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A vegetable vendor at a retail market in Kolkata, India. Photo: Reuters

Indians turn to quick-fix meals as surging food inflation eats into income

  • Many families are cooking one-pot dishes with local lentils, cutting down on expensive veggies and avoiding deep fried snacks to tide over the cost of living crisis
  • While Indian households are no stranger to kitchen resourcefulness, experts say the dietary workarounds come at the cost of nutrition
A surge in the cost of food and energy driven by a global supply chain crunch and the war in Ukraine have had a knock-on effect for India’s middle- and lower-income households, prompting many to turn to budget-friendly meals to get by.

“We buy less fish and meat now with the rise in prices, sometimes we just eat rice with salted buttermilk and a little dried fish,” said Sasikala Rajan, 35, a domestic worker in the southern city of Chennai.

Rajan, who earns 15,000 rupees a month (US$196), said her family of three has also adopted other austerity measures like cutting down on tomatoes, garlic, onions and spices in the dishes.

“I use a pressure cooker for fast cooking and saving on gas. There is no option but to make everything stretch longer,” she said.

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India’s inflation has soared to a 17-month high of nearly 7 per cent, pushing up prices of staples, including onions, potatoes, tomatoes, chicken and oils even further.

In the capital New Delhi, the rising cost of living has forced construction worker Hariram Das to forgo accompaniments and have parathas with just onions and salt, and increasingly rely on chaat (street food) and snacks like egg sandwich.

“We worry about our children and try to give them milk or eggs when we have money,” said Das, 42.

Even small eateries – frequented by the working class seeking low-cost food – have been squeezed by inflation.

Vada, a lentil-based deep fried snack. Photo: SCMP

Many street vendors in south India have taken lentil-based deep fried snacks like vadas and pakoras off the menu and instead offer steamed snacks such as idlis (rice cakes) to their customers to cushion the impact of higher cooking oil prices.

Bread omelette and vada pav (toasted bun stuffed with potato fritter and red chilli powder) are among the other affordable food options that sell for 30 rupees (US$0.39) and 20 rupees per plate, respectively.

Chennai-based fruit vendor Chinnaswamy said the economic pain has weighed more on household consumption, with his stall seeing a decline in sales as customers tightened their purse strings while others tweaked their cooking styles.

“I usually make a one-pot dish like steamed rice and rajma (kidney beans in a tomato and onion gravy) or kadi (a yogurt gravy) to cut costs and dependence on vegetables,” said Manisha Rani, a homemaker in New Delhi.

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India has a variety of indigenous legumes and lentils which can be ingeniously combined to make a quick snack, salad or stir fry. Poha – beaten rice cooked with onions, potatoes, green chillies and roasted peanuts and garnished with grated coconut – makes a filling breakfast in many parts of western India. Sabudhana (sago) is another inexpensive and nutritious grain used to make a snack with boiled potatoes, peanuts and curry leaves.

According to nutritionist Dr Nandita Iyer, Indian food can be easily adapted with less onions and tomatoes or any condiment whose prices are steep, unlike Western cuisine where the exact amount of one ingredient cannot be simply substituted by another.

“Indian cuisine has always been about the economy of ingredients and spices and restraint and avoiding waste. Only because of food prosperity many moved away from that frugality,” she said.

Homestyle chutney made with the peels of ridge gourd. Photo : Ruchira Ramanujam

The cost of living crisis has also brought Indian households’ kitchen resourcefulness to the fore.

“We sprout all whole pulses like masoor, lobia, peas, chana and eat them lightly seasoned when prices of vegetables are high,” journalist Sheela Jaywant said.

Pune-based freelance writer Shoma Abhyankar said she always bought lemons in bulk and refrigerated the juice with some salt to make a quick lemonade or use it in her cooking.

In Chennai, price-conscious homemaker Preeta Kumar said she avoided deep frying and made one-pot meals and boiled or steamed dishes to tide over the situation.

“I use all scraps of food like vegetable peels to make thogaiyals (fried veggies or peels ground with lentils and coconut) which can be just mixed with rice,” Kumar said, adding that she includes the leftover vegetables and dals in the flour to make rotis (flatbread).


The cost of Asia’s favourite foods soars because of the pandemic and Ukraine-Russia war

The cost of Asia’s favourite foods soars because of the pandemic and Ukraine-Russia war

Culinary anthropologist Kurush Dalal said Indians have always been adept at making frugal meals like dal kichdi (mashed rice and lentils and sometimes veggies) when the going gets tough.

“From using less oil, switching to dalda (vegetable oil) instead of ghee (clarified butter) and using a pressure cooker that has several internal compartments to reduce gas consumption, we do manage to make our meals cheaper at all levels of society when required,” Dalal said.

He, however, warned that nutrition takes a back seat when people seek dietary workarounds to cut costs as they focus on saving for their children’s education or medical expenses.

“But ultimately, there is only so much you can do to counter inflation. Many lower income groups are forced to compromise on their nutrition. It’s a tough choice.”