One of the most pronounced changes that the pandemic has brought upon our lives is in the way we eat. When the lockdown was first announced in March, many people, or at least those who could afford to, went into a panic buying mode and hoarded up enough essentials such as rice, pulses, atta, packaged items and snacks, to last them for months.
The weeks that followed saw ready-to-eat food items and instant noodle packets disappear from shop shelves as their demands skyrocketed. With cooks and domestic help away, many entered their kitchens for the first time, experimenting and learning a new survival skill in the process.
The pandemic has also widened the gap in a country which is already reeling under extremes – pictures of thousands of tired and hungry migrants walking back to their hometowns, or queuing up for food, competed with those of home chefs showing off their newly acquired culinary skills on social media.
As we get used to the new normal during these COVID-19 times, we take a look at all the ways the pandemic has changed our relationship with food:
First time cooks
Twinkle Khanna shared a picture on Instagram where she joked about how it took a global pandemic and lockdown to get her mother, Dimple Kapadia, to enter into the kitchen. The actress cooked fried rice for her daughter, which, Khanna said, was the first-ever meal her mother had prepared for her in 46 years.
Actress Vidya Balan, who experimented with making modaks and paratha, also spoke about how she had always associated cooking with domestication. It was after she got down to cooking during the lockdown that she realised that it was not as bad she thought it would be, as long as she had a choice.
In a country where cooking often has a strong gender connotation, and many, especially men, are not equipped with the skill, the pandemic has become a period of experimentation and discovery in the unexplored territory that is their own kitchen.
As malls shut down and trips to supermarkets reduced, the local kirana shops and vendors stepped up to the challenge of supplying panicked customers with food products and fresh fruits and vegetables. This was accentuated by the growing need for people to understand the source of their food, especially with worries about the virus.
If this continues, the trend to go local would help both marginal businesses and people in the long run. Local produce is fresher, healthier with less time spent in transit as opposed to exotic food which may have covered many air miles to reach the plate.
On their part, farmers and vendors have also found innovative means to circumvent lockdown restrictions by using technology and forming groups to connect directly with customers, thus helping them cut losses amid the lockdown.
Rise in vegetarianism
With the COVID-19 virus believed to have originated from a wet market in Wuhan, China, the push for vegetarianism has gone stronger. The hashtag #NoMeatNoCoronavirus went viral as many Indians blamed non-vegetarianism for the pandemic, especially during the initial days of the pandemic.
The Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO) also urged the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) to promote plant-based food as an immunity builder. On its part, the FSSAI promoted green food, while issuing guidelines that slaughterhouses should follow in the light of the pandemic.
Many were also forced to look for vegetarian alternatives due to a shortage in the supply of meat and fish with abattoirs and mandis shut, and farmers culling poultry, after cases of swine flu and avian flu emerged in Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka.
Herbs and spices
As the realisation has set in that the virus is here to stay, at least for a while, immunity has become the buzz word. With the Ayush ministry recommending Ayurveda and dietary changes to improve immunity, Indians have stocked their pantries with spices and herbs such as turmeric, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, honey and tulsi. Kadhas, or immunity-boosting concoctions, have become a hot favourite, and many, including celebrities, have been posting their preferred herbal recipes.
Companies have also cashed in on the demand by bringing out their versions of immunity boosters such as turmeric milk and cinnamon milk. Chyawanprash is back in demand and so are dietary supplements.
Youngsters and first-time cooks, longing for familiar aromas of their childhood, have also been taking tips from their mothers and grandmothers on how to add the perfect amount of spices to bring out their flavours and goodness.
With outdoor dining options limited due to the lockdown, and the fear of catching the virus preventing most people from ordering in, many have been going online in search of their favourite food recipes.
A study conducted by the Boston-headquartered SEMrush, an online visibility management and content marketing platform, found that between February and May, the most searched for recipes online in India included momos, dhokla, panipuri, jalebi, paneer and bread recipes.
The lockdown period saw recipes such as that of the Korean Dalgona Coffee, Maggi omelette and banana bread go viral as more people researched, prepared and shared their culinary escapades online. Food blogs and vlogs have also become more popular and celebrity chefs have been sharing easy versions of popular recipes online.
This pandemic, people went back to the original repositories of kitchen knowledge - their mothers and grandmothers who had the experience of cooking delicious meals during times when ingredients were scarce, and expensive, by using locally sourced ingredients which were both nutritious and affordable.
With supplies limited to those that are available in the local kirana store, or online, many embraced minimalism - substituting elaborate recipes which required time, effort and multiple, often exotic, ingredients with simple one-pot meals such as kichdi, lemon rice, tamarind rice, sambar rice or one-pot pastas.
A family affair
During the early days of the pandemic, spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravishankar came out with a challenge urging men across the country to give women a break and get into the kitchens. Spurred on, many men, often with the help of their children, took the challenge and posted pictures of their culinary creations online.
Among the most positive changes that the pandemic has brought in is that food, and cooking, has now become a family affair. With most members of the family at home, people have started to eat together again – a luxury which many could not afford during their rushed, pre-pandemic lives.
People have also started to understand that food is no longer about grabbing and going, or eating at the work station – but rather about nourishment, happiness and comfort.