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We’re moving away from the idea of a multi-dish meal

One of the distinctive characteristics of Indian food has always been its balance.

When we eat dinner, we usually eat at least three different items: one or two sabzis, rotis or pooris of some kind, dal, dahi (or raita), salad or kachumber, rice (perhaps) and if we are non-vegetarian, then some kind of meat, fish or chicken.


In this respect, we are very different from the West. Though the typical Western meal is supposed to consist of a starter, main course and dessert; the main course itself is always a single dish and these days, the starter is being abandoned. The focus will usually be on the non-vegetarian main dish with perhaps one or two vegetables on the side. There are exceptions like Italy, where there should be a parade of dishes at each meal: antipasto, pasta, main course etc. But these days, even Italians are often content with a single course when they are at home.


   This distinction in how we eat has always played to our advantage. Many nutritionists will tell you that Westerners eat too much meat. In India, even non-vegetarians will not necessarily eat meat at every meal and many Indian non-vegetarians will have, at most, one meat dish at a meal. The dal, vegetables etc. will be accorded as much respect as the meat.


   In the West, there is now a campaign to get people to eat more vegetables. This is proving difficult because, once you take away pasta and pizza, there aren’t that many vegetarian options in most Western cuisines. In India, on the other hand, our vegetarian cuisine is even more sophisticated than our non-vegetarian cooking. And truth be told, most Indian non-vegetarians will not feel that they are being deprived if there is no meat in a meal. In the West, however, most people have to make a conscious attempt to go vegetarian and to cope with meat deprivation.


   I don’t want to get into the which-is-better-for-you debate about vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. But it is hard to deny that the Indian diet is far more balanced than the Western diet because we eat more vegetables and more grains and pseudo-grain flours (like besan).


   However, my sense is that all this may be changing, at least among the middle classes. We are moving away from the multi-item meals that have always characterised our diets and are leaning towards the Western style of single dish meals.


   I can think of some reasons for this.


   The first is lunch. The days when wives sent full tiffins of lunch to their husbands to eat at the office are not over but the practice is much less prevalent than it used to be. In many ways, I would argue, this is no bad thing. It is unfair to expect women to get up early in the morning, cook lunch for their husbands, send the kids off to school, and then leave for their own job.


"We are becoming much more like the West by concentrating on just one main course for dinner each day and on single items for lunch at the office and at schools."

   Regardless of whether you agree that we put too much domestic pressure on working women, there is no doubt that the lunch-from-home culture is tapering down. People eat at their desks or at canteens. Rarely do they order full meals. It is nearly always a single-item: a dosa, channa-bhatura, bread pakoras or a sandwich. Even lunch boxes packed for school-going children tend to contain sandwiches now. That is why there is such a huge boom in sandwich sauces and mayonnaise.


   If lunch is one reason, then the delivery boom—especially in pandemic times—is another cause of the slow death of the multi-dish meal. With both husband and wife working, it is tempting for families to order from outside and give themselves a break (and perhaps a treat for the children).


   But when they do order from outside, it is usually a single-dish meal. I was looking at Swiggy’s list of the most-ordered delivery items in 2021. In Delhi, the top five items included pizzas, burgers and masala dosas. In Mumbai, the list included pav bhaji, masala dosas and chicken fried rice (no, I don’t get that either but it turns up across cities—maybe there is a story in that). In Calcutta the list was led by chicken biryani and mutton biryani. Chicken biryani was the most ordered item in Hyderabad and Lucknow too.


   You can argue whether burgers and pizzas are healthy or not. But what is clear is that they tend to be single-dish dinners. Hardly anyone who orders a burger is going to make it part of a meal with dal, roti and sabzi. Same with biryani. It is a meal by itself.


   We still don’t have any reliable figures on how often people order in. But nobody doubts that the numbers are increasing. The delivery sector is booming because orders are going up.


   There is a third reason. People are cooking much more adventurously at home than they used to. They watch food TV shows or (more often) see their favourite chefs cooking on the internet. Tired of making the same old dals and sabzis, they experiment with these new dishes.


   If you have watched these shows (often with such celebrated TV chefs as Ranveer Brar and Kunal Kapur), then you will know that each dish they teach their viewers to make is unusual and exciting. It is often not typically Indian and rarely is it very traditional. When you make one of these dishes, you focus entirely on it. You don’t make it as part of a complete meal with two sabzis, one dal, fresh phulkas etc. Even if you make one or two other things, the meal revolves around that one dish.


   For all of these reasons, we are moving away from the idea of a multi-dish meal, let alone a whole thali. And we are becoming much more like the West by concentrating on just one main course for dinner each day and on single items for lunch at the office and at schools.


   Is this necessarily unhealthy? You could argue that it is. Most of the foods we order from delivery kitchens are not packed with vegetables. The only vegetable in many canteen meals is the potato in the masala dosa. Many delivery dinners like burgers, biryani, fried rice, sandwiches and pizza are carbohydrate-heavy in a way that a typical Indian meal was not, in the old days. In America, they blame their obesity epidemic on the carb explosion which has been encouraged by the food business. Could that happen here?


   Honestly: I don’t know. That’s a matter for the nutritionists to unravel. My point here is limited: we don’t realise it, but the way in which middle India consumes its meals is changing before our very eyes.




  • Latha Thiagarajan 26 Feb 2022

    you seemed to have miss the woods for the trees and evrything else ol'chap
    During the pandemic since there were fewer maids visiting and no one uses dishwasher we started making single pot dishes like biryani or khichdi. Also while ordering dishes too a consideration was to avoid having to use many more dishes to serve and eat outta
    I am guessing this might explain some of what is recorded but would reckon this makes a great part of it

Posted On: 12 Feb 2022 11:30 AM
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