'Is It Real Food?' Who Benefits from Globalisation in Tanzania and India?

by Pat Caplan
Goldsmiths College London

Sociological Research Online, Volume 11, Issue 4,

Received: 14 Aug 2006     Accepted: 7 Dec 2006    Published: 31 Dec 2006


Almost twenty years ago, the French anthropologist Claude Fischler wrote: 'To identify a food, one has to "think" it, to understand its place in the world and therefore understand the world.' For several decades I have been carrying out research among peasant cultivators on the East African coast (since 1965) and among the middle classes in Chennai (formerly Madras), South India (since 1974). During those periods, there have been marked changes in food consumption patterns in both areas. Recent research on local views of modernities in Tanzania suggests that food is an important way for people to conceptualise some of the dis-orders which have arisen as a result of current neo-liberal policies. In Chennai, on the other hand, my most recent research suggests that the consumption of 'modern' food is welcomed by the middle classes, especially by younger people, as being associated with global cosmopolitanism. In both areas, however, as might be expected, much depends on context and positionality and thus multiple and sometimes competing voices can be heard. In this paper, I examine local responses to changing food consumption patterns in order to understand local knowledge of food and the world.

Keywords: Food, Globalization, Modernities, Tanzania, India, Order and Disorder


'The old order changeth, yielding place to new' (Tennyson)
1.1 In this paper, I consider the implications of what is usually glossed as 'globalisation' on two very different societies: a rural, coastal part of Tanzania, where I have been carrying out fieldwork among peasant farmers and fisher-folk since 1965[1], and a suburb of Chennai/Madras City in south India, where research was conducted between the 1970s and 1990s among middle-class, highly educated professionals[2]. My major focus will be upon food issues.

1.2 Anthropologists have approached the subject of globalisation in a variety of ways. What they tend to have in common is their belief that anthropology is distinguished from the other social sciences by its 'long-standing and defiant pre-occupation with the mundane, the ordinary and the intimate (Watson and Caldwell 2005: 2). However, the contexts in which studies of such issues take place are often now multi-sited, considering global flows of persons and things (e.g. Eriksen 2003). In other respects, however, their work in this field, as indeed in others, is diverse, not only in its subject-matter, but also in its fundamental premises.

1.3 In a recent book on the anthropology of globalisation, the editors Inda and Rosaldo (2002) argue that anthropologists are mainly interested in meaning and culture (p. 9) and thus what is of concern to them is the cultural dynamics of globalisation and in particular culture's resultant de-territorialization. In the process of discussing these concepts, they attack the notion of 'cultural imperialism' which suggests that the processes of globalisation involve the domination of certain cultures over others: 'the picture the discourse of cultural imperialism draws of the world fails to adequately capture its complexities… it constructs Third World subjects as passive consumers of imported cultural goods' (ibid: 15). Instead, they argue for a more detailed and nuanced consideration of what happens when goods move from one location and culture to another by considering 'their complex reception and appropriation' (ibid: 17).

1.4 Inda and Rosaldo also reject the notion that the consumers of foreign cultural products internalize the values allegedly contained in them, arguing instead that people 'do not necessarily absorb the ideologies, values, and life-style position of the texts they consume… subjects always bring their own cultural dispositions to bear' (ibid)[3]. They further argue that the traffic in goods such as food is two-way, with many Westerners now eating not only food sourced from places such as Asia, but also enjoying its cuisines. Such examples reveal what they term a 'process of mutual imbrication'. In short, their view of globalisation appears to suggest that it is a rather benign and reciprocal process.

1.5 The approach of Inda and Rosaldo contrasts interestingly with the recent work on the cultural politics of food and eating by Watson and Caldwell (2005). While also investigating issues of culture, they stress, in contrast to Inda and Rosaldo, that it is important is to concentrate on food as a window on the political, since the process of paying attention to such matters as how people relate to food allow us to find ways of understanding the 'big issues' of the day, including global flows.

1.6 In this paper, I will be following the second, rather than the first approach to the topic of food. An anthropological approach, with its fine-grained and often long-term ethnography, can indeed reveal the enormous complexities of the processes under consideration, particularly its local effects, in a way that few other disciplines can do. It can also reveal the important roles played by culture. However, I will argue here that it is also important to consider how power is deployed in the process of globalisation, that it is essential to consider globalisation as an economic and political, as well as a cultural process, and one that can be far from benign.

1.7 A second set of concepts which will be used are those of order and disorder. Baumann has recently argued that globalisation is actually a form of 'new world disorder' (2002: 252), pointing out that in earlier times, the immense task of order-making was largely undertaken by the state, but that this has now been expropriated by the mega-companies and 'the market'. Further, unlike the situation in the 19th century captured by Tennyson in the quote which begins this paper, the new situation is not necessarily one of order. As a result, globalisation is 'not about what we all…wish or hope to do. It is about what is happening to us all' (ibid: 253).

1.8 Of course order-making is not only undertaken at the macro-level such as the state, it is also carried out by people who have to make sense of the world in which they live. Food is a good example of the way in which 'order-making' occurs on an everyday level. As Fischler pointed out almost two decades ago, 'to identify a food, one has to "think" it, to understand its place in the world and therefore understand the world' (1988: 284). This is what he means by the 'culinary order'. In this respect, he is building on the work of earlier anthropologists such as Mary Douglas who have shown that food can powerfully express the 'order of things', of things and people being in their place, but they have also suggested that food can in addition be suggestive of disorder, sometimes conceptualised as pollution (Douglas 1970).

1.9 In both of the areas under consideration, the 'order of things' is changing rapidly, not least because of one important manifestation of globalisation: the neo-liberal 'free market' policies adopted by their respective governments under pressure from the multi-lateral financial institutions. As a result of liberalising policies, new foods have entered the areas under consideration. In what follows, I consider how local people have responded in terms of acceptance of new foods and whether they do so reluctantly or enthusiastically and the reasons for their reactions. One way of conceptualising this issue is whether the changes in eating patterns which I will be describing have meant a change from order to disorder – what some anthropologists have described as 'gastro-anomie' (Fischler 1980) or 'alienation' (Mintz 1985) - or whether new forms of order/pattern are emerging. There will be a discussion of such topics in the second part of my paper, but I begin by giving a brief history of food in each of these two contrasting areas.

Part 1. Historical Background

a) Mafia Island, Tanzania, 1965-2004

[4] 2.1 Mafia Island lies off the southern coast of Tanzania, near to the Rufiji Delta.

Figure 1. Map of East Africa

It was first colonised by Arabs during the Omani Sultanate of Zanzibar in the 19th century, and its southern half became largely a plantation economy growing coconuts with slave labour. Indigenous people were left mainly with the northern half of the island, which was less suitable for coconuts, and grew subsistence crops such as millet, as well as keeping cattle. When Germany took over Tanganyika at the end of the 19th century, Mafia was exchanged for another parcel of land close to Uganda, and so became a part of German East Africa or Tanganyika. The Germans pushed the cultivation of coconuts into the northern areas of the island, and there was a big change in the settlement patterns of the northern villages, as their inhabitants moved nearer to the coast to take advantage of the sandy soil to plant the coconut trees required (fifty trees for each able-bodied male on pain of beating for failure to comply).

Figure 2. Mafia Island

2.2 In the north of the island, people lived in nucleated villages, each of which was and still is surrounded by a large belt of bush land, cultivated on a shifting system in which rights were obtained by descent (see Caplan 1975). Such cultivation was typical of large areas of sub-Saharan Africa, as Richards' classic work on the Bemba of what is now Zambia demonstrates (1939) but this has become difficult to sustain, both on Mafia and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, in the light of population growth and the increasing use of land for cash crops, as well as greater commoditisation of land. In the south of the island, there was much less land available for food crops and people have long relied mainly on income from labour or cash crops to purchase food. Even in the north, where there was more cultivable land, people were not completely self-sufficient in food, and needed to rely on imports to the island. Indeed, the Mafia District book[5] shows that the island has been a food deficit area since German times.

2.3 Successive governments, both colonial and post-colonial, have nonetheless sought to improve the ratio of grown to bought food. When I first carried out research in the 1960s, there were campaigns to plant cassava, which has the virtue of being drought resistant but nutritionally inferior, and by the 1990s, strong encouragement to grow plantains. Such campaigns have had only limited success, not least because the most valued food remains rice, which was always the food of choice of the elites on the coast.

2.4 Interviews I conducted in the 1980s and 1990s with older people revealed that during German and British colonial periods, the main staple food crop grown in the north of the island was millet. It was still being grown to a lesser extent when I first did fieldwork in the 1960s, but has now largely been replaced by cassava grown locally, shop-bought maize flour (dona), and, to a lesser extent, wheat flour, which began to be imported both from abroad (mainly Kenya, but even occasionally from the United States) and from further afield in Tanganyika during the British colonial period. Rice is also grown in both dry and wet fields, but the amount produced is insufficient for demand, and it has long been supplemented by rice brought in from the nearby Rufiji Delta, a surplus area.

2.5 During the post independence period of the 1960s and 1970s, marked by 'African socialism' (ujamaa) under the leadership of President Julius Nyerere, the food industry, along with many others, was nationalised, and staples grown commercially were placed under the control of the parastatal National Milling Corporation. Food prices were controlled by the government. In the 1980s, however, as a result of extreme economic pressures, the Tanzanian government, at the urging of the International Monetary Fund, began a process of liberalisation of the economy and of structural adjustment. Parastatals were sold off to private investors, controlled prices were lifted on food, and imports, including food products, increased dramatically. By the 1990s, even food such as rice which could be produced locally began to be imported into Tanzania from as far away as Pakistan and Thailand.

2.6 In this rural area, there are no processed or ready made foods, except perhaps the odd tin of tomato puree in some of the small shops. Many people purchase food items on a daily basis: a little sugar, tea, maize flour, dried beans and spices from the shops, and, if they are lucky, a bit of fish from a local fisherman. Women cook twice daily, a laborious task involving fetching firewood and water often over long distances and pounding paddy into rice or peeling a substitute, such as plantains, sweet potatoes or cassava. This is performed on top of their major responsibility for agricultural labour.

2.7 On Mafia Island, then, people have long relied on a mixture of home-grown and bought food and the latter has tied them to wider trading networks.In order to obtain cash to purchase food, people had to sell their coconuts locally to traders who made the difficult journey to Dar es Salaam to sell them in the main market. For both local producers and traders, margins were always fairly small, since the costs of transport consumed much of the profit. However, the Mafians' reliance on cash crops such as coconuts to generate income to purchase food also made them vulnerable to world commodity prices. The Germans and British wanted coconuts grown because at that time, they were useful in such processes as making soap and producing coir. However, as more and more trees were planted, both on the East Coast and elsewhere in the tropics, a situation of overproduction arose, exacerbated by changes in manufacturing processes and the consequent slackening of world demand for coconuts in the last few decades.

2.8 Thus many people are trying to sustain their households at a time of rising prices for food and falling prices for their cash crops. On top of this difficult scenario, drought has been a serious factor over the last few years, possibly a harbinger of worse to come if climate change accelerates.

2.9 From this account, I would like to stress the following points. First of all, even in a remote area such as Mafia, where many people still practise a largely subsistence economy, food has a history, and diets change. This is partly because of changes of regime[6] - including the policies of both colonial powers and independent governments - but it is also because Mafia has long been tied by its maritime history into much wider trading networks with mainland Tanganyika/Tanzania, the rest of the East Coast, the Gulf and the wider Indian Ocean littoral. Like the rest of the East Coast, it has long been part of a mercantile economy (Middleton 1992).

2.10 Secondly, it is important to note that the local diet is viewed as a part of Swahili cuisine, marked by the use of coconut rice and Zanzibari spices (cloves, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, pepper, and cumin). While this is inevitably hybrid, with African, Arab and Indian influences, on Mafia Island it is not as elaborate as it might be in wealthier areas such as Zanzibar. Nonetheless Mafians are strongly attached to particular foods and ways of preparing them. Coconut rice (wali kwa nazi) with spicy fish or chicken stew, or meat pilau is the food of choice, just as it has been for a longer period in the Swahili towns, and it also symbolises Swahili identity.

b) Middle-class Households in Chennai (Madras), South India

2.11 Let me turn now to my other case study, a southern suburb of Chennai-Madras, in Tamil Nadu state in south India. The residents of this area are middle-class and highly educated, with salaried posts in government, medicine, engineering, law and other professions. Many of their sons and daughters are resident in the USA, which most have visited.

2.12 When I first began to carry out research here in 1974, India, following both Gandhian swadeshi[7] ideas and Nehruvian socialism, still operated an import substitution policy. The only food imported came in as aid, especially the American wheat brought in under PL480[8]. Both for this reason, and because the so-called Green Revolution happened first in the wheat-growing areas of the Punjab, there was plenty of wheat in the country. Rice-eating southerners were encouraged to learn to like chapatis. I remember vividly in the 1970s how some restaurants in south India would first serve only chapatis with sambar (curry) or dahl long before the rice appeared! Sometimes it seemed that one had to eat enough chapatis before being allowed rice. At this time too, staples were available from government-run shops, which sold items such as rice, sugar, and lentils for low and controlled prices to those who had the requisite ration cards.

2.13 In the suburb where I worked, most households had a 'vegetable man' who brought a selection daily to the door or who would move his stall around a neighbourhood, calling out his wares. Food such as rice and lentils, the main staples, was purchased in its raw state, often from wholesalers. Some households still owned family land in their 'native place' (sonda ur[9]) in the countryside and obtained their paddy from there. Shops carried little in the way of packaged food – it was mostly stored in sacks and weighed out into paper bags as required. Tamil cooking was elaborate and time-consuming, and carried out mainly by women except in households wealthy enough to employ a (usually male) cook; in the time budgets I did in the 1970s, women daily spent between four and six hours cooking. Housewives not fortunate enough to have cooks would call on their maidservants to do such time-consuming jobs as cleaning rice and lentil grains, or grinding them to make such dishes as dosai (rice pancakes) and idly (steamed rice cakes). Many men and children would take food prepared at home with them to work or school, or have it sent with a tiffin-wallah (man who carried tiffin boxes). There was relatively little eating out.

2.14 Meals, eaten twice daily by the middle classes, followed a clear pattern, consisting of rice, dahl and some form of curry, while snacks or 'tiffin' such as vadai (fried rice and lentil cakes), dosai (rice pancakes), or idly (steamed rice cakes) were taken in the early morning and late afternoon. Although there is a distinctive and elaborate Tamil cuisine, there would be variations depending on caste and sub-caste. Considerations of caste and purity were extremely important. Brahmins and members of some other sub-castes were strict vegetarians, and households who employed cooks, or whose members occasionally ate out, would make sure that those who prepared food for them were from the highest caste. Here, then, we find a highly elaborated grammar or lexicon of food in which the order of things – caste, gender, class – was clearly reflected.

2.15 Even at that time, however, changes were happening and often commented on by informants. Some women went along with the demands of their offspring that they buy bread and have toast for breakfast, rather than iddlies. Mothers were concerned that their children obtain sufficient vitamins, especially if they were vegetarians, and advertising played upon and probably contributed to such concern. At the same time, many of these women wanted to be 'modern' and some joined in a cookery class held at the local women's club, where they learned to make cakes.

2.16 There were gender differences in reaction to such innovation. Men would sometimes admit to eating rather unorthodox food, even meat, in the course of their work-related activities, but would state proudly that their wives were PURE vegetarians. In some households, women would be willing to cook food which they would not eat themselves such as meat for their husbands or eggs for their children. In this way, then, a single household could be both orthodox and unorthodox, with differences of inside/outside the house, male/female, adult/child (see Caplan 1985, nd).

2.17 By the late 1980s, India had begun to liberalise its economy and supermarkets were beginning to appear, as well as consumer goods such as freezers. Small amounts of 'foreign' food such as packaged Maggi soups, made in India under licence, were promoted and sold. Increasingly, Indian soft drinks brands such as Thums Up were replaced by Pepsi and Coke. By the 1990s this change had gathered pace, with a wide variety of supermarkets springing up and carrying a range of foods such as fruit and vegetables, some frozen foods like meat (chicken and lamb, rarely beef or pork), convenience foods such as dosai mixes and spice pastes, and even imported items. In the area where I worked, covering only a few square miles, I counted no fewer than a dozen supermarkets in the late 1990s (Caplan 2001).

2.18 There has also been a proliferation of restaurants in the last decade or so and eating out has become much more common among the middle classes[10]. Here we see an interesting mix of globalisation and localisation. Chennai now boasts its share of Tex-Mex restaurants and pizza parlours (or 'joints' as they are referred to locally), and the latter are particularly popular with children and young people, including the Americanized grandchildren who visit from time to time. However, the city also has many Indian regional restaurants, such one which serves dishes from Chettinad, a particular area of Tamilnadu, while north Indian foods, notably chaat (a Punjabi snack) and tandoori (food cooked in a clay oven), have become extremely popular.

2.19 There has been a very visible entry of large multinational food and drink companies, such as Kelloggs, Nestle, Coca Cola and Pepsico, into India. Even food companies which are entirely Indian-owned now market in a more sophisticated way. Packaging has become much more elaborate, and brand names, which are heavily advertised in the mass media, significant. These companies have been astute in taking account of local sensibilities when marketing their foods[11]. One brand of Kelloggs cornflakes, for example, which is fortified with iron, not only claims that 'dieticians have shown that teenagers are mostly anaemic' but also call their product Shakti, a term which means 'spiritual power/energy' in Hindu thought. Vegetarians' refusal to eat eggs is catered for by Baskin-Robbins advertising its ice-cream made 'without egg'. Aside from the avoidance of forbidden foods (such as beef and ham), they have targeted certain segments of the population very successfully:

2.20 The changes I have witnessed over the last three decades in relation to kinds of foods available have been dramatic and the complex patterns which I observed in the 1970s have become even more complex two decades later. This raises questions about why people are willing at particular points in time to make changes in their diet, to accommodate new foods, to create new orders, a question which I will be addressing for both areas in the next part of this paper. But it also raises the question about for whom, where and why important existing patterns are retained and certain new forms are resisted.

Part 2. Conceptions of order and disorder: the local response to changes in food

a) Mafia Island

3.1 I returned to Mafia Island in 2002 and again in 2004 to research local concepts of modernity, particularly through understandings of food and food security (Caplan 2003). When asked what they saw as the major risks in their lives, most people replied that it was food security, placing it higher than endemic diseases such as malaria or HIV/AIDS. It was clear that people were struggling, some more than others, primarily because of the lack of work and cash in the local economy. Households without income-earners and with little capital found it difficult to manage, indeed, in 2004 I found some which had cut meals to one a day, otherwise subsisting on sweetened tea, usually drunk without milk, just as had the Victorian working classes (Bennett 1966).

3.2 Whom did they blame for this situation? Primarily the government, with its free-market policies. They looked back nostalgically to the period of the 1980s when, in spite of the extreme economic hardship in Tanzania caused by a dearth of foreign exchange, or rather perhaps because of it, Mafians were able to sell their coconuts for good prices to city-dwellers who could not obtain imported cooking oil and so used coconut oil instead. But they also bemoaned the quality of the newly imported food which they were forced to buy because it was cheaper, especially rice. Rice grown locally was termed 'heavy', in other words, satisfying, it 'stayed in the stomach', whereas the rice imported from abroad had 'travelled a long way', 'sat around for years' and thus, like drugs which had passed their due date, was not good to eat.

Extract 1: Interview with MJ, a middle-aged man, Mafia Island

People today don't have enough strength because they don't eat as well [as they used to do]. The food they eat comes from all over the place, some of it's alright, but some of it isn't….

Q. So is the food which is grown here better?

A. Yes, first of all it's heavy (kizito), the other [kind of food] is very light (kinyepesi). A person has to fill their stomach, but these days people don't feel satisfied! You need two kilos of rice for five children and one and a half kilos of flour daily. Furthermore often people don't eat from their morning tea until night time.

Q. So what constitutes good food?

A. I eat cassava just to fill my stomach But the food that you really need is rice and beans. Bananas don't stay in the stomach (hazikai tumboni) and [just] to fill my stomach I eat porridge made of maize flour (unga/ugali).

Extract 2: Interview with SA, a middle-aged man, Mafia Island

Q. What about the food people eat nowadays?

A. The [imported] food has its problems – it's been around for years before it gets sold. It like medicine – you shouldn't use it after its due date [has expired]. So can it be real food?

3.3 In short, it is not real food and in many respects, symbolises the disorder which many people on Mafia perceive to have been brought about in Tanzania by the liberalisation process (ruksa – literally 'permission') and free market (soko huria). Scarcely surprising then that, in response to my question, one man summed up the future by saying 'We will eat grass'. So for Mafians good food is above all sufficient, locally produced and fresh. For them, as for the Japanese described in the study by Ohnuki-Tierney (1993), 'rice is self' – it is the most important, ritually pure food, required for all major rituals, and used symbolically on a number of occasions. But such rice has to be produced locally, if not on Mafia, then at least nearby – Indian or Thai rice is just not the same and is still not used for rituals even if people are forced by poverty to buy it for everyday use. Thus Mafians have not accommodated to the new food situation with pleasure – they eat what they deem is inferior because they must.

b) Chennai/Madras City

3.4 When I asked people in Chennai in 1998 what they thought constituted good food, vegetables and fruit were mentioned most frequently, regardless of caste or religious background, whereas 'bad foods' mentioned by various informants included aerated drinks, frozen, fried or oily food, and food served at roadside stalls[12] and in some restaurants. In addition, many people identified two main qualities: that food should be 'modern', which for many meant 'foreign' (i.e. imported) and that it should be 'hygienic', which essentially meant packaged, as the following quotations from interviews shows:

a) Food that is imported

3.5 From a group discussion on food changes held at a neighbourhood women's club, Shastri Nagar, Madras

Q. How do people feel about so many foreign companies and multinationals coming in?

Housewife. It is no big deal. No-one goes to a shop and wonders whether something is Indian-made or foreign-made. You just pick it up [and buy it]. It doesn't matter….

Teenage Boy. People here want what people in Europe have. Previously they didn't have information about what was being sold in the US and Europe. Now they do. So why shouldn't we have a part of it? Why shouldn't we have a taste of it? That's the main thing.

3.6 From an interview with a middle-aged couple, 5/1/99, Kottivakkam, Chennai

Q. Are there any food issues which worry you?

Wife. No, only that we eat good and clean food.

Q. What about foreign foods which have come in - is that a good thing?

Wife. Yes, if I see it is foreign I always buy it! It must be good, [since] the standards [there] are high.

Husband (jokingly) The other side of the river is always greener!


Food that is hygienic

3.7 From an interview with supermarket manager 1, Adayar, Madras

Everything in the store is packaged - nothing should appear to be touched by the fingers. We even do some of our own packaging.
Perhaps inevitably, the search for hygiene had extended to water and bottled water was by this time heavily promoted and widely available:

3.9 From an interview with supermarket manager 2 and deputy manager, Adayar, Madras

Q. Do you sell bottled water?

A. Yes, lots of it, the usage is increasing, because as soon as someone has an upset stomach that is what the doctors recommend.

Q. But I understand that bottled water is very expensive, it costs more than milk, doesn't it?

A. (They look at each other). It's true, it is very expensive and actually it isn't always purer than any other.

But many, especially older people, also regretted the innovations: 'Nothing tastes like fresh home cooking', 'Aerated drinks are bad for health'.

3.10 From an interview with a housewife

Q. What foods are bad?

Housewife: Pepsi, Coke, I don't like those aerated drinks - and they have something in them, what is it? Caffeine? Yes that's right. But they insist on buying them, just yesterday I had a fight with him (son) about it. So I do buy the large bottles for the house.

3.11 There were clearly often tensions between the generations in this regard, and in many three-generation families, considerable differences in taste had to be catered for. Most children and young people now eat cereals (cornflakes, 'chocos' etc.) for breakfast, but older people continue to prefer their iddlies.

3.12 A few informants extrapolated from the kinds of food changes they observed to make observations on the changes in lifestyle of which they were symptomatic. Older women bemoaned the tendency of younger ones to take short cuts with their cooking, but recognised that, given the pressures on their time and the relative dearth of servants (compared with the old days), such a trend was inevitable:

3.13 From an interview with the same housewife

I don't know if my son is going to find a girl [wife] who will be willing to cook for him in the way that I did. All the girls [women] these days are working and want convenience foods.

3.14 Others stated that they were unsure how much India's economy was benefiting from the use of imported foods, or foods produced in India under foreign licences or collaborative arrangements:

3.15 From a discussion with two neighbours who are housewives

PC. What do you think about all these new western foods coming in?

Middle-aged woman: It is both good and bad: good that we have new things, bad that we are being exploited. Collaboration [with foreign companies] is good if we Indians hold a majority of the shares.

3.16 However, few of the people I interviewed were aware of the kinds of protests which were taking place in other parts of India against McDonalds, and, more recently, against Coca-Cola which is accused of divesting huge areas of their water supply because of the needs of their bottling plants[13]. Rather, middle-class people in southern Chennai saw the changes in food policies which allowed for a much wider variety of food, some at least of which is imported, as a sign that India was now part of the modern world.

3.17 Yet things are not quite so simple. Much depends on context. It is fine to go and eat a pizza in a restaurant, but noone would (yet) dream of serving a pizza on a ritual occasion such as a wedding. Further, the increase in eating out as a family has meant that differences between /inside/ and 'outside' food have become greater. Here is a non-Brahmin Club member describing her family's preferences at home and outside:

3.18 From an interview with a Women's Club member

PC: Do you eat out?

A. Yes, we are members of the [mixed-sex residents'] club in the neighbouring suburb [which has a restaurant] and go there frequently. One of the reasons is that my husband and children like to eat chicken or fish occasionally, whereas in the house they are pure vegetarians. Also they like to have a change - different kinds of food such as Chinese ('not cooked by Chinese, but Indian Chinese') which are served there.

3.19 Furthermore, while older people tend to stick to what they know, rather than experimenting like younger ones, paradoxically, the largest market for 'ready-meals' delivered to the house are ordered by those same older people whose children are now resident in the USA and who lack the kind of care they might have expected in a joint family household[14]. The status of the cooks of such meals may be flagged up in the adverts which appear regularly in the local Adayar Times newspaper such as the following:

In the latter case, the very name of the enterprise, Iyangar, which is one of the two kinds of Tamil Brahmins, signals its caste status, although its clients might well come from other caste backgrounds.

3.20 In a group discussion at the local Women's Club, I asked for more information about this new practice:

Club member. A. I know a woman who uses this daily. She is a doctor and so is her husband, the children eat at her mother's house every day, but her food comes in a tiffin-carrier at 2 p.m. so she comes back for lunch, which is ready, and whatever is left over she takes for dinner.

PC So what is that system called?

A. It's just catering, house catering.

Club member B. When we did not have a servant for two or three months we used that system. They will come and deliver; in some places you have to go and fetch it.

3.21 The changes which I have described above have thus resulted in various forms of accommodation and we find new orders of food emerging alongside the existing ones. While middle class people have, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, adopted new foods, this has been facilitated by food manufacturers and retailers taking care not to step over the line. Ice-cream is advertised as 'eggless', as are many cakes, while most restaurants are either vegetarian or do not sell either beef or pork dishes. What appeared, however, to be the most significant factor for my informants was that they could now eat, if they chose to do so, like the rest of the world: 'These days, you can get anything in Madras' I was often told. This powerfully signified that India, which had once banned Coke and Pepsi, had taken its rightful place in the global community.

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Conclusion – so who benefits?

4.1 Although I have not carried out research on peasant farmers in India, there is a large literature which suggests that they have not benefited greatly from the changes of recent decades, and indeed, it is from their ranks that most recent protest movements centred on food rights have come[15]. Conversely, had I carried out research on the middle classes in Dar es Salaam, I suspect there might well have been a different set of responses to those obtained on Mafia. From my own observations in the city, as well as the comments of Tanzanian friends and colleagues, it is clear that in the last decade, not only have Coke and Pepsi become ubiquitous in Tanzania, but in the commercial capital Dar es Salaam, there has been an enormous proliferation of supermarkets, stocked with every conceivable food, mostly from South Africa. Such stores are patronised not only by foreigners such as tourists and expatriates, but also by the new middle-class of Tanzanians. In short, then, class, as well as location and culture, plays an important part in determining how new foods will be received.

4.2 So to what extent do people in the two areas discussed in this paper feel that their diets have benefited from processes stemming from globalisation, such as economic liberalisation? Clearly for most Mafians, the answer is that they have not, and they see their diets as having worsened both in quality and quantity. Perhaps what is more important is that there is little they can do about it, given the constraints on their lives. Whether they like rice from abroad or not, their poverty dictates that they buy the cheapest available. They see their current predicament as evidence that the government is not looking after them as they consider it should, that they are not in control of their lives, in short, that there is a situation of dis-order. They do not accept this passively, since they constant analyse the reasons for it, and attempt to mitigate its effects by, for example, ensuring that locally-grown, not imported rice is consumed at rituals such as weddings, but their poverty precludes total resistance to cheaper imported rice.

4.3 For middle class residents of Madras-Chennai, on the other hand, economic liberalisation has meant a huge increase in the variety of foods they can eat, both inside and outside the home, including many more convenience foods of different kinds. Most argued that this was an unmitigated blessing. But then they are in the fortunate position of being able to choose whether or not to adopt new foods, or eat traditional foods, or even to eat both kinds in different contexts. Members of the professional middle classes in Chennai consider themselves to be both Tamil/Indian, but also part of a global system in which they want to occupy a prominent place. They are less likely to challenge the free market economy or to question the import of food than, for example, farmers who have lost livelihoods, as many have in India, just as they have on Mafia.

4.4 In short awareness of the consequences of globalisation stems, unsurprisingly, from people's personal experience, which is largely determined by their positions in the local, regional, national and global socio-economic orders. While it would be wrong to deny people agency in either location, it would be equally wrong to assume that people always have a choice in what they eat. We may perhaps see food systems as in constant tension between order and disorder, with people attempting to resist disorder and seeking greater order by making sense of changes and attempting to incorporate them into local systems of meaning and values. What I have tried to show in this paper is that, perhaps unsurprisingly, wealth, class and power are crucial determinants in their ability to do this.


1Fieldwork in Tanzania has been funded by a variety of sources: the ESRC, The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths, the University of London, the Nuffield Foundation and the Leverhulme Trust.

2Fieldwork in Madras-Chennai has been funded by the ESRC, and the Leverhulme and Nuffield Foundations.

3In this respect, their argument is now new. In the introduction to his book on the effects of the entry of McDonalds into SE Asia, Watson (1997) argues that people do not accept changes in food habits passively – they 'domesticate' new foods like those sold by McDonalds.

4In this section I consider only the situation on Mafia; for an account of Tanzania more generally, see Bryceson 1990.

5Under both the German and British colonial regimes, District Officers were responsible for keeping the District Book, which had information on population, customs, flora, fauna, agriculture and many other topics. The District Books are now housed in the National Archives in Dar es Salaam.

6see Bryceson 1980, 1990 for Tanzania as a whole

7Swadeshi – literally 'own country' – promulgated the view that Indians could and should be self-sufficient and should produce their own needs rather than relying on imports.

8PL 480 (Public Law) in the US allowed for the export of American wheat (of which there was a considerable surplus) to selected recipients in return for payment in rupees, instead of dollars. The ensuing rupee money was used to support much research by US scholars in India.

9All Tamilians have a 'native place' even if they do not own land, where their ancestors came from and where their family deity's temple is still located. Tamilian notions of the body include the idea that substance is derived at least in part from food and water ingested (Daniel 1984). One couple whom I interviewed in 1998 stated that they recently bought some land outside Madras in order to get rice from it, telling me 'It is rain-fed (in Tamil 'sky dependent') land, but there is a good well for irrigation'.

10The work of Finkelstein (1989) and Martens and Warde (1987) offers a comparison with the growth in eating out in the West.

11A similar situation is discussed in Watson's 1997 collection on the impact of the entry of McDonalds into South-east Asia

12Compare Mukhopadhyay 2004 for a similar view from Calcutta

13There have been regular reports in the British press. See for example Paul Brown 'Coca-Cola in India accused of leaving farms parched and land poisoned (Guardian 25th July 2003), John Vidal 'Coke on Trial as Indian villagers accuse plant of sucking them dry' Guardian November 19th 2003, Ari Paul 'Drawing a line with Coke' in Red Pepper March 2006, or Nick Mathiason 'Coke 'drinks India dry'' in The Observer March 19th 2006.

14Although they may be unhappy at being left alone by their children, they admit that they themselves encouraged their migration in the first place, as they wished to see them doing well in the world.

15 Notably in the writing of Vandana Shiva (e.g. 1989), Akhil Gupta (1998) and J.Scott (1990). See also the recent special edition of the Economic and Political Weekly on suicides among Indian farmers (e.g. Vaiyanathan 2006).


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