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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Dishing it out

How our relationship with food has changed over the last decade or so

Remember a time when food was just food? When it was something that you ate without thinking too much about it. When the highlight of your weekend was your mom's rajma-chawal (or fish fry or chicken biryani or whatever your comfort food was, growing up). When going out for a meal was something you did only on special occasions, like a birthday or an anniversary. When the only item of food that ever got photographed was your birthday cake -- and that, only because you were in the process of cutting it.

Well, if you are above the age of 30, you probably do. That was probably the last generation to come of age in an environment where food was just food. There was no obsessing about the calorific count of various dishes. There was no concern about the harm that sugar/carbohydrates/fat were doing to your health. Food wasn't something that you obsessed about; it wasn't something to fetishize on TV shows. Cooking was seen as mere drudgery; there was nothing glamorous about whipping up a three-course meal for your friends. And if you eschewed entire food groups on the grounds that they weren't good for you, your mom was more likely to give you an enema than cook a special meal for you.

But, as you may have noticed, things have changed since those innocent days when we mainlined maida (and snorted up industrial quantities of sugar) through the day without giving it another thought. Now, we are all mindful of what we eat. Wholewheat bread rather than white. Free-range eggs, not those produced by battery chickens. Olive oil rather than butter and cream. Lots of vegetables. White meat not red. Steaming rather than frying. And so on and on and on.

We all have a 'food theory' or a fad diet that we subscribe to. Some of us believe in 'clean eating', which translates into lots of fruit and vegetables with minimal cooking involved. Some follow the Paleo diet, eating food that only the Paleolithic man ate. Some still swear by the tried-and-debunked Atkins diet (lots of red meat, cream, cheese, butter, with a side order of cardiac arrest). Some don't let a morsel pass their lips after 7.30 pm in the belief that this will make them thin.

And then, there are those fancy themselves as 'foodies', with an abiding interest in different cuisines and the desire to gorge on them all. They are the ones trying to recreate that dish they saw on Masterchef in their kitchens. They are the ones most likely to whip up a 'mean Thai red curry' or bake a 'flakier than flaky croissant'. They are the ones who plan their holidays around the restaurants they want to eat in. Call them gourmands or gourmets, it matters little. It is food that drives them all.

Food allergies have had their day. Now we justify our exclusionist diets by evoking those two words that strike terror in every hostess' heart: food intolerance. So you have your regular lactose-intolerant folk, who won't have anything made from milk (except dahi, it has something to do with lactic acid apparently; but don't ask me more because the explanation was so boring that I fell asleep halfway through.) And then there are the newly-minted gluten intolerant folk (no, they haven't had tests, silly; they just understand their own bodies so well.) But the truly annoying ones are those who claim to be 'vegan' because it sounds so much more exotic, when they are, in fact, just plain 'vegetarian'.

How we eat has become a status symbol. If you eat parathas and dahi for breakfast you are a bit desi. The truly sophisticated would have rye bread and free range egg white omelette. Rotis or dal chawal for dinner? How very infra dig! You should really be having some grilled fish or chicken with a green salad on the side.

As for how we cook -- well, we cook mostly to show off. The potluck dinner is a thing of the past. Now, the way to impress your friends -- or even your boss -- is to create a restaurant-quality meal in your own kitchen (the more 'exotic' the cuisine, the more the bonus marks). If it's Italian, then an easy-peasy pasta or risotto won't do; you need to put at least an ossobuco on the table. If it's Thai, then a simple curry doesn't cut it; an omelette stuffed with crab would be a better indicator of your skill. If it's 'Continental', then you need to pull out all the stops: savory soufflé, lamb done pink and a chocolate fondant to end. And if it's Indian...well, really, why even bother?

And remember how the food looks is as important as how it tastes. Because, you know, Instagram. And Facebook. And Twitter. That's where all those dishes are destined to live on forever, scooping up likes and compliments, long after the meal is long over.

Because food is no longer simply food, to be wolfed down as soon as it makes an appearance on the table and forgotten soon after. Now, every meal is something to be mulled over, every dish a photo-opportunity, and every ingredient a statement.

So, bon appetit to all you 'foodies'. As for me, since you ask, I'm sticking to my rajma-chawal!

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