The Refrigerator Construct of Life

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The average Indian household’s disposable income has more than doubled since 1985. Our consumption patterns have changed. And a new, affluent middle class has emerged, forecast to match Australia’s population by the year 2025. Today, a larger share of our GDP is spent on consumption than an investment—and spending on food is at the top. But what is the Indian middle-class eating?

What’s in your fridge?

Many trends seem obvious—rural areas tend to feature more home-cooked meals and fewer restaurant visits; families away from big cities tend to have fridges stocked more heavily than those with regular access to markets; meat appears more frequently on the table than it did a few decades ago; and millennials tend to gravitate toward organic and/or artisanal brands that cater to a more conscious consumer palate.

Interestingly, though, there is an almost universal shift away from processed and canned foods, with the growing emphasis on fresh ingredients at each meal. This is in keeping with most newly middle-class societies that are still in the first cycle of prosperity, eventually coming full circle to realize the value of fresh foods again, as packaged and fast foods begin to lose their sheen.

The condiments that dominate the processed foods section in pantries are now sauces and spice pastes (reflecting a more global choice of recipes). Exotic cheeses, coffees and the like are ubiquitous souvenirs from travels abroad. Significant shelf space goes to healthy or homemade snacks instead of store-bought options (unless there are young children in the home, in which case all health concerns go out the window).

But did you know that a little less than 30% of Indian homes have a refrigerator?

This is from a survey done in 2016. A paper by Sowmya Dhanaraj, Vidya Mahambare and Poonam Munjal, called From Income to Household Welfare: Lessons from Refrigerator Ownership in India. It makes for interesting reading.

Amplifying the capacity

Households that have the capacity to make larger purchases, like two-wheelers, often don’t have a refrigerator, which means that cost isn’t the only factor. According to the paper, “Females in households tend to derive greater utility from the refrigerator usage due to its impact on lowering household burden of work.” In other words, because the kitchen in most Indian households is still the woman’s domain, a fridge is not considered a priority. The higher the woman’s power and agency in the household, the more likely it is to have a fridge.

Strange, isn’t it? The refrigerator not only offers insight into various consumer patterns across classes, age groups and geographies, it also serves as a canvas for gender roles and politics.

Combine that with India’s food culture which is as varied as its dialects and districts, while also constantly evolving to accommodate trends, the seasons, new technology and the latest additions from supermarket shelves, and the refrigerator becomes a sort of construct of modern life.

So, we decided to dig deeper. To examine food habits and their evolution through the contents of fridges from six very different middle-class households across India: singles and marrieds, nuclear and joint, millennials and Gen Xers.

A unique way

The stories below provide a unique window into their world.

Joshua Muyiwa is a freelance writer and poet who lives in Bengaluru, in a spacious three-bedroom apartment in Cooke Town, that he shares with his flatmate. Cooke Town is a self-contained neighborhood, complete with a yoga studio, neighborhood movie club, and a supermarket that stocks everything a modern-day citizen of the world could possibly want for his kitchen, from black rice and millets to Kerala bananas and quinoa.

Joshua—single and in his 30s, and living in India’s start-up and freelancer capital—cooks extensively for himself and his flatmate. He has friends over at least once a week. “This lifestyle has, in fact, only made sure I eat better: my produce is fresh, I don’t skimp at the grocer’s, and there’s always meat in the house,” he says.