Though Chitra looked forward to festival time, with its markers of new clothes, firecrackers, visitors and food, as a working woman, she was also stressed by the idea of making the special festival food for her family of four. Her regular office job left her no time to spare for making the laddoos, karanjis, chakli, puran polis, chivda and so on that custom demanded she make, and that her family looked forward to so much. To make all the delicacies, Chitra had to necessarily take time off from work, something she was loath to do.
Her quest began a few weekends before the actual festival as she set out to scour the markets for all the ingredients she required to make the goodies. Lack of practice brought its own set of problems as Chitra laboured through all the recipes, the annual rendering making them inaccurate and difficult to execute. Also, with the new awakening about fitness, there was an imperative to consume less of the fried, sweet snacks. But that’s never an option when cooking at home.
One inevitably ends up making large quantities that eventually struggle to not end up in the garbage can. Add to this the dilemma of handling the left over ingredients, special foods like kopra (dried coconut) which are otherwise seldom used in the kitchen, but which aren’t available in the modest quantity that Chitra actually needed, and the list of wasted food became quite long. It was also a task from which there was no escape until very recently. Traditional sweet shops do not carry specialty delicacies. Most professional vendors require bulk orders and cater only to parties. So these two sources of ready-to-eat snacks were ruled out. Then, two years ago, she discovered Narmadaben.
A fifty something woman, Narmadaben lives in a chawl five minutes away from Chitra’s apartment complex. She lost her husband a few years ago, and in order to make ends meet, hit upon the idea of using her cooking skills to her monetary advantage. She had met a few women like Chitra who exhorted her to help them out in the kitchen, and at their request started preparing food for the various festivals through the year.
Narmadaben was happy with the idea. Whether it is Diwali or Holi, Navratri or Janmashtami, there is always something special that is cooked. Having done this all her life, the older woman had no difficulty in switching to a more commercial mode of production while retaining the traditional taste and flavor. Her ‘customers’ were happy. For a price almost equal to what they would have paid had they bought all the ingredients separately, they were getting food that would have taken them hours to cook with the added bonus of being true to the original taste. For Narmadaben, it was not so much a job as a labour of love. She got to do what she was good at and got paid for it.
Chitra enjoyed interacting with Narmadaben. On the eve of Diwali, she went across to ‘Narmada Auntie’s’ house where two more women were working in the spotlessly clean kitchen under the head chef’s able guidance. Her host-cum-supplier offered her a cup of tea, and with it some namkeen. The latter proved delicious, and without hesitation, Chitra had her pack half a kilo of this along with the rest of the items. Narmadaben, a chatty person, told Chitra many details about the upcoming festival that the latter had been unaware of, having lived in a nuclear family for more than a dozen years now. Chitra could not help but say, “Thank you, Auntie” as she left with her parcels.
As urban women in India enter the workforce in larger numbers, and migrate to nuclear families, away from the guidance of mothers and grandmothers, their affinity to their culture is also slowly dissipating. The number of women who retain a significant connect with their heritage and traditions is gradually declining. Urban kitchens are also changing, with women seeking convenience and tastes that are more suited to modern lifestyles and palates. They seek conventionality too, but in a form that is more synchronized with modernity. Less and less women want these traditions residing in their kitchens, everyday. Instead they prefer the occasional visit!
Into this void has walked in a network of ‘aunties’, women who continue to be connected to their roots in simple, homely ways, can prepare ‘grandma’s own recipe’ for a variety of cooked food, and are willing to exploit this knowhow to earn a living. And not just at festival time. Most regular household snacks come from the ‘auntie’ network. The more organized women are regular suppliers to the friendly neighborhood stores, while the smaller enterprises supply out of their residences. Indeed full hot meals can be obtained from the ‘poli-bhaji’ (chapatti-curry) kendras, small outlets selling cooked food, that are peppered all over the suburbs in Mumbai, and that are popping up with increased frequency across the country.
As women in the West became busy and prosperous, they adopted ready to eat, ready to cook meal solutions, branded and made in large food factories. They had no recourse to an ‘auntie’ network for reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, and large scale industrialization had quickly penetrated the food industry. ‘West’ thinking multinational and Indian companies have tried to transfer the same technology to India with poor success. Ready to cook or ‘heat and eat’ solutions are at the farthest fringe of the family meal at home. This is mainly because the Indian family resists standardization of its tastes and preferences, and moving from its staple meals and homely food to culture-neutral manufactured food is tough. Even in cities, people are still close enough to their roots to know what their traditional food tastes like.
Finally, this is outsourcing country, after all. When the queen of the kitchen becomes busy in the workplace, she outsources her kitchen not to the gigantic food factories, but to other women and their kitchen, that is, the ‘auntie’ network. It is a solution that has proved a win-win for both parties.
In this solution, the urban woman is assured of getting familiar and homely food that is fresh and contains no preservatives while being reasonably priced. At the same time, hygiene and purity of ingredients is assured since the food is being cooked in someone’s kitchen by someone very much like the woman’s own mother or grandmother. For the ‘aunties’ there is very little barrier to entering this sector. Even the poorest woman in India is trained to cook and bring up children. With their skills in providing processed food solutions that are hygienic, fresh and customized to suit individual customer taste, these Narmadabens can pose a formidable challenge to the organised, factory-based ready-to-eat segment.
Eventually, many of these women will learn to modernize, brand their products and learn to sell them through the upcoming modern chain retailers. When this happens, when availability and close-to-heart solutions come together, processed food will actually enter the urban Indian kitchen in earnest, conclusively leaving behind the made-in-factory solutions. That’s the day the Chitras of this world will truly say ‘Thank you, Auntie’.