Corona cooking has spun out a colossal new culinary dimension. Eativity. It involves the activity of eating almost all the time while thinking of food simultaneously.
With growing food literacy, greater leaning towards hedonic food shopping, binge eating, swelling appetites, unhealthy chomping, dependency on comfort foods, emotional gobbling and self-justification for shopping for ingredients during the cocooned months while the virus prowled out there (it still is) and unstructured days - the fixation with food has towered into a gargantuan inferno that threatens to swallow up Diet Nazis. Clearly, this is not just a health crisis.
Look closely. Food has emerged as the biggest turn-on for a growing number of people. Forget the vitamin cocktails of fruits, veggies, herbs and spices. Or the satisfaction of mocking meats, getting vegan substitutes yada yada. An increasing number of people are now fantasising about food all the time. From ordering laddered-up burgers and making dum pukht biryani at home to prepping ramen and bibimbap bowls in the kitchen to planning getaways exclusively to rustle up a barbeque.
Food cravings are a part of human nature - about 90 percent of us experience them, according to studies, anyway. But food fixation has emerged as a smothering overdose, with food porn ever cruising on telly, thanks to the melee of bigger, better, special offers on junk food by the kilotons; a thousand reruns of Masterchef episodes, cookoffs, foraging journeys and food commandos - both pro and amateur recipe developers - breathing instructions round the clock on social media, milking the palatable kingdom for all that is worth.
Food has increasingly gained the ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) dimension (with ingesting morsels no longer just a survival issue), emerging as the biggest emotional crutch - that silent undemanding spouse, a profound 'healer', a mouth and belly filler which emotionally satiates our little hearts on a larger scale.
Planning and enjoying a meal has become a raison d'être for existence itself. "I am for you, and you are for me - it was as if the food was singing to us, especially now," says Goa- and Mumbai-based psychologist Alaokika Motwane.
"Call it a changed equation. People instinctively turn to food for comfort. Even pre-pandemic, food was intrinsically cooked into our lives. Whether we were upset, happy, or wanted to celebrate - nothing else gave us that dopamine rush. With the past few years making us socialise in isolation, even visuals of food made us feel good, just like a warm hug. Dishes danced forward on the table, when we were stuck at home. If a glass of wine felt good, there was no one to stop you from having five more," she says
"Along with emotional comfort, food has brought in a coping mechanism, bereft of conflicts and arguments. Humans are wired to follow the path of least resistance, so we eat and eat and eat - stress-snacking. All of us know, nothing grows in the comfort zone," he says.
Except for our weight. Sounds familiar? It is common to see people fantasising about their next meal, even when they are munching - like a sensorial experience-in-anticipation that helps them raft through the day.
Aphrodisiacs have always thrived in figs, strawberries and oysters, but even desi cooking has become a turn-on. From selecting and ordering foodstuff online or fondling fruits and veggies for freshness while buying them, to washing and wrapping them up to stow away, the love tap has come on strong.
Dr Vipul Rustgi, consultant physician and diabetologist, Apollo Spectra, Delhi, points out, "Good food means a good mood for people. Why go far, to artichokes and asparagus? Even mushrooms, dark chocolate, quinoa, or leafy greens make you happy (and healthy), inducing the right emotions."
We're a foodie nation. Says Aparna Chandra, a homemaker in Delhi, "Even the prasad has turned into an addiction for me. I love the Shirdi, and the Tirupati laddoos and just can't stop eating them. It turned into a desperate bid recently with me cajoling friends and acquaintances for that special prasad. Believe me, it has nothing to do with devotion."
Add to that the additional stockpiling of foodstuff during the lockdowns.
Explains Mumbai-based consulting psychologist and psychotherapist Rupa Chaubal, "Traditionally, Indian food celebrates taste, aroma and its sheer richness, rather than being just eye-catching. With almost every second person experimenting with cooking nowadays, social media is abuzz with photos, videos and collages of tempting, mouthwatering and attractively presented colourful dishes. Social media use or even mindless scrolling can effortlessly bombard us with these images."
"Whatever you watch more will occupy your mind because our brain works on the principle of associationism. While you are watching the images or videos of food, your brain is simultaneously connecting with past pleasurable experiences of tasting that food item and the memories that follow. It is like being in your own mini theatre with full works on display in your brain. All senses get involved: touch, sight, sound, taste and smell. No wonder then that terms like ‘foodgasm’ have found their way into the vocabulary of netizens, because watching food is associated with pleasure. It becomes an addiction, occupying the mind and keeping it away from daily stress," he adds.
No matter how tired you are, if you are promised your favourite meal at the end of the day, you will be bubbling with excitement and will actually look forward to even hours of commuting to reach home.
"Basically, it repeatedly activates the reward circuit of the brain. This is the same circuit which gets activated in addictions. So, understand that when regular dinner needs a little spicing up, picking up some bhajiyas or your favourite pastry takes away the boredom. This sudden boost in dopamine can mean going from gloomy to happy in seconds, and who doesn't want that, especially during this time? When our mind and body are forced to cope on the basis of inadequate resources, the brain finds relief in familiarity and pleasure, and food perfectly fits this bill," says Chaubal.
For Megha Narula, a make-up artist in Mumbai, the desire to have fresh sugarcane juice once at 11:30 pm became a do-or-die situation. "The vendor we finally found whined that the machine was out of fuel and consequently non-operational. My second pregnancy food fetish was sky high and this made the neighbouring vegetable vendor remove petrol from his parked motorcycle to get the juice machine started and I finally got two glasses of sugarcane goodness. I feel embarrassed when I look back and think about it," she admits, having tipped the man handsomely for his largesse.
Narula is a self-confessed manic foodie. "Pitstops for loading food at the food courts in malls are a must when I arrive, and before I begin shopping. I’m dubbed the '80 percenter' at home - everything I cook gets reduced to a minuscule 20 per cent as I keep tasting what I am making. Last week, the chilli paneer too emerged in a small format when friends dropped by, and my husband was staring at my face at the table," she says.
Late-night binging on Netflix (and pigging out on hyper-palatable food like caramel popcorn and nachos), boredom, lack of work, relationships gone awry, stress, anxiety, pandemic-induced food insecurity… are busy making way for cravings and gluttony.
The combination kicks in with a decided vengeance due to many factors. Long gaps between meals, stress-induced consumption and even copious amounts of home cooking that escalate the volume of food consumption.
"I discovered my passion for baking over the past two years, and kept experimenting with macarons, banana loaves, toffee, and brownies. There is nothing to stop my son from freely accessing the Nutella or busily sampling the goodies as I set them on the table," confesses Gayatri Sharma, a home baker in Mumbai.
The work-from-home (WFH) life and an obsessive consumption of social media have further deepened the gluttonous bond with khana khazana.
Says Dr Chandni Tugnait, psychotherapist, life alchemist, coach and healer, and the founder and director of Gateway of Healing, in Delhi, "With WFH, there has been more intentional eating time with family. Understand that hunger is a fundamental human motivation. However, most people who fantasise about food are those who use food as a joy generator. Each time they fantasise about specific foods, the brain begins to release dopamine that gives them a high-more than the reality of eating."
"This calms the nerves and in the waning pandemic era, it is a welcoming space to be in. Also, people who eat fast or eat while multitasking end up eating more or lusting more after food because they miss engaging all of their senses while eating. Hence the craving for different kinds of foods continues for them," she says.
THE REAL LIFE
Social media has created its own delicious triggers that go beyond the visual consumption of mouthwatering images. This digital grazing has further made way for vicarious gluttony. So, has getting creative with food become equivalent to some sort of therapy during these times like a meaning-making activity?
"While WFH has saved us travel time, we have also found time to experiment with a new hobby. Eating is what we do three-four times a day and with encouragement from friends and family on social media, most have turned to cooking," she says.
"With constant demand to make daily food interesting, this hobby fits into the routine without disturbing the schedule. If you find this a rewarding hobby, it gives the much-needed relief to your partner too in terms of escaping the cooking. Add to this, the association of food with socialisation which we missed dearly during the pandemic, a combination that most definitely leads to the ‘feel-good’ factor. It is also a group conformity exercise," she says.
"If I do what my peers are doing, I feel accepted and approved of, socially. I am able to achieve the same sense of belongingness that physical social interaction offers when I cook new dishes and post photos of them on my social media," explains Chaubal.
"Since WFH also resulted in longer working hours, and food was literally the only leisure that was affordable, indulging in greasy, cheesy or spicy hot eats felt like heaven. As restaurants were closed for a year, and there was no option to satisfy these cravings except cooking the dishes at home."
Natch, this gave a boost to creative culinary competition on social media. Of course, there are those picky eaters who have reoriented their lives by taking to clean eating, veganism, plant-dominant diets and measured consumption.
Then there are those who are allergic to cooking per se, and simply eat to live. But for the majority, the tentacles of social media run deep. Tugnait recounts the example of a corporate professional who was usually a mindful eater, but took to midnight snacking with gusto over the past year.
She has to be weaned off the habit through a self-alignment of energy, mindset and action with respect to food. Dr Khushboo Thakker Garodia, homoeopath, trichologist, nutrition and stress management expert in Mumbai, shares two case histories.
"When I asked one of my patients why she thought of food all the time, she responded that it was the only thing in her control right now, with the rest of her entire life uncertain. She wasn't sure of job security or when her marriage would eventually happen (after two postponed dates). She said all that mattered was that she knew what she wanted to eat in her next meal," she says.
"Another 48-year-old banker felt lost during the lockdowns and the extreme anxiety made her hands tremble. While talking about her dreams and passion she shared her love for watching 'good looking' food posts on Instagram and wondered how people did that. That is when we came up with an idea for her to cook for herself and recreate these drool-worthy pictures with her home food. In two weeks, her body language had changed and she looked forward to recreating beautiful, healthy meals. In this case, giving her all to food helped her heal physically and emotionally as she shed weight and looked fitter, stronger at the end of three months," she adds.
Cupping the flow, eating with the mind and eyes precedes the actual devouring of the food, round the clock. With the obesity crisis and threadbare relationships looming larger than ever, we desperately need to get our daily fix in control and get a timely grip on our emotions.
"Keep a realistic check in mind. Very often, mindless, fixated consumption of food is related to innate depression. Recognising and treating the cause becomes vital in this case," cautions Dr Lalit Kapoor, a senior consultant surgeon in Mumbai.
We were hunter-gatherers earlier and have now grown into food ogres and super-consumers, gorging all the time. Sure, food has been bringing people and cultures together for ages, playing the common knit. But we need to begin by training our brains.
"The culprit is not food. It is an imbalanced life. We go to dieticians, fixing food but the problem is our lifestyle. That is why the success rate is marginal in diets. Figure out your life first, food will fit into it on its own. Eat what is required of you instead of giving in to emotion-driven sprees. Once we balance our lifestyle - with optimum sleep, sun, social interactions - our food will instantly become a by-product," sums up Motwane.
CHEW ON THIS
Cue into ways to crop the calorie intake
Keep evidence of what you have eaten in front of you, to avoid stuffing your face
Cue into ways to crop the calorie intake
Stick to small portions in beverages and foodstuff. Small plates work great
Take a quick walk for two minutes and engross yourself in an activity when you feel snacky
Keep seeds and nuts handy when the urge to nibble strikes
Associate with healthy dining buddies as much as you can
Choose sensory-specific satiety: avoid various dishes in one meal
SKIP THE GLUTTONY GLUT
Order a la carte and skip the buffet
Make reaching out for food a bit labour-intensive, and inconvenient for yourself
Eat a carb-rich snack before you head out for the evening
Avoid shopping inanely on discounted foodstuff, economy packs. Don't stock up on foods.
Give away or gift off away calorie-dense items as soon as you receive them