Food Food Story


Photo by Skitterphoto on

I was in fifth grade. I understood the difference between being on the popular side and on the less popular side. I would sit with my sister’s friends during the lunch break because I was more comfortable there. Accidentally, I became popular. We had rigid social cliques, I grant you that, so my friends quickly got jealous or upset. The rules of the culinary world are not any different. If something becomes mainstream, it straightforwardly receives a mixed reaction in our country. But if something is native, it cannot make a sound.

To the naked eye, it looks like some dishes have gained more visibility in mainstream food culture. The onion-tomato sauce has been the cult-favourite of the Indian masses in the modern culinary climate. But, today, it is finally being acknowledged that the ingredients used to make these world-famous and fingerlicking curries are not actually native to India. They have increased in popularity as migration increased.

From north to south – and east to west – flavours and cultures combine through indigenous and foreign influences. Deliciousness is a major priority in demand so everything served is uber tasty. But in our food culture, the popular ingredients do not trace back to our local produce.

One major event has happened. We are blushingly insecure about our regional dishes so we brush any conversation surrounding them under the carpet. In the same measure, we have somehow absorbed ourselves quite mindlessly in meeting the demands of the new food culture. More and more people have taken the known and the popular flavours such as murgh makhani, butter naan, shahi paneer and biryani to bring it on people’s plates outside to satiate their taste buds.

Why aren’t we taking away things that can be at par with porridge and smoothie bowls? We do have our own versions that will survive competition.

Let’s take an example.

Upma is a dish that is native to the southern part of India because the recipe has existed in India for many years. Traditionally, it was made with rice which is believed to have originated in India 35 million years back.

It is a kind of semolina-based porridge: a classic idea of breakfast. Upma has definitely given locals a run for their money in India. The savory dish has been relegated to the cult status by office-goers using the readymade semolina-based porridge mix. Hence the name: tiffin box staple.

I know as a matter of fact that most of the people who settle down outside and start an Indian restaurant miss authentic Indian food. But they have bowed down to the pressures of acclimatising so don’t understand the point of bringing it back. Instead, pulling an Aman from the film kal ho naa ho seems like a vital option to save an Indian restaurant from fading out in New York due to the burden of debt. Aman did what any amateur millennial restaurant consultant would: introduce dal makhani, butter chicken and butter naan.

On foreign turf, upma is less popular because Indian restaurants have not introduced it in their menus. During my four year stint in Edinburgh, I did not see it anywhere except on the shelves of South Asian supermarkets. It has been sidelined in popular Indian food culture. Hence, it barely has visibility among other tiffin ideas that include porridge, coffee, sandwiches and fruit. In fact, dadi from the same bollywood hit film keeps saying that she misses authentic Indian food but all she is familiar with is aloo ke paranthe.

The conventional understanding of upma is that it is made with semolina. But many of the regions in the south have actually professed that the traditional upma is made using coarse rice flour. It can be served for breakfast lunch and dinner.

Arisi upma in Tamil Nadu and akki tari uppittu in southern Karnataka, this traditional upma version is made with raw rice and is quite different from the more popular semolina version both in terms of flavour and texture.

Photo by SouthIndian Veg Recipes on YouTube

It can be hard to recognise these dishes in the food scene. Even if they are present, on doing a taste test, the expectations are failed.

Unfortunately, the only time that I tasted something so delectable that I daydreamed of it was during my primary school years when a man stationed himself on our school grounds during the lunch break. He rode with a large steel pot on his bicycle everyday, took out a large ladle from his bag and dipped it in a mustard-coloured curry which we call sambhar. While I have had many, many versions of sambhar since then, his food has its own place. Even the serving style, wherein he poured the sambhar in a leaf bowl, made its mark. I am sure that inspite of his meals being so popular, they stayed true to its native element.

I don’t say that native cuisine is dead. It can give stiff competition to dishes which have been etched in our memory through witnessing it in our mainstream food culture. So at least try to share the authentic taste of regional flavours instead of accepting defeat.

Currently a food and travel writer, Aishwarya Khanna is also a graduate from The University of Edinburgh.