Custom Yields to Convenience

As Indian women join work force, packaged foods, kitchen gadgets replace traditional ways. INDIAN FOOD

ON her way home from work, Gita Bakshi stopped at a neighborhood shop and bought a prepared packet of lentils. ``My mother would have frowned on serving a family this kind of food,'' said the New Delhi secretary and mother of three. ``But cooking is so complicated. Some days, there just isn't time.''

In India, traditional food habits dictate women's lives. Housewives spend hours buying, cutting, mixing, and cooking food. In extended families, many women consider this their major duty.

Now, custom is giving way to convenience. Growing numbers of urban women are being propelled into the work force by the rising cost of living and new consumer aspirations.

Today, there are about 110 million women in the organized work sector in India, compared to 80 million 15 years ago. More than 2 million women join the work force every year.

India, which has a population of 800 million, remains a poor, largely agricultural country. But alongside the poverty thrives an urban consumer culture that has gained new vigor since Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi came to power in 1984.

The consumer boom is particularly evident in the kitchen, where mixers, blenders, and other gadgets are becoming as standard as in the West. Frozen foods, instant sauces, and pre-packaged mixes are gaining acceptance.

As a result, processed foods are starting to take off, helped by special government incentives aimed at reducing the up to 20 percent of the grain harvest lost every year due to inadequate storage.

India's agricultural revolution in the last two decades has eased the threat of famine and made the country relatively self-sufficient in food production.

The market for instant foods, now totaling about $2.5 billion a year, is growing at a 20 percent clip, according to the Economic Times newspaper. The $375 million soft-drink industry also is booming.

Those prospects are luring Western firms. The most prominent arrival is PepsiCo Inc., which is launching a $31 million project to produce snack foods, soft drinks, and fruit juices for the domestic market and export.

Coca-Cola Company, which left India more than a decade ago in a dispute with the government, is hot on its heels. Waiting in the wings are Kellogg's, Del Monte, and other American food giants.

``The Indian woman today is going through a transition,'' says Navroze Dhondy, a New Delhi advertising executive familiar with the processed-foods industry. ``A few years back she would not not consider alternatives. She was doing things the way her mother and grandmother did it. But today, she has a choice.''

Like many Western ideas, though, convenience foods meet stiff resistance from age-old traditions.

Indians place great importance on hot, home-cooked meals. It's so critical in a city like Bombay that a special system operates to bring home cooking from the suburbs to high-rise offices. Every day an army of more than 2,000 ``dabbawallahs'' collects 100,000 lunch pails called ``dabbas'' or ``tiffin'' boxes from mothers and wives in the suburbs and delivers them to men working in the city.

The obsession with home cooking in part stems from religious and caste rules which remain strong in predominantly Hindu India. Strict Hindus believe food must be prepared by members of one's own or a higher caste.

Health is another concern, due to the widespread problem of food adulteration.

And in this male-dominated society, the woman's homemaking role is still idealized. Annapurna, the Hindu goddess of food and plenty, and the kitchen deity, is widely revered.

``Women are in a race to be Annapurnas,'' says Mrinal Pandey, a New Delhi commentator on women's issues. ``You come across many well-educated Indian men who still idealize the homemaker.'' She recalls her own mother spending half the day preparing meals. ``Women have all been brought up to believe that they aren't proper mothers unless they serve three hot meals a day.''

Slowly, attitudes are starting to change, as women seek jobs to supplement family income. Indians are moving farther from their extended families in search of work, creating new pressures on women who have the responsibilities of a job without backup parental support.

Short of time, working urban women are looking for ways to cut corners. In well-off families, servants do time-consuming chores such as shopping (there are no supermarkets in India). But food preparation remains mainly the woman's responsibility.

Although convenience foods are still considered an occasional substitute, they appear in the kitchen with increasing frequency. Opposition to kitchen appliances also is weakening.

Pressure cookers, once a taboo, are now widely used. The blender is replacing the grinding stone that Indian women have used for generations to grind spices. With caste restrictions breaking down in the cities, American-style fast-food franchises, including pizza parlors, have come into fashion.

A major roadblock is the high cost of instant food and eating out. ``The woman who doesn't work questions why she should pay when she can do things at home,'' says Ms. Dhondy. ``She feels guilty buying these foods.''

But if those prices came down, no doubt even more women would turn to convenience foods - a clear indication of the shift under way in Indian food habits.

``I tell my children about the old attitudes and they just laugh,'' says Ms. Pandey. ``Those attitudes seem strange to the younger generation.''

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