A lot of us find ourselves turning to food, not just during the long hours of isolation during the pandemic lockdowns, but also as a part of our everyday lives. There’s also something intrinsic about wanting to share what we have cooked. Is that the reason so many of us find joy in our digital food lives?
The food groups on Facebook are a riot of colours – an alluring deep purple of yam tikkis, the virgin white of a thalissari biryani, a mellow yellow of an orange cake, a dreamy rosy-pink of a strawberry and banana milkshake in which little pistachios float like fairies on a magical ride.
And the stories! So many recipes and photographs are accompanied with anecdotes and snippets about how the dish came to, or beautiful, evocative memories associated with the particular recipes.
So you would not only have a recipe for the quintessential Tamil dish pongal, but a delightful little story on how the dish and the festival came to be. (It involves a confused Nandi, the sacred bull calf, who mixes up the instructions given by Lord Shiva and has to be sent down on earth to help people grow more food!) Or the recipe for Kara-ma-khechadi (a dish prepared with rice, lentils and vegetables) and offered to Lord Jagannath along with an endearing story of how the Lord would in the guise of a child ask for this dish from an old woman every day!
Delightful, isn’t it? Perhaps it is this mix of recipes, storytelling, sharing, and a sense of community that draws people to these food groups, some of which are more than 50,000 plus members strong and growing every single day.
A safe space, a creative space
Atul Sikand is the admin of a group on Facebook called ‘Sikandalous Cuisine.’ Sikand is also an influencer in the food industry and the director of Asian Hawkers Market Pvt. Ltd.
He says that he created the group — its name a pun on his name and the fact that his opinions can be shocking or scandalous at times — when a journalist friend asked him to do so. “I was always posting recipes about food on my personal Facebook page and that page had a lot of other things as well. My friend said that there must be a dedicated space for food and food alone, and that is how this group came to be. We are now going to be about 50,000 or so members strong and this group is India’s biggest tried and tested recipe group.”
“I am extremely strict about who gets to be a member of the group. There are strictly no business promotions or posting links or just photographs. There has to be a detailed recipe, and members often write feedback posts with accompanying pictures if they have tried out a recipe posted by a member,” explains Sikand.
Sikand himself contributes a lot to the group. “I have over 2,000 recipes now, but I won’t post something that is done to death. Like, matar paneer. I would post a recipe for hariyali kabab instead, but a recipe where I have added basil and lemongrass to give it a pan-Asia flavour and hence is a twist on the actual recipe,” he said.
Tonoya Barua is a banker-turned-qualified-chef and an alumnus of Le Cordon Bleu London. She has been running The Common Table in London, an artisan catering company, and also a pop-up restaurant at Walworth road for over a year now.
She also is the admin and founder of ‘The East West Kitchen’, a food group on Facebook with over 6000 members. From methi kumro, a Bengali-styled pumpkin with fenugreek leaves curry, Italian chicken biryani to steamed bao buns stuffed with sticky chicken and pickled vegetables, you can find a variety of recipes that combine the flavours of the eastern and western world on her group.
Barua says she started the group because she wanted to motivate people to speak about their love for food and what really inspires them. "It also gives so many people a platform to showcase their talent and creativity and to rejoice in finding a community and appreciation for their craft. Small businesses benefit as well. I do not let anyone spam my group with promotional activities, but I do have a day for home chefs and businesses run from home. It gives these home chefs goodwill and branding, and if it helps their business grow, I consider it a good thing,” she said.
Shalini Ramachandran, who is based in the US, is the founder and co-admin of ‘Euphoric Delights,’ which is a food group and more, and believe it or not, has over 150,000 members, with new members requesting to join in every day!
“I started the group (which, in the beginning, was named as Epicurean Delights) because I saw that there was a lot of genuine joy and pride to be had in sharing your food, recipes, and tips and tricks to make food better, with other people. I learnt cooking the hard way and I realised that it is a life skill. However, if you cook day in and day out, it can get boring. How do you inspire and keep yourself interested in jump-starting the cooking process every day? For me, that inspiration came from being able to see what other people were cooking and it was truly rewarding in terms of the diversity of recipes and talent out there,” says Ramachandran.
Even though the group is primarily about food, it does allow ‘off-topic’ posts. Ramachandran explains, “The group started really small. When it grew, I also took into account the needs of the community. While I did not want that members took undue advantage and posted commercial links or ‘vote for this’ or ‘share my link’ in the lure of the viewership of 150,000 people, I also realised that members trusted the community rather than the algorithm of a search engine. If they were going through a situation, they wanted solutions anonymously and turned to the group for these. I, therefore, allow off-topic posts but these are deleted within 24 hours so that those who come to the group for recipes and food, don’t see a plethora of off- topic posts.”
Ramachandran does not allow any posts that seek medical opinions or the like, but along with posts on Onam sadya recipes, bride and bridegroom cupcakes, and chilli guava ice cream, there are also posts which are strictly not about food or recipes.
Like a post showcasing festive celebrations, or handmade birthday decor for a child’s first birthday, and the anonymous ones wherein a member has reached out to the admin team to post a query on dealing with a non-communicative spouse, a break in career, tricky situations with the in-laws, or dealing with a sense of loss or loneliness. One look at these posts and you would see hundreds of replies, with the members reaching out with support, advice, or just chiming in to say, that they are there if the member needs someone to talk to.
Food as ‘digital’ therapy
During the lockdowns in the Covid-19 crisis, as the yeast flew off the shelves and baking products disappeared, you could see the food groups brimming with even more posts – people trying out heirloom recipes, or their hand at techniques and treats that they had never considered before.
Ramachandran believes that her online interactions with her food group gave her a sense of being connected and that was very important during the Covid crisis.
"During these times, I have not felt alone. This is because I have been in touch with a lot of people online. When I discuss food, a recipe, a missing ingredient or simply chip in with a suggestion or answer a query, I know I am interacting with people, even though it is not in a physical space. I keep thinking how lonely we would all have been if a crisis of this magnitude had happened some forty years or so ago, when we were less connected digitally."
Barua says, food, and digital groups like hers were really a source of comfort during the lockdown. “These groups did a lot of things. They kept people busy, sane, and entertained. There were so many of us, who had to shut down our small businesses, whether temporary or not, and cooking, sharing, and finding support of like-minded members was something that most of us turned to. And this was witnessed world-over, no matter where you lived.”
“It also gave a lot of people the confidence to talk about what they were doing. Sometimes their skills in the kitchen went unnoticed at home, lost in the busyness of everyday life. When they posted their recipes and the likes multiplied, followed by comments for tips and appreciation, it gave them a sense of pride and accomplishment. And that is very important, Covid or not,” elaborates Barua.
Barua’s sentiments are echoed by Sarikar Sarkar, a special needs teacher, and an educator who is based in Hyderabad and who is also a founding member of the The East West Kitchen. “People turned to food during Covid because they realised that cooking as a skill, as a mood enhancer never loses its essence. It was like falling in love with cooking all over again. Digital food groups have actually helped revive and regenerate interest in recipes that were either forgotten or lost, and it is with this sharing that conversations, friendships, and a sense of community builds up, connecting people from across the world.”
Sikand says that food works as therapy, even digitally because, “The rewards are there in front of you. Instantly. It’s not like planting a sapling of an olive tree and waiting for it to fruit and flower for 13 long years! These platforms are spaces where you discover your own potential and form friendships, have conversations and indulge in banter and goodwill.” (Sikand has an olive tree at his Gurgaon home and a plentiful harvest of olives now – and that’s where the reference to the olive tree analogy comes from!)
A master course in management
The digital space can be a tricky one. These groups are thousands of members strong and growing every day. How do you manage such large groups with full-time jobs and what does one learn from this experience?
“My biggest learning, and this happens every day, is being wowed by the massive scale and diversity of our cuisine. We have always known it but to see it unfold one recipe by another, even the same ingredients and recipes taking a different form from one village and city to another, even one household to another. It is endless learning. I honestly believe there is no cuisine in the world that equals Indian in scale, diversity, wealth and palate,” says Sikand.
“We may have been limited by our techniques – in the sense, that our grandmothers or great grandmothers’ recipes did not have exact measurements, it always by andaaz – a pinch of that, a fistful of this, but now over the years, we have food bloggers and home chefs refining those recipes, trying and testing them and I see that so much on my group,” continues Sikand.
As for managing a group, Sikand says that most members think of it as a community, and if they see a post which is not in the spirit of the group, they bring it to my notice even before I have had a chance to see it. “Like there was someone posting live Tarot sessions on the group and so many members instantly reported it.”
Ramachandran echoes similar sentiments. “My group is member-run. And by that, I give all credit to the admins, who are also members of the group and put in so much work out of sheer love for the group. They help in flagging and removing promotional posts, spam, and intervene if there is something that needs admin support. And members who aren’t in the official admin team also flag up content that is contrary to the group’s ethos.”
"I can say that my biggest learning is that, one, how important it is to get a trademark for the name of the group. I learnt this when someone attempted to lay a claim over the group's previous name, and in a way, the group itself. And my second big takeaway as an admin is that people love cakes, especially cakes that don't look like cakes. A cake which looks like a puppy, a wallet, a sari! I also feel that people love food that reminds them of something - a place, nostalgia, a memory," says Ramachandran.
Food in an unequal world – plentiful pantries and food banks
As comforting and inspiring it is to share recipes and photographs on digital platforms and to receive recognition for your talent, how does one deal with the inequalities that are a harsh reality of the world around us? The fact that some of us have well-stocked pantries and even when certain ingredients were out of stock during the lockdown, there was always this assurance that these would be replenished. And in glaring contrast, those who have to depend on food banks (in the Western part of the world) and or on government subsidies and ration cards (in India) or charity (just about anywhere in the world) for their next grocery purchase.
“The inequalities are part of our daily existence, and not just limited to the Covid crisis. I think when people share what they have cooked, it is not about showing off or an attempt to showcase their privilege, it is more about exploring themselves and their skills. And so many individuals and organisations rose to the occasion when hunger was a real issue to reckon with during the lockdown. They did in so many ways – be it cooking for the security guards of their society, providing tiffin to the elderly, helping put together food kits or contributing towards making of food kits,” says Sikand.
Barua admits that it is a difficult question and that there are no easy answers, but that one does what one can do. “We all find solace in different things to get us through a crisis. We also try and help because we are aware of the inequalities around us. The cafe space that we rent for our restaurant had sprung into action quite quickly and had organised a scheme in which patrons could donate an amount for every meal that they purchased. They did so by coordinating with the church in the neighbourhood.”
Ramachandran says that she doesn’t believe in guilt-tripping people. “I understand how unequal the world is, and that it may feel that some of us have won a kind of a lottery in terms of our favourable circumstances, however I would say that we shouldn’t be quick to judge people, or finger point. More than ever we need kindness, compassion, and understanding.”
Perhaps that is the secret ingredient too — not just in our digital life, but in almost everything we do.