Eating the Present, Tasting the Future review: Tracing the diverse foodways of India
Culinary historian Charmaine O’Brien delves into India’s rich food culture, tracing its transformation amid globalization and digital connectivity, in ‘Eating the Present, Tasting the Future’
When culinary historian and author Charmaine O’Brien first came to India in the nineties, she was interested in travelling around the country to understand its glorious history. At the time, her view about the cuisine of India was defined by what was served in Indian restaurants in Australia, her home country, and elsewhere in the Western world.
She did not have any idea to observe or document the foods of the country, which she thought was quite limited. However, while exploring the country, she started noticing the buzz around food and the food differences in each region she visited. O’ Brien realised that the best way to learn about the country was through the history of its food culture.
The foods she sampled in different towns and cities of India kindled an interest in observing the regional foods of the country particularly because Australia did not have regional food. She writes: “With few exceptions, every fruit, vegetable, spice, herb, meat and cereal Australians eat has been transplanted from elsewhere, circumstances resulting from British colonization in the late eighteenth century.
She goes on to explain how Australia boasts of eateries serving an array of ethnic cuisines today but these are cuisines brought by people who have come from other cultures and settled there. The diversity that is seen in the cities of Australia today is ‘imported’ and not native to the country. India, on the other hand, was home to a multitude of regional cuisines, sometimes even within communities, thanks to its traditions that could be traced back to centuries.
The changings foodscape
Her extensive two-decade long research into the spices, produce, flavours, techniques and cuisines of India culminated in the book Eating the Present, Tasting the Future: Exploring India Through Her Changing Food, published by Penguin Random House. In the book, she looks at how the foodscape of the country was changing from its traditional format in response to globalisation and digital connectivity. O’ Brien explores the homogenisation of the food landscape in India against the backdrop of the trend to embrace and showcase regional cuisines through social media and other platforms in a concerted effort to reclaim traditional food practices.
“A major factor in this growing homogeneity of food and product trends is the connection internet technology has given Indian to hyper-globalized mass media as much as local considerations. The changes in India’s foodscape have certainly not occurred solely under the stimuli of global forces or ideas: Indians are actively influencing change in their food system in distinctive ways,” the author writes in her introduction.
In her quest to analyse the food systems in the country, the author conducted formal and informal interviews with a wide range of people directly and indirectly connected with the food system, including chefs, farmers, hotel and media professionals, academics, tourism operators and consumers across the country.
In order to understand the nuances of food systems followed by the diverse communities that make up the population of the country, the author travelled through the length and breadth of the country, meeting and mingling with the people who live in different regions, having food at roadside stalls, eateries that seem to enjoy high patronage besides having food at fine dining restaurants that offer global cuisines to elite clientele.
Flavours and trends
O’Brien notes how the emergence of supermarkets and global eateries and their popularity have made it possible to get ingredients and foods seen in other parts of the world. This brought in flavours and trends happening worldwide, and allowed connoisseurs of food to keep themselves updated to global movements.
The easy availability of pre-packaged foods like pre-cut veggies, idli-dosa batter, ready-to-eat meat products, packaged flavoured yoghurt/curd, instant curry mixes, have eased the burden on women who have been in charge of food in the domestic scene traditionally. It has also helped women take up jobs and become financially independent. The arrival of food delivery options has further allowed people of the country to have food without stepping into their kitchens.
However, this has led to a fall in observing traditional meal patters specific to communities and also created environmental challenges in the disposal of the packaging material. The pandemic paved the way for the delivery apps to witness an explosion in use, though later the polices of the companies which were more focussed on the bottom figures created unfair working conditions and are undergoing a process of finding a balance between ensuring diversity in food and good labour practises.
The author reminisces how during her early visits to the country, she used to buy seasonal fruits and vegetables from vendors who plied their fare beneath trees in the neighbourhood. People brought their own bags to take home their purchases, they bought oil in bottles they carried from small stores selling cold pressed oil, and purchased freshly ground flour from the neighbourhood chakkiwalah — wholesome and environmentally secure services which were not available in her own country.
Diversity of cuisines and food cultures
Writing about the trend of embracing organic foods, O’ Brien writes about the organic food stores that she had seen during her first visits to India where the focus was more on providing wholesome vegetables without any embellishments. Now, organic foods, packed and sold in attractive showrooms, command high prices, making them food that’s affordable only to the elite. She also mentions how organic foods have traditionally been grown in the country, especially by farmers holding small farms where food is grown for self-consumption and the excess produce is sold. Since many of them are not technologically savvy they are unable to cash in on the popularity of organic foods and end up selling their produce to wholesalers at the rates given for commercially grown produce.
While talking about the trend of vegan foods the world over, O’ Brien mentions the wide array of vegetarian foods traditionally eaten in India. The vegetarian foods in India have only now come to the attention of the world looking for attractive plant-based options. The nuances to these foods marked by regional climate and traditions have immense potential, she writes.
The author contends that even though the food habits in the country may be influenced by global trends, it has the potential to influence the foodways of the world. She credits its diversity in cuisines and food cultures that takes into account sustainability, seasonality, wastage, focus on local produce, among other factors, as forces that can propel the people of the country to embrace the best of both worlds.