Cooking up a storm in the lockdown
With more than a billion shuttered indoors and supply chains badly hit, social media and family groups were flooded with people showcasing their culinary skills, and not just casually
In the early days of the first lockdown, DK Ghosh was a man looking for chicken as if he were an Argonaut in search of the Golden Fleece. Ghosh, a retired professional in Delhi, had been told by his butcher that he could get no meat. So, he walked 3 km towards a coldmeat store he occasionally ordered from but which had stopped home delivery, and returned with a 2kg-bird chopped into curry cuts. On the way back home, he called his friends, and sent them in the same direction. He also stocked up on rice and potatoes, cheese and cream and tinned products for days when his wife would cook fancy; he confirmed at the colony gate that his regular vegetable and fruit vendors would be allowed entry, and then climbed up the stairs to barricade himself. His wife, he found, was re-opening her dormant Instagram handle, with the photo of a sorry looking cauliflower roast. She would get better at it.
Roast red pepper hummus streaked with olive oil. Lemon chicken. Chicken with 40 cloves of garlic. Gourd with prawns. Mango flan. Honey-coated ribs. Pulao and paella were uploaded in the days that followed. Her cousins were already on Instagram, and constantly ‘on’.
During the lockdown, Instagram became an online derby. Men and women were pickling, plating, baking, flipping, slicing eatables with the same flourish with which, at fairs, farmers present prize animals. Nikita Varma, who runs the popular iamdatingfood Instagram handle and vlogs on YouTube, said, “People are joining Instagram to put up pictures of food in hundreds every hour. I put up a video on making rosogolla but was unsure about the response. Soon enough, I got people posting me back pictures of their versions.” Social media is where people are talking proteins, carbs, community, family, family traditions, all day long.
THEIR BREAD, OUR BREAD
With more than a billion shuttered indoors or separated from their families, social media and family WhatsApp groups were flooded with people learning how to cook, and not just casually. The accidental chef was here to stay. Dr Manish Bansal of Mumbai found his calling in bread, a food item that has been accessible to middle and upper middle-class Indians all through the lockdown in its many varieties. Bread was had at breakfast, lunch or dinner. Getting dry yeast, a key ingredient, was, however, at times, a problem, says another bread enthusiast, Manuja Shroff, an entrepreneur who is a restaurant expert on Tripadvisor.
Dr Bansal eats bread, he makes bread. “Baking bread involves organising everything from your ingredients to forward-thinking your way through the stages of the recipe. It also takes patience. You have to wait for the dough to rise,” he said. “This virus is a conspiracy to make men learn to cook. The lockdown has been an awakening of sorts for me.”
Rice and grain, however, pushed India’s poor, in the same period, into despair. Rajesh Shah, a vegetable vendor, who services a south Delhi locality, had to buy a 25-kg bag of flour for R1,000 at the Tughlaqabad wholesale market, i.e., R200 more than the pre lockdown price. Seema Devi, who works as a help in four houses in Delhi, almost got on the bus for Patna on being paid token money during the lockdown as she did not have enough to feed her family. During the lockdown, she was not able to afford chicken or fish. So, easy access to, and excess of, protein on one end of the spectrum versus none on the other end, was a snapshot of how India ate over the past three months.
A meal-time short-cut was the appearance of one-pot dishes and the imaginative recycling of leftovers as most Indians were working out of home, but also having to do the housework in the absence of domestic help. Sona Mazumdar, chief partnership officer at an entertainment company, said she was “very charged up” for at least the first 60 days. “But when that enthusiasm petered out, I opted for easy fixes like a Chinese chicken gravy made earlier put on top of rice, or pita bread bought from the market which I then stuffed with chickpeas and a grilled beetroot salad.” Shroff said there were days when the market didn’t have what she wanted, or what they have is not of the best quality so she has made do with what is available.“It is OK if I don’t have shaven parmesan on my Ceasar Salad or my pizza doesn’t have basil leaves. The family eats it.”
One of the many lockdown habits householders said they picked up was stocking up by default. If they go to the market to buy three things, they now look around and buy three more. “We are eating more than usual, because our daily schedules have gone haywire. Food is a way to keep down anxiety,” says Ravi Kumar, a sociologist in Delhi. The Kumars, a family of four, do a mix of comfort and experimental cooking. This, he says, is ‘crisis food’. The entire production of putting it together is a fragile experiment, a seeking out of the familiar “when life, as you know it, is in crisis or the changes that are happening around you, are either too fast or too slow”.
In the first phase of the lockdown, food supply was hit in almost all neigbourhoods. E-commerce did not kick in. “Amazon, Modern Bazaar kept the cart page alive but after one filled the cart and went to the payment page, they said they were unable to deliver. The local grocers functioned best,” said Kumar.
Writer Sheeba Aslam Fehmi said, “The delivery boys were apprehensive about catering to Old Delhi areas due to the often false red-flagging by the TV media. We also started to hesitate to order fearing exposure to the virus. Therefore, our order frequency came down quite a bit.”
There are mixed reports. Samantha Dutta, head, sales and marketing with a leading frozen food company, relied on Spencer’s online grocery shopping app, Mother Dairy outlets and the roaming vegetable carts. Cultural historian Sohail Hashmi, a resident of Kishengarh village, Delhi, said the lockdown turned many of the unorganised labourers jobless so they turned vegetable vendors. The Result: neighbourhoods such as his, which border tony localities like Vasant Kunj, were never short of supplies. This was unlike the situation faced by his own domestic helps, many of them still without basics such as ration cards.
Sona Mazumdar of Gurugram, said the lockdown made her look for multiple options and not stick to the big ecommerce websites and apps. “I started using a new app, Otipy. It delivered fruits and veggies straight from the farms. I used Jalongi for fish. For my groceries and non-veg items, Swiggy was my saviour throughout. In mid-May, Amazon Pantry and Big Basket opened up and I began to order again from them.”
Restaurant owners were an endangered species now. Fehmi, who runs Delhi’s Walled City restaurant, was caught unawares when the lockdown started. “We had a full inventory running and we had to shut it down. The dry groceries were given away to the staff and locals.” The restaurant scenario will become less bleak but not “for the next six months at least for the dining-in arrangement,” she said.
“We have to ensure the health of our guests, which is not possible till the pandemic is not declared over. As far as the takeaway services are concerned, the major clientele was that of students and young mid-segment professionals, who are leaving the metros due to the general closure of institutions and businesses. The staff, too, has left for their home towns”.
Sameer Seth, co-owner of Mumbai’s Bombay Canteen, is not ready to give up. If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain seems to be the policy. “Our restaurants may be closed but our kitchens are open,” he says. The Canteen has branched out into “any time of the day” home-delivery-to-the-doorstep services with half-plate options as well. DIY meals may be the future of the dining industry with restaurants looking for different ways to stay engaged with customers. The Canteen, for example, is getting chefs to hold paid classes via Zoom and sending the ingredients to guests who sign-up; on Instagam they hold ‘knowledge sessions’ that are free. But the situation is still not free of danger. Aekta Kapoor, a magazine editor in Delhi, said from now on, she would “order infrequently and prefer to give businesses to home chefs instead of restaurants. After March 24, June 4 was the only time I ordered in.” Ranjini Chatterjee, a graphic designer who runs a handicrafts business in Kolkata, summed up the collective holding in of breath when anyone, anywhere, orders in these days. “Now if I get a pizza or a burger pang, I sheepishly order and hope for the best.”
Bread was that rare food item that was widely accessible to middle and upper middle-class Indians all through the lockdown in its many varieties.
Chicken roast during lockdown days in April