Subcontinent tastes

Its not just about the food

By Ankush Chibber, FoodNavigator-Asia columnist

- Last updated on GMT

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Its not just about the food
In the second article in a new a series examining Indian diets and health, our resident food columnist tells a personal tale of how he has seen his own diet change with the times.

It’s hard to argue against Dr Carrie Ruxton’s well-expressed viewpoint​ on this website a few days ago. 

Having said that, the response has been overwhelming, and has mostly come from my fellow Indians who don’t believe a Westerner should be telling us about our foods. 

I am going to dive in here and say that while the West has some questions to answer of its own on areas beyond food and beverage, the fact that our waistlines are going the way much like theirs have done before us is mostly spot on. 

But the real culprit is not the food we make and consume in our homes. 

Let me use my own life as an example. I am a child of the early 80s who grew up while travelling all over India. My father’s monthly income from a government job was never more than Rs800 for most of the decade. 

To put that in a contemporary perspective, that sum equates to how much you would now pay for two weekend movie tickets in any of our metros. 

In line with our family income, we would eat simple fare. Like we never had eggs for breakfast more than three times in a week; porridge made the Indian way it was left for the other days. Lunch would be basic, such as a couple of bowls of pulses and vegetables like cauliflower, French beans, ladyfinger and potatoes with wheat rotis​. Dinner was the same with just a variation here or there. 

But we would have a glass of milk every day; and once a week, if we were really lucky, we had the luxury of eating chicken or mutton, and a sweet dish like kheer​ (rice pudding). The latter was a particular favorite of mine and still is. 

The thing to note here is that we hardly ate out more than twice a month. And we almost never ate packaged foods. Rarely anything beyond candy.

Fast forward almost two decades of economic growth and incomes going up tenfold, the situation is more like this: I still eat the same breakfast of eggs, but I eat them maybe a day more in the week. My lunch is the same as is dinner: pulses, veggies and rotis.

I eat chicken more often, maybe twice a week, and the same with fish. While I still have the same amount of the sweet stuff, I have stopped consuming milk. The quantity of all my meals at home remains the same, give or take a bowl. Its the same for all of us, I can say with some conviction.

So here is what changed? I eat out more than once or twice a week—twice at an absolute minimum. And my daily routine is punctuated by instances of me diving into a packet of crisps, a bar of chocolate or a packet of biscuits. I call in burgers and rolls at times too. 

These were foods I could simply not afford before and hence would not consume them through the 80s and early 90s.

But the turn of the century brought us young urban Indians, especially those in my age group of 18-35, a plethora of job opportunities and entry salaries that were higher than our parents were being paid when they retired. We could now afford more.

And as many of us know, we react to what we see. As a culture, once we opened up to the world in the 90s, we took all that the West had to offer; from their television to their politics to their football. 

As individuals we also took to all their restaurants and foods. You only need to see the serpentine lines at your local McDonald’s on the weekend to understand what I am trying to say here. You would be hard pressed to find these lines in any Southeast Asian country, and forget the US or Japan. 

Because in India these burgers and indeed those packet of crisps symbolise something higher, which cannot be interrupted by frivolities like nutritional content. 

Its called aspiration. It trumps eating healthy every single time.

Its the reason why we will continue on the path Dr Ruxton predicts for us. Until it’s too late.

Have your say: Do you agree with Ankush? Let us know in the box below.

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In defense of ghee

Posted by Deepa,

It is a well know fact that traditional Indian diet with various spices, variety of vegetables , fruits,natural flavors such as sweet, sour, salty, bitter and that focuses on ancient unprocessed grains such as bajra, jawar, rice, ragi, wheat,various dals which are sprouted and cooked fresh and yes even little ghee from grass fed animals
( no trans fat)is not only nutritionally balanced but is low glycemic index and is a key to treat and prevent chronic diseases. THe traditional diet also focuses on moderation that is why ghee is not eaten in a bowl but is used sparingly to add on top. The introduction of processed carbs, fats and not ghee ( again when eaten in moderation) is to be blamed for the prevalence of chronic diseases in India.
Even the cooking methods such as fermenting, sun drying, sprouting are proven to be better than the current way of food packaging and manufacturing which involves lot of additives, preservatives and chemicals.

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Only a Part

Posted by Jaideep Sidhu,

I am disappointed that physical activity has been excluded from the article. Food and more importantly, eating habits, play a role in health but being active also has an importance.

Secondly, as far as the lines at fast food joints in the US are concerned, I am afraid that the author's understanding is probably misplaced. There are a lot more fast food joints per kilometer (or mile if you will), not just Mc Donalds alone. The service is much faster and there are always drive through options. In addition, the population is roughly 1/3rd of that of India. All these factors lead to no lines.

Finally, I always shy away from generalizing one single case and applying it to a larger population.

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a comment

Posted by Chary,

Dr Ruxton is right about traditional food. By and large most Hindus largely vegetarian food,with about half of them being traditional vegetarians, though there are changes. The problem is not just the big mac or KFCs but more fried food, more milk and curds and excessive sugar. And Govt.'s unintelligent food and agricultural policies. It is a very complex situation. I was in the Govt at a high level for quite some time but policy makers esp economists and Senior officers are knowledge proof. Our family is not only vegetarian but avoid bad fats, eat grains like barley and others but in limited quantiry but plenty of plant foods and nuts. Plant foods esp greens are still cheap. And fine foods like Moringa and Agasthya leaves are neglected
as are traditional vegetables which include for example the banana stem which
can help in BP, heart disease and is a colon cleanser as well. One can go on. In brief there is still much ignorance and unwillingness to learn ro experiment!

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