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

Hindustan Times (Jalandhar) - - HTWORLD - Paramita Ghosh n let­ters@hin­dus­tan­

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.


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

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