I think about food a lot. I don’t have a huge appetite, and I wish I could grow it so I could think about food even more. But I do spend a lot of time thinking about food anyway.
So you can imagine that out of the first 24 years of my life, which I spent in India, and the next — well, many years — that I have spent and am spending in the United States, a good part of that was spent thinking about food. The flavors; the ingredients; the cultural differences.
So my point is — there is not much I can claim expertise on, but this is probably it. It’s inconsequential, it’s fluff, but I’m an expert in it. How do eating styles differ between India and America? Sorry — I meant to say that in a more catchy way. The 15 Ways that Indians and Americans Eat Differently. Looky here, BuzzFeed!
1. Carnivorous v/s herbivorous:
This is no secret but Americans are more carnivorous than Indians. Way more. Way, way more. Ten times more, as a matter of fact, per person.
Clearly the fact that India is not as economically developed as the United States is big a factor, and all experts agree, meat consumption in India will go up with GDP. But not as much as you would naively expect. You see, there were these guys some time ago — you might have heard of them, or might not — by whose influence Indians gave up meat almost altogether. One’s name was Siddharth, he was a prince, but you might know him better by his other title: The Buddha. The other was an emperor. His name was Ashoka, but most people know him better by his symbol, the wheel in the middle of the Indian flag. And then there was another prince, Mahavir by title, who created the Jain religion, about the strictest in the world in its edicts to cause no harm to other creatures.
2. Sugar and spice:
Another non-secret is that Americans consume a lot more sugar than Indians.
A typical breakfast for an American might include pancakes, maple syrup, jam, or muffins. A typical breakfast for an Indian might include a number of different things depending on the region, but would include chutney or chilies. Indian desserts are very sweet indeed, but one has less of it, and not with every meal.
3. Industrial grease v/s elbow grease:
Good old fashioned American ingenuity extends to food: Americans eat way more processed food than most other countries. I had never heard of recipes that included Campbell’s chicken soup and Dorito chips as ingredients before I came to America. Factory-made cheeses in America must by law be called ‘cheese food‘ to distinguish them from the real thing.
4. Ingredient List Length:
In America a typical ingredient list is about four items long. This includes the main item — say fish. The four ingredients might be, fish, salt, pepper and olive oil. The typical Indian ingredient list for say, fish, to compare apples to apples, is about 15 items long. About half or more items might be spices.
5. Time Spent Cooking:
Because of the above, in America dinner is ‘prepared’ or ‘fixed’: doesn’t that give a sense of some pieces being put together? The fish is dressed simply and put under the broiler; meanwhile the bag of green beans is snipped at the corner and nuked; the dinner rolls are wrapped in a napkin and stuck in a still warm oven. Stuff is brought to the table. In India, food preparation starts in the kitchen at least an hour before the meal, possibly the night before, with the soaking of beans. I’ve often spent two hours before dinner chopping, sauteing, stirring.
Life is harder in India, but somehow we have more leisure time; a lot of that is spent in the kitchen over the minimal two-burner stove. In America, kitchens are palatial and magnificent and six-burner stoves are a maintstay of the foodie (we have a four burners ourselves), along with two ovens and a microwave, but we don’t seem to have much time to spend in food preparation. This is true especially for lunch, which in America always seems to be a quick meal. In India, there is hardly any distinction between lunch and dinner — both are equally elaborate.
6. Who does the cooking:
In India: mothers, grandmothers, the Brahmin family cook, or maids. In America: sometimes mothers and sometimes fathers. And sometimes no one.
This is a concept that I learned only after coming to America. People are such connoissuers of meat here, and meals are simple so that each ingredient matters more, so there is a lot of stress on when exactly food is considered ‘done’. Ten seconds too early, and it might be too rare and could kill you. Ten seconds too late, and the meal is rubber. Finicky, finicky. I never used the thermometer while cooking until I came to America.
In India, warmth is felt on the wrist; steaks are never eaten, so the question of rare or medium doesn’t arise; most other meat is prepared in the pressure cooker with spicy gravies around it; and it is ‘done’ when you hear two whistles. Possibly three, or four.
8. The Sandwich:
The American sandwich is the Incredible Hulk while the Indian sandwich is Tintin. It’s no wonder that sandwiches are a staple lunch food in America, while they are considered a snack in India.
9. The Salad:
This is another area where the typical American ingredient list is way longer than the Indian one. Americans have taken salad to a high art; can we say, also a high-calorie art? The variety in dressings alone is enormous. About fifteen types of premixed dressing are available on any typical grocery shelf; another fifty can be concocted at home. The variety in greens has exploded to include reds (radicchio) and bitters (endives). The American salad welcomes any type ingredient, be it chicken or bread or beans.
The Indian salad on the other hand may be a few leaves of lettuce or some sticks of cucumber. There you go, there’s your salad. If you get lime juice on it you’re lucky. Remember to spit out the stems!
10. Attitude towards chili heat:
Another quirk of Americans is to get into a bit of chest-thumping over being able to eat hot chilies. This may be a misconception on my part (I am a furriner after all) but it seems like in America the hotter the food you can stomach, the more macho you are. While in India I have seen old, frail grandmothers chomp on fresh green chilies straight with only raw onion as an occasional crutch. In my family it is the women who can eat hotter food (in fact, they need heat, without which they can taste nothing); and the men who shy away. Without feeling like their machismo has been questioned.
11. The Convenience Racket:
Have you ever opened a coconut to pry the flesh out? I had occasion to do this yesterday. This is not easy. Breaking it requires a hammer and a hard floor. While prying the flesh out I feared gouging my palm several times. When it splits, if you haven’t had the presence of mind to sip out the water, which by the way needs a screw-driver, you have a wet mess on your hands. Meanwhile, the counter is covered with brown coconut fibers, and the floor needs sweeping too.
Now think about how things would be different if the coconut was an American fruit. They would have engineered a shell that came with a zipper that neatly opened. The shell would be shiny smooth, there would certainly be no fibers — they would have been harvested for cattle feed already. The flesh would peel out in neat portion-sized strips by a mere touch of a finger.
Do you get my gist? Somehow Americans manage to genetically or otherwise engineer food to be incredibly convenient. Rough edges are smoothed out. Fruits like custard-apple (cherimoya) or pomegranate that serve a hefty dose of seeds with each bite don’t catch on.
Dirt — dirt is washed out at the farm. When we purchased lotus root at home, there was no mistaking the fact that someone had to wade into a muddy pond to get it. Garlic cloves were so small that you needed to peel about a hundred for a meal.
What is the problem with convenience, you ask? Nothing! If you had asked me yesterday, when I was struggling over my coconut, I would have said, I love it, bring on the magic zippered coconut! If you ask me on the days when I desperately miss the starchy, small-grained Indian corn that one roasts over coals to a char; or when I miss the crunch of seeds when I bite into watermelon: I say, perhaps we lose something in the Convenience Racket?
12. The Squeamishness Differential:
Americans are squeamish about fruits and vegetables they have never heard of; spices; textures of food. Pulpy — no good. Slimy — no good. Too mixed up together, ingredients not separate enough — no good.
Indians, on the other hand (including me), are squeamish about pungent cheeses, and meats that are prepared too plainly.
13. Health advice fads:
Food and health, of course, are intimately related; there have always been dozens of oughts and ought nots thrown around in any culture. Health advice also tends to run in fads. One year beans are a hit, another year they are the worst thing you can eat, filled with toxins. I tend to like Michael Pollan’s advice on this, to eat real food, mostly plants, and not too much.
But then the giant health food industry would grind to a halt, and we can’t have that, can we! In my years in America I have seen two sea-changes in health advice: from low-fat to low-carb; and innumerable other food-villains have been first villified and then, reluctantly, brought back to the plate. Eggs are one. Butter is another. I think gluten will return too, or perhaps that is my love for bread talking.
In America these health fads have proper names, and often have books, videos, or meal plans associated with them. I’m thinking Weight Watchers; Atkins; Paleo. I don’t doubt that each one is a profit-making machine in its own right.
India has its health advice fads too, but here is the difference — these fads are mostly hundreds of years old. They never seem to go away. One is the fad of ‘heating’ and ‘cooling’ foods from Ayurveda. This is almost like gender — each food is assigned to be either ‘heating’ or ‘cooling’ by the ancients. Too much of the heating type and you come out in pimples, sort of like a volcano, I guess? Too much of the cooling type and you might have aching bones. Forgive me, this gendering of food has no basis in science as far as I know, and is necessarily vague.
Another is to do with food combinations. One is never supposed to have milk with fish. Or water after eating cucumbers. My mother warned me that if I broke these rules I would get ‘vaaee’.
Hm. I have broken these rules a number of times now, so I guess I am now cursed with the mysterious ‘vaaee’…looking at my situation in life I take it that ‘vaaee’ gives you slowly graying hair and weight in unwanted places.
14. The Vegetarianism Differential:
Vegetarianism is relatively new in America; and tends to be chosen by people who care about health, animal welfare or the environment. More power to them, I say. The braver among them might choose to go vegan and avoid all animal products entirely (including leather).
In India though, vegetarianism is thousands of years old and is often demanded by religion, if not, by culture. Entire families and castes might never touch meat. But here’s the difference — no matter how ‘pure’ the vegetarian family is, veganism is pretty much unknown. In fact, cow slaughter is forbidden partly because we obtain milk from the cow and that makes it a somewhat maternal animal. The pure vegetarians, on the other hand, might avoid onions and garlic.
15. The Backlash!
Americans spent the fifties discovering processed food. Feminism swept over the land at the same time; none of it was inevitable, but the two movements colluded with each other to take people out of their kitchens into the aisles of corporations.
But now — now is a wonderful time to be a foodie in America. All those years of convenience and gradually deteriorating food quality have led to a backlash. America taught me to honor my ingredients like I never did before. There is a huge amount of respect for the craft of cooking as well.
I often get anxious about my home country’s trajectory in this arc. My peers are already cooking less than families did when I was a child. Options for eating out have exploded. Women are working out of the home in larger numbers, but men have not turned to the kitchen in equal numbers. Is the simple act of rolling a roti destined to become an exotic craft? I hope not. Time will tell.
This reflects my own experience and your mileage may vary. Please tell me in comments, agree or disagree! Did something strike a chord? Make you mad? Extrapolating from your own experience is always dangerous. But, extrapolate we must.