions between the ‘self’ and the ‘other’. It becomes a way to proclaim that they have not lost their ‘Indianness’ and Indian identity despite living abroad.
The introduction of packaged foods complicates this relationship between food and identity. For many Indians living abroad as well as working women residing in India, these very packaged foods become ways to hold on to their Indian past and identities. By eating ‘home-made’ Indian processed foods, these people maintain their connections with ‘authentic’ Indian food. Packaged Indian food then offers these women an opportunity to keep connected to their Indian identity and fulfill the role of a ‘good mother’ by providing food from the ‘homeland’.
Food and food ways then become crucial ways of negotiating national identities in an increasingly globalised and cosmopolitan context. This relationship between food and identity amongst the Indian diaspora in a globalised and capitalist context prove that the understanding of food’s role in building social relations is not outdated. Food and cuisine are still in some ways tied to the locale. By consuming vegetarian food, relying on packaged food to satiate their Indian taste buds, the diaspora holds on to one of the most important parts of their identity – their food ways. The packaged foods signify ‘Indian’ food and hence its consumption is meaningful.
The relationship between gender and food is also striking as it is still women who are associated with food-related activities and are the primary providers of food in diasporic Indian groups. Memories of home-made food are related to a woman figure, be it the mother or grandmother. These examples illustrate that the local has not been completely overwhelmed by the global, but has been reshaped.
Popular culture is a crucial medium to disseminate ways and eating habits related to food and food ways amongst both urban and rural people. Television has seen a prolific rise in food-themed shows in the last few decades. These shows have not only popularized different kinds of cuisines amongst urban Indians but have also portrayed gender roles related to cooking and food. The availability and popularity of international cuisines in India also indicate towards a trend of the global becoming more easily available. This is aided by television shows like “Master Chef” that have made other food cultures extremely popular among urban youth in many countries, including India. While some shows like “Khana Khazana” fall in the genre of passing on recipes and cooking tips, other shows like “Master Chef ” examine the cooking skills of contestants. There are also other shows like “Farah Ki Dawat“ that have celebrities from various fields appearing as guests, trying their hand at cooking and entertaining the guests.
These shows also illustrate ways in which food traverses the boundaries between the local and the global. For instance, “Master Chef” is a British show that has been adapted in various countries including Australia and India. It has enjoyed immense popularity amongst the audiences. One particular season of “Master Chef ” (season 4) in India was completely vegetarian in its nature. This is a prime example of the ‘local’ being integrated into the ‘global’ as the original version of the show is mostly based on non-vegetarian cuisine. Another way in which the two come together is in the kinds of dishes that are prepared by the contestants and celebrities. For instance, in a complete Indian setting, dishes that have originated in Italy and China are cooked and served. In one of the episodes of the show “Farah Ki Dawaat“, Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty made the Italian dish pasta along with the pesto sauce that is used in it. This illustrates a kind of hybridity that is present in both the preparation and consumption of food in a globalized world as an Italian cuisine takes center stage in an Indian setting.
Thus, globalization has not meant that the ‘local’ has disappeared. Rather it is integrated and accommodated with the ‘global’ as examples of these food practices show.