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Knives out 🔪🔪🔪 - Part II
The joys of a mixer-grinder and the political ergonomics of Indian kitchens
The more I read and write about anthropology and food, the more I realise that it is the anthropology of everyday life that I’m fascinated with. I’ve tried capturing this in some of my previous pieces for this newsletter: such as city smellscapes and the politics of olfaction; food, nostalgia, and identity; and pleasure as resistance among others. I also extend this to my other work, by writing about things (concepts? topics?) that are either overlooked or omnipresent. On acts that create identity, meaning, and are just about responsible for everyday existence. And mostly by trying to find joy in the mundane.
One such joy was the red and white Sumeet mixie that we acquired in the 90s — for a while, its constant whirring combined with the whistling of the pressure cooker was my alarm in the mornings. My mother’s prolonged use of the mixie, and its proximity to spices such as turmeric and chilli, stained its white body into a dull mustard. Today, it is no longer in my mother’s kitchen or in many other kitchens in the city. Instead, it has shifted to rabbit-holes of forums and Tweets that recall the golden days of the vintage mixie.
Reginald Lazarus, an IT specialist (who also happens to be the father of my dear friend Susanna), recalls that the Sumeet mixie (then) was a time-honoured wedding gift, even receiving one for their own wedding in 1988. “After the customary prayer before using something new, we ground pepper in the small jar. After a few minutes, the mixie went dead. Reading the manual didn't give us any solution; we basically didn't know what we were looking for. So we packed the mixie and headed to the service centre. The technician looked at us and asked 'Pudhu kalyanama?' We: Yes. Technician: Gift ah? We: Yes.’ Then he quietly turned the mixie on its side and showed us the overload button which had tripped! One press and the mixie started working again. He also kindly pointed out the page in the manual where the solution was mentioned. We’ve since used the mixie for 20+ years and then handed it to another family who are still using it. I think we still have the recipe book — the tomato soup is the most memorable dish we made.”
The iconic brand, which was born due to bare necessity, boasts a legacy as one of the first innovations in Indian kitchens. In the 1960s, engineer Sathya Prakash Mathur introduced the mixer-grinder, a fairly new invention, to the Indian market. He did so after constantly repairing his wife’s old Braun blender which couldn’t handle the heavy duty processes of Indian cooking, including grinding spices, and crushing and pureeing lentils and rice. In ‘63, he floated the Power Control and Appliances Company along with his colleagues at Siemens. Two years later, they came up with a small electric motor, and, a couple of years later, designed a jar for grinding dry and wet foods. By the early 1970s, Sumeet acquired a vast market in the country for power operated kitchen machines (aka the mixer grinder) and became a household name. They were also reportedly the first company to offer a mixie jar in stainless steel, a durable and popular investment in Indian kitchens. Around the same time, the food processor was introduced in the United States, where it also became a kitchen essential. The inventor and engineer Carl Sontheimer developed the Cuisinart food processor based on the commercial Magimix by the French Robot-Coupe.
Technologies such as the food processor, blender, mixer-grinder, pressure cooker are forms of liberation for the home cook, especially in a country like India where cooking requires a ton of effort. It’s no surprise then that there are a variety of readily available spice mixes for every dish possible, from biryani and tandoori chicken to pani puri and sambar. Meanwhile, the pressure cooker is finding its resurgence in certain parts of the world as energy bills soar. These gadgets came into the Indian kitchen in the 60s, took off in the 70s, and became mainstays in the 80s, offering respite to home cooks who would otherwise work long hours. Similarly the wet grinder, which is a uniquely Indian appliance used to process grains into batters, employs a fluid (usually water) that helps with lubrication. In a pinch, the mixie does this too, except water has to be replaced with ice cubes to cool down the heat generated by the appliance.
Using the mixie became a game changer for my mother, because it meant that there was no more grinding and pureeing on the ammikkal and the aatukkal, implements which are heavy and make kitchen tasks quite tedious. My mother, who always hated cooking, was overjoyed at the advent of the mixie. Her time spent in the kitchen was cut short (thanks to both the mixie and the pressure cooker) and the extra time was either transferred to the office or for herself. Doing away with the ammikkal and the aatukkal, and occasionally the aruvaamanai, meant that there was less focus on painstakingly preparing food by hand. Instead, home cooks like her could move from one task to another without a second thought. Unfortunately, by the time the mixie thrived in our home, the company that manufactured Sumeet began disappearing from the market, while its parts were slowly unavailable due to the emergence of other brands. That, along with distribution problems and a dispute over ownership in the family, ensured its downfall. Eventually, we moved on to other brands but nothing came close to the OG.
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In the 90s, economic liberalisation — which opened up India to the world and allowed foreign investment — changed eating preferences. Metropolitan cities became cosmopolitan. Eating out included ‘Continental’ cuisine and McDonald's burgers, while eating in meant Kellogg’s cornflakes and Hershey’s chocolate syrup. Unsurprisingly, kitchens and cooking changed too. The need for modular kitchens grew as families became nuclear and the time spent prepping and cooking became less. As the podcast Bad Table Manners notes, “Liberalisation brought the cooking to the countertop and changed the way socialisation happened in the kitchen as it shifted labour from communal to individualistic.”
For my grandmother, these changes over the decades meant that she had to start standing up to cook. All her life, she was accustomed to sitting down to slice vegetables, grate jaggery and coconuts, and grind batter for idli and dosai. The hearth she was used to in her village was built on wood (and later, coals), and moving to the city meant a domestic upheaval. On the one hand, technology eased the cooking process, but the advent of contemporary city kitchen designs, including gas cylinders and stoves, meant that many home cooks like her had to give up squatting and crouching down to cook. I, on the other hand, learnt to cook standing up and moving side to side in my mother’s tiny kitchen, which was unbearable at the height of Chennai summers, giving myself tiny breaks from time to time.
In an Instagram post from last year, journalist and food historian Vikram Doctor writes about how cooks in Asia and perhaps other traditional cultures cooked sitting down. “The shift to standing kitchens has taken a real toll on cook’s bodies. Cooks get severe back and knee problems.” Doctor also alludes to Chitrita Banerjee’s essay on the bonti, where the latter writes that sitting transforms the act of cooking, that there is a closeness to the earth. Banerjee also wrote in The Hour of the Goddessthat the “kitchens of Bengal are rapidly changing… Tables and countertops are triumphing over the floor…”
But even as ornate dining tables, modular kitchens, and kitchen islands have come to signify modernity, many in India still cook and eat sitting down in 2023. Because kitchens in India, like everything else, have a caste element at play. Even as they’ve become smaller, the ideology is the same: a segregated space where divisions are replicated.
In Gastro-Politics in Hindu South Asia, Arjun Appadurai writes that South Asia has been a “highly stratified, sedentary agricultural economy for almost 2000 years” and so access to “many important ideas concerning sharing, redistribution, and power are expressed in the idiom through food”, which are through the distinctions of caste. Even as a growing reliance on processed foods and domestic technologies in favour of so-called traditional cooking is said to be undermining and homogenising skills, the question that’s rarely asked is: who is this detrimental for?
It reminds me of a recent video that made the rounds on Instagram and Twitter, where a young woman in a 9 yard sari sits down and cooks in a clay pot in a spacious kitchen, surrounded by gleaming silver and brass vessels. Comments ranged from outright simping and heart-eye emoji to an ardent admiration for the woman in upholding “tradition”. Some remarked on the reality of this idealised kitchen setting and unattainable standards, while others (rightfully) questioned the video’s brahminical patriarchy politics. Who is this video really appealing to? And where is this kitchen set?
Brahmin kitchens (like my family’s and many others’) are spaces where caste purity is followed. Sometimes it’s in the form of separate plates for food and separate tumblers for water, sometimes menstruating women aren’t allowed, while some kitchens don’t have onions and garlic. Different families have different rules, united and divided only by varying degrees of ‘purity’. Such casual casteism is rampant across cities in India and it’s easy for oppressor caste Hindus like me to act like it doesn’t affect us. These ideas of purity and impurity, division and hierarchy aren’t just about trying to understand how one family functions, but they are peepholes into how India lives and functions.
Take the ISCKON-run non-governmental organisation Akshaya Patra, which has been awarded the contract to provide midday meals to school children in Karnataka. The foundation has been asking for donations to “fight against classroom hunger”, but refuses to add onion and garlic to its meals and does not provide eggs citing religious beliefs. The midday meal scheme was launched to boost the availability of primary education while improving children’s nutrition levels. It is not only unscientifically founded but also casteist to promote such food beliefs.
Invariably, ergonomics, technology, and ease of cooking play an important role in the making of a modern Indian kitchen. But what is usually absent from the conversation is the invisibility of labour and the gendered caste violence perpetuated by the oppressor caste and experienced by the domestic worker — often from the oppressed caste. In many ways, liberalisation hasn’t changed the way socialisation happened in the kitchen, it just cloaks it under the garb of modernisation.
Edited to add a line.
This is part ii of Knives Out. Read part i here. This newsletter has been edited by Susanna Myrtle Lazarus.
ii. Further reading/listening
This is an interesting radio piece reported by writer and chef Thy Tran about the Sumeet mixie and how no other blenders and food processors have captured their heart or the kitchen counter.
Teensy promotion of a piece written by me for enthucutlet on how Kellogg’s failed to make a mark in India.
Sruthi Herbert’s critique of the Malayalam movie The Great Indian Kitchen is essential reading.
Jerald Dsouza and Dr Sylvia Karpagam write how about the right to nutrition should have been the premise to policymaking in India.
Pudhu kalyanama = are you newly married?
The wet grinder is derived from the French melangeur which is commonly used to grind cocoa beans into chocolate. In traditional Mesoamerican cultures, the instrument used to grind maize, cocoa, and other seeds is a metate which is very similar to the ammikkal (or the sil batta), and the batán in South America, which I’ve noted in part i.
Originally published in 2001.