Takeaway

Old bites, new boxes

Zac O' Yeah | Updated on January 29, 2021

Grub club: The tectonic shift from eating out to ordering in — from cloud kitchens, for example — is expected to result in an annual 25 per cent growth in Indian online food sales, making it a $12 billion business by 2025   -  BLOOMBERG/ DHIRAJ SINGH

The lockdown sent millennials and WFH-ers scurrying to the home chefs and cloud kitchens for their daily bread. While social and mainstream media hail this trend as part of the ‘new normal’, a glimpse of food history shows that parcelled meals and doorstep delivery aren’t exactly modern-day inventions

* A good percentage of my upwardly mobile, millennial fellow citizens have been scrolling through virtual menus for some time now, but, in 2020, impersonal online transactions overtook phone ordering for good

* Looking back across the many millennia of human history, only palatial dwellings had private food preparation areas, whilst takeaway and community cooking was more common, starting from when cavemen jointly spit-grilled mammoths over open fires

* In ancient Rome, if we travel back to where fast-food takeaway originated as an industry, much of the populace lived in apartment complexes known as insulae

* Although online ordering is nothing new and the Americans were selling pizza over the internet already by the mid-’90s, the media has gone gaga over its recent hegemony, with headlines shrieking variously in joy or horror

* A heartening parallel trend is the independently-run home-kitchen-service

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The bygone year was certainly an annus horribilis for those of us who enjoy travelling to sample new restaurants. I, who viewed all viral food apps as nothing but culinary malware — preferring to rustle up meals in my own kitchen than contributing to global heating by having edibles delivered — had to make my peace with cybergrub in 2020. I happened to call a pizza chain, but when they finally answered, it was only to bully me into logging on to their site instead.

Of course, a good percentage of my upwardly mobile, millennial fellow citizens have been scrolling through virtual menus for some time now, but, in 2020, impersonal online transactions overtook phone ordering for good. Another novelty was to step into a gastropub and find the traditional bill of fare replaced by ‘contactless menus’ that open on smartphones by way of scanning a QR-code. Despite the intriguing sci-fi vibe, I got bored almost instantly as it was tricky to get an overview on the tiny screen. At the risk of sounding like a pre-1816 Luddite, it wasn’t as appetising as surveying mouth-watering options in print.

It set me thinking about the history of digestion and whether this so-called new normal might be indicative of a stomach-churning paradigm shift. We old-timers (read: Experienced eaters) tend to take homely kitchens for granted and perceive restaurant visits as enjoyable outings. But that unfashionable 2010s’ lifestyle — of plated meals and cash tips — is rapidly becoming a thing of the past in the 2020s, as the tech-enabled generation hunches in WFH-chairs and largely stays out of their kitchens. Nourishment nowadays seems to be about unpacking mass-manufactured monotonous meal kits that gluttons post snaps of on Instagram.

Yet, it wasn’t always that people had access to cooking facilities. Modern kitchens originated with the American-style industrially produced cast iron coal-powered cooking range, which was hot stuff in the mid-1800s — replacing the brick-built fireplaces of antiquity. Gas became commonplace in the 1890s, at the same time as the first electrical stoves were put on display. But even after the turn of the century, many homes lacked proper kitchens: Fridges, for example, made their appearance only in the ’30s (before that few people had electricity), as did the first standardised ergonomic kitchen layout designed for modern European apartments.

Looking back across the many millennia of human history, only palatial dwellings had private food preparation areas, whilst takeaway and community cooking was more common, starting from when cavemen jointly spit-grilled mammoths over open fires.

Take pot luck — today a house party where guests bring homely dishes to share with others. Scholars variously believe pot luck had its roots in the indigenous ceremonies of American natives or perhaps the down-and-out sharing victuals during the Depression. In truth, it’s a medieval European concept — datable to 1592 — of utilising leftovers by chucking everything into a pot. If unexpected visitors dropped in, this goo was served to let them know they’d overstayed their welcome. (Though some of us believe food tastes better the day after as there’s nothing yummier than looting fridges for soggy doggy-bags.) Pot luck was standard practice before 24/7 catering services: Inns saved scraps and dregs so as to hastily rustle up edibles in case guests knocked post-dinnertime. Sounds a lot like ordering khichri after midnight? Well, exactly my point.

Those pre-Enlightenment Europeans also pioneered the idea behind food-trucking, but theirs were non-motorised pushcarts. Navigating crowded streets, vendors offered ready-to-eat pies or cooked eggs to order while mulling spicy wine — talk about pop-up restaurants! These evolved in the 1870s, by way of American cowboys, into horse-pulled chuckwagons that churned out bacon and beans, hot biscuits and corn pone, as the on-the-trail lifestyles might not touch towns for weeks. It wasn’t a big leap to snack vans and mobile canteens serving budget tuck to blue-collar labourers at construction sites as post-WWII economy boomed. Nowadays, when recession-struck white-collar hipsters increasingly prefer eating on-the-go, their upscale mutations sell chic lobster rolls — in a multi-billion-dollar ‘food truck’ industry far from those unhygienic ‘roach coaches’ of the 1900s.

Magic box: Initially catering to office-goers and travellers, bento is nowadays available everywhere   -  ISTOCK.COM

 

Incidentally, evidence suggests that even before there were streets on their continent, the pre-colonialised American natives already ate ‘street food’ (such as steamed corn-dough dumplings stuffed with frogs). Meanwhile in the medieval Muslim world, from Istanbul to Dhaka, bazaars were teeming with kebab-roasting biryani-cooking wayside chefs. A thousand years ago in China, the tea house culture developed to cater to gamblers and theatregoers who convened at these establishments for entertainment (think today’s cinema or amusement arcade concession stalls). In the 12th century, their Japanese neighbours got into bento — boxed to-go meals compartmentalised to hold sticky rice and aesthetically arranged sides of broiled fish, deep-fried tempura and pickled veggies. Initially catering to office-goers and travellers, bento is nowadays available everywhere. One iconic lacquered bento box was so elegant that it inspired the design of ThinkPad computers!

In ancient Rome, if we travel back to where fast-food takeaway originated as an industry, much of the populace lived in apartment complexes known as insulae. Although it sounds posh, these were slummy. Some had shared cooking areas on their ground floors, most didn’t. Dwellers who didn’t have communal kitchens in their vicinity were reduced to setting up portable charcoal braziers in the corridors (a fire hazard) for baking flatbreads or stewing lentils. To augment such humble fare, they’d parcel ready-to-eat dishes at the nearest stall or thermopolium that, apart from sausages and hams hanging from hooks, had counters with built-in vessels that kept gravies warm. Or they’d wait for a pabulum-peddler to bring his cart to their doorstep: Antique home-delivery. Stalls sporadically developed into rudimentary pubs with in-house wining and dining in cramped backrooms, because ancients liked to hang out with friends just like we do today — but most thermopolium ruins that I saw while poking about in Pompeii were street-facing kiosks lining the main streets.

Bon appetit: Modern fine-dining as we know it, with linen tablecloths and all that jazz, was born in late-1700s’ France   -  ISTOCK.COM

 

Although ancient civilisations had taverns to provide for travellers, modern fine-dining as we know it, with linen tablecloths and all that jazz, was born in late-1700s’ France. Eating out grew increasingly popular after the 1789 revolution when aristocratic heads got chopped off and their jobless cooks needed alternative livelihoods. They became ‘restaurateurs’ who restored customers’ health through nutritious nourishment that eventually evolved into haute cuisine.

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Well, there’s nothing new under the sun as the 10th century BCE Israeli king Solomon allegedly quipped while snacking on spicy pita rolls. So perhaps this apocalyptic pandemic that forced canteens to ban sit-downers and shift to delivery-slash-carryout, prompting the meteoric rise of virtual restaurants, is sending us back to where everything started? All week I’ve been spammed with supplicating emails from five-star hotels offering home-delivery of pre-made DIY kits accompanied by Zoom tutorials from Michelin-starred chefs, who have turned into the lockdown’s trendiest YouTube-icons.

But the bigger question remains — whether this ‘new normal’ is genuinely normal or abnormal. Restaurateurs I know in Bengaluru tell me they’re happy to be back, even if business is slow and footfalls are low, after losing money almost all of last year. Optimists predict that eating out will return to the ‘old normal’ within a year, so it’s merely a matter of hanging in there. However, internet polls suggest that many patrons who made the shift from eating out to ordering in might never return — but remain so-called shadow customers who stack their freezers with microwave meals. This tectonic shift is expected to result in an annual 25 per cent growth in Indian online food sales, making it a $12 billion business by 2025. Perhaps.

Such developments appear to be taking us back full-circle to the pre-restaurant culture of old — and even if ‘cloud’ or ‘ghost’ restaurants are a tad more advanced with their hi-tech features (such as real-time GPS tracking of delivery boys), nonetheless their kitchens are suspected to resemble the grimy primeval unregulated cookshops, cramped and windowless, hiding from unsmiling health inspectors.

During lockdown, stepping out to buy essentials, I passed an anonymous building outside which delivery boys flocked. At first I thought the tiny complex must be full of hungry tenants, then I realised that food was coming out, not in, and I spotted tell-tale stickers and fliers promoting biryani, doughnuts, kababs, milkshakes, pasta, rolls, tandoori tikkas, not to mention enticing neo-Indian breakfast items such as tummy-lining ‘cheese dosa’ or tummy-firing ‘pepper idli’ with rates starting from ₹99. Walk-ins weren’t allowed so for a taste, one had to go home, click, wait.

Essentially, this was a delivery-only multi-cuisine food-court featuring proxy menus of well-known brands completely flattening diverse tasty traditions — on their leaflets I spotted names of classic chains famous for, say, Chettinadu, Chinese, Malabari, and North Indian. How such a nondescript suburban building was able to provide the distinctive cuisines from over 30 different eateries boggled my mind. (An even stranger thought is that every moderately affluent neighbourhood presumably has similarly spooky ghost kitchens.)

Although online ordering is nothing new and the Americans were selling pizza over the internet already by the mid-’90s, the media has gone gaga over its recent hegemony, with headlines shrieking variously in joy or horror: ‘Why a Lot of Delivery Food Isn’t Coming From Actual Restaurants’, ‘Ghost Kitchens Scare Up Business As Restaurants Grapple With Social-Distancing Impact’, ‘9 Restaurants, 1 Kitchen, No Dining-Room’, ‘Pizza Giants Want Customers to Click, Not Call’, ‘Disposable Chopstick Demand Is Killing China’s Forests As Annual Production Reaches 80 Billion’, ‘Are Dark Kitchens the Satanic Mills of Our Era?’ and ‘Next Big Restaurant Chain May Not Own Any Kitchens’... Hold on — no kitchens?

Even though lavish buffets might be relegated to the past, like you presumably do, I, too, relish the intimate feel of stepping into smartly decorated eateries (and not having to masticate ambience-deprived delivery-food), looking at what’s cooking if there’s an open kitchen (instead of ‘representative’ web images), being served by courteous waiters (rather than some motorcyclist who samples my lunch en route) and not having to wash the dishes (while also not generating binfuls of single-use cutlery, condiment sachets and packaging materials of cardboard, polystyrene, foam and thermal bags). One pleasant new norm is the inclination towards hygiene with pedal-operated sanitisers, thermal screening at the entrance, tables disinfected between customers, and presumably extra vigilant dish-washing considering how Covid-19 survives for days on ceramic surfaces.

While authentic culinary art may be overtaken by parcelled meals — increasingly any item can be had anywhere anytime — a heartening parallel trend is the independently-run home-kitchen-service, essentially industry outsiders (home-cooks or hobby caterers) allowing subscribers to book wholesome meal plans. Although for years they may have been supplying vegan and allergen-free or easy-on-the-tummy Ayurvedic wellness lunches, or any regional Indian cuisine whether it is Gujarati veg or Naga non-veg, these personalised services came into their own when pandemic-downlocked WFH-ers missed mummy-ji’s parathas that were too distant to be Dunzoed. A bit like the celebrated dabbawalas of Mumbai (but in a cyber avatar), there’s nowadays always a homely meal a click away (if you live in a city).

On the go: Britons eat 200 million portions of fish and chips per year   -  ISTOCK.COM

 

Incidentally, speaking of meals-to-go, the eminently recyclable Indian 1880s-invented tiffin-carrier is about as old as the American hamburger (1884) or Britain’s fish and chips (1876). The latter were traditionally served wrapped in scrap newspapers until the eco-friendly practice was banned in the ’80s for health reasons — slightly ironically considering how unhealthy deep-fried junk food anyway is — and although wholesome Indian takeaway may sell more in terms of units, Britons eat 200 million portions of greasy fish and chips per year resulting in mountains of garbage and clogged arteries.

Furthermore, despite ‘touchlessness’ being the new F&B rule, India is the original finger food-country and will hopefully remain so. Any Ayurvedic expert will enumerate the innumerable health benefits of eating with one’s hand. The tactile feel of the meal is certainly enhanced and it prevents unnecessary social media activity that would otherwise distract one from the task at hand. So whilst the rest of the world relies on cutlery, we who eat with our right hand (and not the wrong one) can at least be sure that the fingers that fondle the roti are properly sanitised!

 

 

Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist;

Email: zacnet@email.com

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Published on January 29, 2021
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