Since 2014, Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies has partnered with University of London’s SOAS Food Studies Centre to co-sponsor a Distinguished Lecture Series for leading scholars, students, journalists, practitioners and members of the public to engage in critical conversations about the nature of food, the interconnectivity of contemporary food systems, the role of food in daily life, and emerging trends in food studies.
Across northern India, roadside stalls and restaurants announce themselves as ‘Maggi Point’ and ‘Maggi Corner.’ Maggi, a brand of instant noodles introduced in the late 1980s, is now not only a popular snack, but the favorite comfort food of an entire generation of young urban Indians. What is the secret of Maggi’s success? And what does it tell us about taste and desire in the heart of a consumer economy in a deeply unequal society?
I began noticing products like Maggi noodles when they first appeared in village shops. Surely the novelty of splurging on these brightly packaged bits of junk must be limited to the well-off few, I wondered. However, such products were soon crowding each other on grocery shelves. What I was witnessing was part of an explosion in the consumption of industrial foods, as Jack Goody called mass-manufactured edible commodities produced and distributed by corporate firms.
My growing interest in the life of industrial foods has led me to students and migrant squatter settlements, street vendors and supermarkets, advertising companies and processing plants, television studios and government offices as I follow the threads of how instant noodles are produced, distributed and consumed. At first glance, this seemed to be a familiar story about the commodification of diets in an era of economic liberalization. Soon, however, I came to realize that it was also about citizenship, about poor and low-caste people who continue to be denied social and economic rights striving for respect and dignity. The success of instant noodles is partly sparked by their aspiration to belong to a nation increasingly defined by the consumption of fetishized commodities.
Instant noodles also compel us to look more closely at youth and how their tastes dictate food practices within households, overturning the standard narrative about Indian families, age, and patriarchal power. This simmering broth of social relations which industrial foods add to and transform is a critical part of India’s cultural landscape. It’s exciting to be able to contribute to a subject that concerns public policy on nutrition and health.
Amita Baviskar is Professor of Sociology at the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi. She studies the cultural politics of environment and development in rural and urban India. Her current research looks at food practices and the transformation of agrarian environments in western India. Baviskar has taught at the University of Delhi, and has been a visiting scholar at Stanford, Cornell, Yale, SciencesPo and the University of California at Berkeley. She was awarded the 2005 Malcolm Adiseshiah Award for Distinguished Contributions to Development Studies, the 2008 VKRV Rao Prize for Social Science Research, and the 2010 Infosys Prize for Social Sciences.
The SOAS Food Studies Centre is an interdisciplinary centre dedicated to the study of the political, economic, and cultural dimensions of food, historically and in the contemporary moment, from production, to exchange, to preparation, to consumption. The Centre’s primary purposes are to promote research and teaching in the field of food studies at SOAS and to facilitate links between SOAS and other individuals and institutions with an academic interest in food studies.
Image credits: Maggi Masala noodles by Sixth6sense – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40729391; Magi Goreng noodles, as served at Restoran Khaleel, Gurney Drive, Penang, Malaysia By amrufm [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons