India: Recent Changes in Food Consumption Patterns in Chennai (Madras), South India


A research project of Professor Pat Caplan
Funded by the Nuffield Foundation

Key terms: food and food consumption, Madras/Chennai, middle-classes

After economic liberalisation in the late 1980s, many multinational companies moved into India. Photo taken in Madras, 1995This study considers transformations in food and eating habits in middle class households in Madras and, in particular, has examined changes wrought during the last two decades by economic liberalisation and the increased availability of processed and packaged 'convenience' foods, many of them imported. It is based upon fieldwork carried out in 1998-1999.

Food practices have always been of peculiar significance in India, particularly among Hindus, where they are linked to notions of personhood, status, caste, and purity and pollution. In south India, food is highly elaborated and time consuming to prepare. Yet India, with its large middle class, is regarded by multinational food companies as one of their most significant emerging markets. On an earlier visit to Madras in 1995 6, it was impossible to miss the numerous hoardings advertising imported food and drink, while 'supermarkets' had become ubiquitous and were evidently well patronised.

Housewife in one of the new Madras supermarkets, looking at products in the 'imports' section, 1999A small but growing body of work on other parts of Asia (Watson 1997, Ohnuki Tierney 1993) indicates that there is no simple dichotomy between 'traditional' and 'modern' foods, but rather that there are complex processes of accommodation to, and domestication of 'foreign' foods. There are also various forms of resistance to such developments, including a stress on local foods (e.g. Cwiertka 1996).

The current project has focused mainly upon households in one suburb of south Madras which I already know well from earlier work on women's organisations. The major techniques used were semi structured interviews, and selected informants were also asked to keep seven day food diaries. In addition, I taped and transcribed some discussions at the local women's club and administered a short questionnaire to members.

Publications arising:

  • 2000. 'Food in middle-class households in Madras' in B.C.A. Walraven and K. Cwiertka (eds.) Food in Asia: the Global and the Local ConsumAsiaN series, Curzon Press, 2000.
  • 2003. 'How much lifestyle choice do people really have? Changes in food consumption patterns in Chennai, South India.' Paper given at the Satellite Symposium on Lifestyles, organised by the Union of Risk Management for Preventive Medicine, the Asia-Pacific Society for Risk Management in Preventive Medicine. Kyoto, Japan, March 30th 2003.
  • 2008. 'Crossing the veg/non-veg divide: practising commensality among middle class women in Chennai' in South Asia, 31, 1, 118-42. 2008.
  • 2009. 'Food, environment and entitlement: local perceptions in three globalising settings.' in Literature and Environment, (Korea) 8, 1, 207-26.