Indigenous cuisine is being given a new lease outside of its assigned boundaries by ‘food gurus’ who are using new digital platforms as well as social media to redirect viewers whose eyes are usually facing the West, reports Sharanya Deepak
Karre Mastanamma was 105 when she first appeared on the YouTube channel Country Foods. Today, the channel has more than 200 million views on YouTube, owing to its candid, rustic flavour; Mastanamma crouches on the ground outdoors and peels watermelons, chats with her grandson as she slices meat and empties large emu eggs, in a bid to churn out meals for family and friends in her Andhra village. She cooks three chickens with rice for a dazzling chicken biryani, eaten on a large banana leaf; sautés a spicy egg dosa large enough for 10. The ingredients, she scours from the vicinity — fresh fish, fragrant coriander and gnarly coconuts. Mastanamma’s charms are considerable: she is refreshingly untouched by the presence of the camera, she is reliable and profound, and her hearty meals are made to feed large gatherings.
Jaymukh Gopinath is another such YouTube sensation, and his channel, Village Food Factory, became known for his industrial style of cooking. Gopinath lives in the Theni District of Tamil Nadu, where he grew up, and he cooks local recipes of the region as the camera, handled by his son Arumugam, follows him. He engages in herculean tasks: in one video he skins a rooster with his bare hands to slow cook it with groundnuts and spices, and, in another, he cooks four trays of eggs into a large omelette. While the MO of his channel is the same as that of Mastanamma’s — raw, authentic, village-style cooking — Gopinath’s techniques are endowed with strength, veering into the more clanging, masculine side of the kitchen. In both channels, the recipes are fresh, and the filming is true to their cases and differs from the sterility and formulaic narration that happens in videos shot by chefs inside a kitchen.
For ages, voyeurism has been an important part of the culinary industry — viewers, home cooks and culinary enthusiasts turn not only food but also chefs into objects of adulation. Shows like Cook It Up With Tarla Dalal on Sony TV first found fame with Indian housewives and then around the world; Highway On My Plate, in which hosts Rocky and Mayur sample dishes from all over the world, also saw immense popularity when it aired between 2007 and 2013. However, television has fallen behind as new media channels emerged thanks to the internet. Platforms like YouTube, TikTok and Instagram have democratised cuisine and who cooks it. A few years ago, Gopinath could not have become as popular for his stunts — his language, class and inaccessibility left the forefront to the privileged. Mastanamma is neither middle class nor equipped with a scrubbed kitchen counter, and when she cooks, there is no crew of cameras that watches over her but a doting grandson instead, who films and adds soundtracks to his grandmother’s demonstrations. She, too, wouldn’t have been able to access the benefits of being successful in the formal food industry, but she garnered worldwide attention from followers, and when she died last year, The New York Times dubbed her ‘the oldest celebrity chef in the world’.
Globally, through digital channels and food videos, the exposure to non-mainstream cuisines has grown exponentially. In China, TikTok cooking videos are highlighting the nuances in regional Chinese cooking, and an Iranian immigrant in the US popularises baked goods via her Instagram page ZoZoBaking. The same extends to India — where regional cooking, previously ignored, has begun to enter the dialogue. The reigns of Indian food representation lie in the hands of a few, believes Nambie Marak, who runs the vlog Eat Your Kappa, but the internet belongs to everyone, allowing the voices within it to diversify.
“Before, people thought that we only eat momos,” adds Marak, about her own show. “But I wanted to show my audiences the diversity of food in the Northeast.” In Eat Your Kappa, Marak cooks outdoors, making her favourite family recipes and illuminating the techniques and ingredients that remain unknown to the Indians who live on the ‘mainland’. “While a big fuss is always made about food, cooking is a simple thing to do, and I also wanted to show that the food I grew up with is delicious,” she explains. Among Marak’s most popular recipes are awushi kulho — a fresh chicken stew, and lai xaak gahori, a pork stew with mustard greens. Her recipes are wholesome and healthy, and she sources ingredients from her mother’s garden or by taking a trip to the local market. “There are various stereotypes concerned with what people from tribes eat, often ones that demonise them. Through my videos, I want to destroy these misconceptions,” she says.
Indigenous foods, like Marak’s, only gain leverage when marketed by lifestyle companies or multinationals. This takes away the discourse from the tribes that they belong to, from those that have grown and eaten them for centuries. By giving agency to the people for whom these foods are native, ownership is brought back to the roots. Cooking channels like Eat Your Kappa help give a platform to different communities and individuals and insert them into the commercial world of cooking while keeping the narratives in the rightful hands.
Much like stories, the market is also often dominated by a few: business owners or food entrepreneurs who come from only a select section of society. But, another advantage of these new channels is the opportunity they provide for minority communities to start food businesses. The finest example of this is The Bohri Kitchen, started in December 2014. Munaf Kapadia, its founder, put up a Facebook status inviting a few friends to dinner to sample his mother Nafisa Kapadia’s cooking. She is a Bohri Muslim, and people came to their home to sample a Bohri thaal. Today, The Bohri Kitchen, run by this mother and son duo, is one of the most popular speciality dining experiences in Mumbai. It serves beloved dishes — a Bohri raan in which a leg of lamb is cooked to perfection and Bohri samosas tightly packed with meat. Their meal service takes place in the traditional fashion; diners are seated around a big communal plate from which they share the food.
“The foods of different communities remain hidden to one another,” says Thomas Zacharias, the executive chef at Mumbai restaurant The Bombay Canteen. “This is why the country remains divided in the matters of food.” Zacharias himself has taken to educating people about regional Indian foods through his Instagram account. Through his campaign, Chef on the Road, he has focused on places like Kolhapur, Nagaland and the inner regions of Kashmir. Now, in Indian Food Movement, he looks to parallel Indian vegetables with the ways in which foreign ingredients are treated. “Each ingredient is cooked well somewhere, and if we look closely within India, there are a million brilliant ways to cook.” Zacharias’ promise adds to the restaurant which, today, is one of the best in India. They both follow the same mission — of promoting the variety that the country holds, without compromise.
In India, the discrepancy between who cooks food and who documents it remains vast. While homespun cooking is revered among chefs and old cookbooks are often brought out as references, the people behind these meals remain unseen. With the internet, figures like Mastanamma can find prominence, and others like Gopinath are allowed to showcase recipes from communities that are not usually considered in the mainstream culinary realm. The internet is more democratic than the social fabric of India, and, through it, people from distinct regional and linguistic backgrounds are able to occupy positions of visibility.
According to Zacharias, this trend will continue to grow, and there will be more ‘invisible’ foods that break into the foreground. While privilege in the world of cuisine belonged to a select few in India, the rules have now been dismantled. The message has changed: everyone can cook, and anyone can teach the world how to.