Consider yourself an affluent citizen or a British official in the India of the Raj. Over tea, you could be holding Chinese porcelain, sipping tea grown in Ceylon with sugar imported from Jamaica. Dinner, in the same vein, could range from a large turkey or pigeon pies to sirloin, offals, curries and a raft of hybrid dishes. The bewitching array of food that the colonists consumed in the subcontinent is well documented, including in the first Controller of Broadcasting for All India Radio Lionel Fielden’s lament that “the dinner was always thin soup, wet fish, tasteless beef and caramel custard.” Even Fielden’s wail has ‘luxury’ undertones in the India of today. Dictated by the choice of the Empire, while an eclectic Anglo-Indian cuisine cropped up, retail ensured imported foodstuff were in surfeit, and commonly available. Today, our kiranas most certainly don’t echo that past—neither do our organised retail players, barring perhaps a couple or so—despite rapidly globalising tastes and multinationals with strong local presence.
Since the country broke with the Empire and charted out its own course in 1947, there has been a certain aversion to import of high-value food items. Instead, food commodity remains the king among imported eats—a la dates and onions from neighbours and West Asian nations. Though Indian FMCG concerns have been running a ‘buy Indian’ campaign, ‘green’ curry from their shelves comes nowhere close to the genuine Thai version, made with imported ingredients. Beef in India has indeed become a four-letter-word—so forget Wagyu imports, or even trying to rear prized beef varieties. As global meats and condiments, poultry and fish, sauces and desserts fall off the table, Indians celebrate a staggered ‘unity in diversity’, with restricted offerings from the lie of the land. Meanwhile, from Seattle to Sydney, gourmands raise a glass of South Australian Grenache before tucking into a salad of fresh Vietnamese prawns and Peruvian asparagus. It is a pity that when it comes to palate, we are yet to savour our way out of being a dal country.