A few nights ago, I had a rather Haruki Murakami-esque dream about dancing prawns. It was the result of me stalking a meat-and-fish delivery app for prawns a few days earlier.
As India extends its lockdown due to the novel coronavirus, what is ‘essential’ food and what is not has been turned on its head. It has thrown at us choices and restrictions that we have never faced before. It has changed what we eat and how we eat — just like every other pandemic, natural disaster, war and disease before it.
The coronavirus lockdown in India has proved one more thing — you are truly what you eat. Are you sleeping hungry tonight, or did you make do with the stale bread in your fridge, or are you surviving on langar, or did you rustle up a quick pasta, or is mom still cooking for you?
Food has always been a reflection of the times we live in. Famines in Bengal let to extremely thrifty cooking — even the peels of vegetables became a deliciously fried side-dish. While the Cambodians ate rice and water or starved under his rule, Pol Pot enjoyed venison, brandy and cobra stew. The French wine industry boomed because alcohol was needed in the World War trenches. Climate change experts are warning against eating too much meat, because raising cattle leads to more carbon dioxide emission.
The first few days of the lockdown were about discipline — for those of us lucky to have a roof over our heads and not forced to walk a million miles home. It was about timely meals, work and regiment. Then, just like it always happens with regiments, there was rebellion. Cream crackers became breakfasts and Dairy Milks became dinners. And a dash of nihilism and sprinkle of apocalyptic fear soon seeped in. ‘Life is short, have the dessert first’ became the gospel truth.
A friend of mine ate ice cream for every meal, another ran out of bhujia and dry roasted crushed Maggi as a replacement. And yet another has taken to cooking at 4 am for those restaurant cravings. (Reminds me of dictator Saddam Hussein who woke up his cooks at 5 am to grill fish he caught because he loved fresh fish).
The tendency to peck and snack are at an all-time high — because hey, we are at home and who knows what will happen after the pandemic. We are told over and over again that millennials are nihilists. Why wouldn’t we be? We were handed a wrecked planet, emotional problems, broken institutions, and told to do better. If anything, the coronavirus pandemic has extended our limbo. It has become cool to boast about cooking one trending dish (stop making banana bread), and leave the rest of the day to mercy. Coronavirus hasn’t been the best friend of routine and responsibility. There are hundreds of articles already on stress eating, emotional eating and anxious eating during the lockdowns.
So, while older Indians immediately abandoned Chinese restaurants as news regarding Wuhan broke out, we still dream about dumplings and greasy take outs.
For many other Indians, food was a luxury in lockdown.
Post the pandemic
I have often wondered, what food, cooking and eating will be like when the coronavirus crisis is over. And if we are going to face more and more such outbreaks, will it forever change how we interact with food? The world opening up again after the pandemic recedes will surely flatten the junk food and constant-eating-at-home curve.
It can change what we buy: We will perhaps take to more canned, packed and sealed goods rather than buying open produce. More dals, soya bean chunks, besan, meat pickles, dried fruits, etc. We will also perhaps be consciously buying storable goods — foods that have longer shelf lives (because you can only panic buy if the shop has things to sell). The fear of contagion will surely make us act different in packed markets. And the fear of pandemics will make us hoard food.
It can change the restaurant scene: The food services sector in India employs more than 700,000 people and is estimated to be valued at over Rs 4 lakh crore. But it has already been hit massively by the lockdown. There will be fewer restaurant visits for a while or pop-ups — the distrust with food has already hit India hard and restaurants are struggling to stay afloat and open. The demand for food deliveries will increase because staying in with a trusted few seems far safer than that roadside dhaba with kebabs and parathas. Eat clean, not cheap is a mantra many are already espousing.
The meat question: The first lesson Indians drew out of the coronavirus crisis was that vegetarian was the way to go. Of course, they were wrong. Many Indians tend to see vegetarianism as a virtue rather than a choice. (Hitler was mostly a vegetarian, FYI). Worldwide, Covid-19 cases have crossed the 2 million mark, surely not all of them were vegetarians. The novel coronavirus could make the species jump from animal to human because of unhygienic conditions, dirty markets and rampant illegal wildlife trade. Not because your neighbour likes mutton on Sundays. A chicken shop owner in Pune, whose business has suffered due to the coronavirus, in fact, said he would pay Rs 5 crore to anyone who proved poultry caused the viral infection.
Ghar ka khaana: ‘Eat at home’ has been marketed to Indian children as a basic commandment ever since the Indian economy opened up and there was a boom in the food sector. McDonald’s, KFC, and Domino’s Pizza became the meals of choice, and home food a daily bargain. Now, with most at home quarantined or in isolation, home-cooked meals are seeing light of day. And who doesn’t know of the poor plight of the Domino’s delivery man contracting coronavirus. That tale has become ammunition for moms. Most young people of my age are googling recipes that we had for so long considered banal and boring. New skills are being picked up. Pani puri is being made at home. This is a pattern, I think, that will continue in the post-pandemic world. Eating in (with friends I hope) may become the new eating-out. Even Zomato is encouraging it.
And as you lounge on a sofa, chair or the bed reading this, be aware of the Marie Antoinette inside of you — letting them eat cake.
Views are personal.