As we get ready for a lazy R-Day weekend, Sandip Roy pays a tongue-in-cheek tribute to our culinary culture—quirks, obsessions and fatal weaknesses included.
Editor’s note: We originally published this piece two years ago—but think it is just as fun today:) Happy Republic Day!
A nation united by food
There’s something reassuring about the “What India ordered” kind of reports that food delivery services like Swiggy and Zomato put out every year. In a country that often feels increasingly polarised, we seem to be heading towards some kind of food consensus.
All hail the biryani! If India is seen as a Republic of Food, biryani is its capital. According to Swiggy, in 2023, Indians ordered 2.5 biryanis per second. The big ‘B’ mania peaked during the India vs Pakistan World Cup match—when Swiggy clocked over 250 Biryani orders per minute. Biryani also topped Zomato’s list with orders (10.09 crore) in 2023 enough to fill eight Qutub Minars. Incidentally, it would be interesting to map the growing love for biryani with attitudes towards Muslims but that would just cook up trouble.
The bharatiya combo platter, BSG: The most ordered dessert in 2023 remained the humble gulab jamun. In fact, Swiggy says it outsold the usual suspect roshogollas during Durga Pujo—with over 7.7 million orders. The snack of the year as per Swiggy Instamart was makhna with about 1.3 million orders. The consensus seems pretty clear. India seems to be a biryani-samosa-gulab jamun country or BSG. Does that mean we have a National Food, a National Snack and a National Dessert? To be fair BSG is what India eats when India orders out. What India loves to eat at home might be different altogether—as khichdi lovers would protest.
Culinary cartography: Alternative approaches
The Swiggy-Zomato food map is just one way of looking at India. We could have different kinds of food maps of India as a Republic of Food that tell a more interesting story.
What India Drinks, for example
Or a somewhat controversial Street Food Atlas, perhaps?
Need more controversy? Why not Mangos of India?
Or the far more intriguing Bananas of India—including indigenous varieties you probably didn’t know about.
Interesting fact: We have more than 500 varieties of banana of which 32 are so rare that only a single plant or two has ever been discovered. Now, this is a Banana Republic worth preserving.
There could even be a Biryani Atlas of India—which better reflects its staggering diversity, and made invisible by the catchall ‘biryani’ category used by Swiggy/Zomato data-crunchers.
The lexicon of the Indian Republic of Food
To begin with, this Republic of Food ought to have a Constitution that guarantees our fundamental right to eat what we want—be it chilli beef, ant chutney, gulab jamun ki sabzi… or, god forbid, veg biryani. We could then spend less time fighting over whether India is a vegetarian nation, and focus on, umm, more meatier issues. Some examples:
The Curry Amendment Act (CAA): Has the term ‘Curry’ outlived its usefulness? Should it be junked like Article 377 as a British left-over? The cancel curry movement went viral thanks to food blogger Chaheti Bansal who fumed, “Food in India changes every 100 kilometres and yet we’re still using this umbrella term popularised by white people who couldn’t be bothered to learn the actual names of our dishes.” But then what do we do about our beloved Pandi curry? Or the humble Anda Curry? Fact is Indians also appreciate a catch-all (or is it jugaadi?) word that merrily absorbs any and all of our diverse flavours.
National Register of Cuisine (NRC): This could be a register of ‘subaltern’ liquors—chaang, mahua, feni, bangla, handia, toddy, tharra—the kind we ‘woke’ liberals can then affect an anti-elitist penchant for. Or perhaps we need a register of forgotten foods—of dishes we once ate but rarely do because it’s way too much trouble to make and isn’t available on Swiggy. Or it could be disappearing ingredients like elephant tusk okra or decalepis root.
We could even do an NPR—a National Portfolio of Rices. According to Edible Archives founder Anumitra Ghosh-Dastidar, “The whole dynamic about rice has changed because everybody aspires to Basmati.” Before the Green Revolution, there were 100,000 (!!) varieties of rice in India. Now the “optimistic figure” is less than 5,000. Worse, most of us eat perhaps five varieties of rice in a year… if we are lucky or adventurous.
Grandmother Service Tax (GST): This is what every Indian cookbook writer in India or abroad would have to pay each time they mention their grandmother as the fount of all those “heirloom family recipes.” In a fabulously scathing Guardian column, Sejal Sukhadwala declares the “pursuit of ‘authenticity’ through appeals to a mythic matriarch is simply done to death.” More wickedly, she observes:
“I’m keen to read mothers’ and grandmothers’ recipes if what they cooked was unique—such as making a curry from orange peel, or pickling an unfamiliar berry from Rajasthan. But if these canonised figures are only telling me about bhindi masala or chapati that millions of Indians eat every day, and for which recipes are already abundant, they’re not saying anything new.”
Maybe Sukhadwala will volunteer to head this GST collection drive.
Also this: A special tax on Jamie Oliver each time he offers to teach us how to cook butter chicken. We can call it post-colonial reparations.
Ghar Wapsi campaign: We urgently need a movement to save Indian food and ingredients—which have tragically been “discovered” by the West and deployed in the most shameful ways. It is time to bring them home to their rightful place of honour. Example: Unripe jackfruit—which allegedly was “an ugly smelly unfarmed unharvested pest plant”—and is now a “vegan sensation.” Someone should tell my grandmother who quite enjoyed her echorer dalna. While we are at it, can we rescue the chai tea latte as well? It has suffered long enough.
Pet Bachao, Pet Badhao: In her book ‘Whole Numbers’, Rukmini S says that while Indians have grown richer, they are not necessarily eating healthier. Sure, they may eat more fruits and veggies, but they also eat way more dairy, fat and sugar than recommended. What really soars with rising incomes is junk food. She writes that while 20% of rural Indians and 23% of urban Indians are undernourished, around 18% are at what the “government politely calls the ‘over-nourished’ end.”
Sab ka Saath, Sab ka Vikaas: Surely, Modi-ji must have been talking about the secret superpower of Indian restaurants: ‘multi-cuisine’! When a biryani restaurant also offers chilli chicken and bhelpuri, it is surely just doing its bit for national unity and diversity. Or is it international unity and diversity? I came across a place in Udaipur that boasted “Lebanese, Italian and dumpling.” In Jaisalmer, the Little Tibet restaurant offered “Authentic Tibetan, Chinese, Italian, Israeli, Indian & Mexican Food.” Or is multi-cuisine dining just diversity run amuck, a sort of culinary ‘sickularism’?
Climate change cookery: Why target ‘toolkits’ of activists like Disha Ravi, when we should be creating DIY food kits—that use traditional water-resilient crops like millets, bajra, jowar etc. A back-to-roots movement—with its own hashtag #MakeMilletsCool—to embrace our sanskriti that also offers a yummy solution to our growing weather woes. After all, our ground water is running out and we can’t just borewell our way to Acche Din anymore.
The ‘Anti Nationals’: Every Republic of Food needs its enemies. But we always seem to be chasing the wrong ones—like perfectly good Chinese restaurants who bear the brunt of our wrath at Beijing. How about we target the Chinese samosa, instead? Which self-respecting patriot thinks it’s a good idea to stuff noodles inside a samosa, creating a carb-on-carb monstrosity? Also, while there’s no need to demonise the good momos, we must weed out the ‘bad’ ones. Example: the Momo Burger, Momo Paratha, Momo Pizza—and the godforsaken Momo Chocolate.
And may I remind you that Maggi is the ultimate example of foreign infiltration. Maggi is originally from Switzerland and is owned by a fiendish multinational named Nestlé. It’s time to drive out all those Maggi paani puris, Maggi ladoos and Maggi dosas. Those truly sound like the devilish tactics of a culinary love jihad. Oh yes, we haven’t forgotten about you, Oreo Pakoda, Ferrero Rocher Manchurian and Fanta Omelette. We’re coming for you next.
Happy (Food) Republic Day everyone!