January is a month when harvest festivals are celebrated across India. Unsurprisingly, it is also a celebration of food, with fresh produce being an integral part of the cuisine. In Tamil Nadu, newly harvested sugarcane is chewed to mark sweet new beginnings during Pongal. Seasonal crops, from the farm to the table, determine what’s on the menu. However, increasingly, for many of our urban youth, the only familiar link is from the app to the table.
The benefits of food delivery apps cannot be overstated. It has offered solutions to multiple challenges. Lack of time to shop for groceries and staples, lack of inclination or the skill to cook, and doing the dishes have all been taken care of by the click of an icon. But the effect it has had on eating habits and schedules, health, and its role in rupturing traditions is another story.
Recently, when we went house hunting, I noticed something uniform in many of the newly constructed apartments. The kitchens were tiny, functional storage spaces. The real estate agent explained to us that many of the younger generation's double-income families preferred it that way. Access to food delivery services has simplified their lives.
The centrality of the kitchen in most homes may begin to diminish. The advantage of food apps is that women in the household need no longer be tethered to the stove. But the immersive alchemy of cooking in homes may become a thing of the past. The various stages of preparation, like the hissing stove, the softening of the raw to the edible, and the wafting of aromas, may be confined to cloud kitchens.
The major food experience that will survive is the burst of flavours as we spoon the dish. With home-cooked food, there may be days of over-salted or burnt food on the plate. We emerge none the worse for it. We learn to value the process, and leftovers are recycled. Now, even apps have learnt the trick. Pazhya sadam, or leftover rice soaked in water overnight, is available on one of the apps for a price.
Food is an intensely personal matter. Even people living together under the same roof have different preferences. Food delivery apps may customise a dish after they ask a dozen questions. But there are nuances of taste that they can never cater to. Further, the consumption of processed foods with artificial additives, which cause health issues, are on the rise, thanks to food delivery.
There are social media influencers who have gone vocal for local, vocal for seasonal. The year 2023 was marked as one of millets. Incentives for the production of millets have raised awareness about the health benefits and availability of these indigenous grains. There are also valid concerns that exotic food ingredients raise carbon footprints and distort the local supply chain.
The implications of the food we eat on health are well documented. India has the dubious distinction of being the diabetic capital of the world. Obesity, heart disease, and several other diseases are linked to the quality of the diet. The food delivery business has begun to embrace the need for healthier options, at an extra cost, of course.
But they need to move on from being mere convenience stores and keep the long-term interests of their customers in mind. I would like to imagine a chatbot telling a teenage customer ordering three extra-large cheese pizzas with extra cheese and three bottles of coke at midnight that it’s too much food for one person at that hour. And suggesting healthier options.
According to a recent report, food delivery has expanded its reach in semi-urban areas with almost two crore users. There is homogenisation and standardisation of their products. At this juncture, preserving the rich and varied culinary heritage assumes importance. There are, of course, food shows and dedicated channels. More recipe books and food histories are being written. Keeping food traditions intact help define communities and cement a national culinary identity.
The practice of annadhanam and offering cooked food as prasad in places of worship exemplify the belief that food is sacred. Food is meant to be shared. Mindful eating is given importance in various schools of yoga. Ultimately, we are what we eat. Food wastage is unethical. Food does not merely sustain and nourish us. It defines our most intimate connection with the planet.
Former bureaucrat and author most recently of The Spell of the Rain Tree