We are what we eat: tracking culture through food

18 Oct 2010|Added Value

No, this is not another article on health! All around us there is a revolution brewing. Go to any large restaurant in the metros of India and you will find vegetarian sushi on the menu. Almost everyone has added noodles to their table, even adding it into existing dishes and giving them a new name. People are replacing meals with snacks. The kitchen is shut once a week in many urban homes, particularly Sundays. Gujarati’s have become very fond of the Idli/Dosa/Vada combo and have it for dinner. South Indians have discovered chana masala.

We have moved from who we are defining what we eat – Gujaratis, Tamilians, Bengalis, etc – to what we eat defining who we are. Our attitudes – and not our ethnicity – are driving what’s on the table.  Or rather, what’s on the plate when we are in front of the TV.

If what we are is driving what we eat, it implies that changes in culture show up in our cuisine – a cuisine axiom. Let’s have a look at some of the broad cultural changes which have affected Indian society over the last decade or so.

Making broad brush strokes we note that:

  • Time is becoming an increasing precious currency. Indians want to do more and faster. They have bigger dreams.
  • In sections of the society disposable income has increased. Smaller families ensure that this income goes even further.
  • Exposure and awareness levels of different cultures, attitudes and ideas have increased substantially due to increase in travel and media exposure. Indians continue to explore new experiences and are increasingly open to such experiences.

Instead of ethnic cohorts we now have attitude cohorts. Here are some examples and their meal/food behavior.

The convenience seekers
These people still like to eat at home but look for all kinds of ways to ease the chore – starting from ginger/garlic pastes to chopped vegetables delivered home to ready-to-eat foods. These people also particularly look for convenience in adding variety to their cuisine – Chinese food made from packaged spice pastes, ready made atta to make idlis, salsa packets for that Spanish meal. Their attitude is “I love eating but isn’t the making such a chore. Especially when you try new foods.”

The health conscious people
They look at the ingredients list on the pack. They look for fortification – calcium enrichment, low salt, cholesterol management ingredients, etc. These are people who lead to all of us learning about PUFA and other such exotic terms and acronyms. Did you read about Abhishek Bachchan’s idli diet? Their attitude is “I eat to improve, look after my health. Health is the most important issue for me.”

The experimenters
In another era they would have been called ‘foodies’. They want to try new things. They watch food channels and want to experiment with what they’ve seen – either by going to a restaurant or trying it at home. These are the people who pick up that exotic spice in the duty free (not the Black Label which is now passé!)  Their attitude is “Food is about experience.”

These attitudes are not unique to cuisine. Convenience seekers seek the benefit across other categories and services. Health conscious people will follow a health regime across their life and its activities. And the Experimenters will take the attitude of trying new things in most of their activities and interests.

The Cuisine Axiom states that cultural changes in society-at-large manifest in what and how we eat. Literally: what we eat is who we are.

As a marketer this tells me two things.

  • Tracking cultural changes is important.  Popular attitudes are driving changes across product categories. The genesis of how markets evolve lies in these cultural changes. Tracking them helps marketers manage these changes profitably.
  • One quick way to track these changes is to use the Cuisine Axiom. Check out what people are doing with their food. You may get insights on what is happening or likely to happen in your product category.

 Travelers around the world will tell you that a short cut to understanding a culture is to sample its cuisine.  But this adage is truer than you might imagine.  Food can not only help you understand a culture’s history, but it can also shine a light on where it’s going.  Bon appetite!

By Anand Varadarajan, Managing Director, Added Value India

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