How Tech Is Helping India Keep Dying Cuisines Alive
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because food is central to the identity of every community.
By Tania Bhattacharya
Every year, usually in hot and dry April, women from Mumbai’s East Indian community clean, sun-dry and roast a range of raw spices before pounding everything together finely and storing in air-tight containers or beer bottles to use over the year. This is called bottle masala. But the tedious process takes three to four days and — amid declining popularity among East Indian youth — its uncertain future mirrors that of the community’s traditions. Regina and Bernard Pereira are ready to fight it out, though. Their weapon: a cocktail of tradition and technology.
The East Indian couple uses Authenticook, an aggregator that lists unique dining experiences by home chefs, to attract a new generation of Indians to the community’s culture. Bernard takes guests through their village, Giriz, in the suburban Mumbai town of Vasai, narrating snippets of East Indian history before they sit down to an elaborate meal cooked by Regina. Some of her specialties are wedding rice (basmati topped with fried onions, dried fruits, peppercorns, cloves, boiled eggs and ghee), fugias (deep-fried balls of fermented flour), potato chops and sukeli (local honey-drizzled ripe bananas that are dried on the trees).
Authenticook is part of a wave of aggregators, apps, physical pop-ups and digital platforms that are connecting home chefs to audiences they could never reach before, with the aim of helping to preserve and spread India’s myriad traditional cuisines that otherwise risk fading into oblivion. Rajni Jinsi, based in the Delhi suburb of Faridabad, cooks Kashmiri Pandit food at gatherings hosted by hotels and resorts. The Vijaykars, a Mumbai family belonging to the Pathare Prabhu community, host the wildly successful Dine With Vijaykars pop-up every couple of months. Harsha Thackeray’s Masalabox connects home chefs with meal subscribers in Cochin and parts of Bangalore, promising authentic cuisines from niche communities.
Earlier, many of these cuisines were relatively unknown outside their communities; now these platforms are taking them to audiences across India.
We asked ourselves, How can we keep traditions alive and offer an alternate dining-out experience?
Ameya Deshpande, co-founder, Authenticook
“If you think about it, India has a massive food scene, but vast in terms of establishments and limited in terms of both Indian and pseudo-international food,” says Ameya Deshpande, one of the three co-founders of Authenticook, which launched in June 2016. “So we asked ourselves, How can we keep traditions alive and offer an alternate dining-out experience?”
One of Authenticook’s most popular meals is Dine With Kolis, offered at a fishing village in Mumbai’s Versova neighborhood by Harsha Tapke and her mother, Rajini. The Kolis are a fishing community and also among Maharashtra’s original inhabitants, but their seafood-rich cuisine has never featured in commercial establishments. And with younger generations moving away from fishing into service industries, that culinary legacy stands threatened. “Stories about dishes and the community are at the heart of the dining experiences we offer,” says Deshpande. “It’s how we choose the home chefs, apart from the quality of food. It’s a complete cultural experience.”
Like the country’s unmatched range of religions and communities, India’s cuisine too boasts diverse shades that can change every few kilometers and are closely tied to ethnic and cultural identities. For instance, bottle masala, the East Indian base for curries and fried dishes, consists of anywhere between 25 and 60 ingredients, depending on the household and its oral culinary traditions. Converted to Catholicism by the Portuguese in the 16th century, this 600,000-member-strong community — originally of fishermen and -women — has lived in Mumbai and its suburbs of Vasai and Virar ever since. Their food carries local flavors and Portuguese influences, but is different from Goan food, which is also influenced by the Portuguese that ruled there.
Keeping those myriad flavors alive in an era of globalized markets that encourage sameness isn’t easy. But a growing number of food enthusiasts are willing to fight the battle to preserve the subtle differences in spices and flavors between, say, the pork vindaloo from Goa, Pondicherry, Mangalore and Mumbai. Pondicherry on India’s east coast was once a French colonial outpost, and authentic food from there is a confluence of Tamil, French, Vietnamese and Cambodian cuisines, says Anita de Canaga, an Indian-origin French national who organizes lunches there via Authenticook called La Table d’Hote with her mother, Pushpa. A popular mélange dish is chaiyo, or local spring rolls. Pushpa makes them by frying meat (pork, chicken or prawns) with grated coconut and coriander and using this mixture to fill rice leaves that are then deep-fried. Chaiyos are eaten with lettuce, coriander and mint and dipped in a fish sauce–based sauce called nuoc-mam. “Several people like us [Indian-origin French nationals] are trickling back to Pondicherry, and we realize that the cuisine we knew as ours, cooked in our homes, just isn’t around,” says Anita. “My mother and I are trying to change that.”
The Pathare Prabhus, also among Maharashtra’s native inhabitants, and a very small community totaling more than 55,000 worldwide, are waging a similar battle for culinary survival. “Unfortunately, there is very little about Pathare Prabhus, leave alone our cuisine, available in the public domain,” says Sunetra Vijaykar. Her mother-in-law, Dr. Padmaja Vijaykar, is the home chef spearheading the family-run pop-up to preserve the cuisine.
These initiatives keeping multiple culinary traditions alive also serve as a challenge to growing rhetoric from Hindu nationalists in India seeking bans and restrictions on what different communities eat — an approach rooted in efforts to forge a unified “Hindu” identity.
And these efforts are making an impact, suggests Colleen Taylor Sen, a Canadian-American author on Indian cuisine. “I’ve traveled to India for 40 years and never seen people, especially young people, more interested in expanding their [community’s] culinary horizons,” says Sen. “I hope this trend continues.”
The efforts are also helping to provide economic opportunities for homemakers, women who have traditionally been limited to their homes and remain underacknowledged for their culinary skills. “We work on a cost-margin model, but what’s more significant is providing homemakers with a platform to revive traditional methods of slow-cooking and recipes, and help them gain financial independence,” says Masalabox’s Thackeray.
For these initiatives to make profits won’t be easy, but for many, there’s more at stake than just the bottom line. “We aren’t profitable on a business front, but we do achieve profitability on the back of scale,” says Deshpande of Authenticook. “And that suits us just fine.”
- Tania Bhattacharya, OZY Author Contact Tania Bhattacharya