WhatsApp Is Changing the Way India Talks About Food

Anil Bandawane, a farmer living outside Pune, India, was fed up with the poor advice he was getting from the government’s national hotline for agricultural queries. Life as a farmer in India can be isolating, and he felt cut off from his peers.

So he started a WhatsApp group called Baliraja (which roughly means “farmer king” in the Marathi language). The group, which allows his fellow farmers across the country to exchange expertise and support on the popular messaging platform, gained so much traction that Mr. Bandawane has created more than a dozen different subgroups for various districts.

To the south, in the state of Kerala, Bharathy Gopalakrishnan, a stay-at-home mother, wanted to make a little money from some leftover red-velvet cupcakes. That idea turned into PB Kitchen, a WhatsApp group she founded to allow the women in her apartment complex to buy and sell one another’s homemade dishes, from sambars and vadas to burgers and cakes.

Around the same time, Krishna Prasad, the director of an organic-agriculture advocacy group, and Abhishek Naik, a scientist, were looking for a way to share healthy recipes and information about organic food. So they created a group a WhatsApp group, Anna Arogya (“food for good health” in Kannada).

He could publish his mango knowledge on a blog, he said, “but how many would be reading it?” WhatsApp “shares my information to a much larger audience,” and in a targeted manner.

In India’s restaurant industry, a business dominated by young hourly workers, WhatsApp has become the predominant means of communication. Thomas Zacharias, 32, the executive chef and a partner at the Mumbai restaurant Bombay Canteen, said he belongs to more than 20 WhatsApp groups that span the restaurant’s various departments.

He uses the groups to train new employees on the menu, devise dishes and motivate the staff. “I have a lot of folks who haven’t even graduated from high school, but they are really comfortable using WhatsApp,” he said. “WhatsApp breaks that barrier, and doesn’t judge based on background or upbringing.”

Before creating their organic advocacy group Anna Arogya, Mr. Naik, 32, and Mr. Prasad, 48, considered starting a Facebook group or a website instead. But Mr. Naik, the director of a sustainable agriculture organization called Sahaja Samrudha, said he found Facebook to be riddled with advertisements and hard to navigate; creating a website would have required hiring developers and designers — and many in the WhatsApp group don’t even have a computer.

What about Instagram, the favored platform for sharing food information in much of the world? “Putting up Instagram posts is seen as dodgy, since you aren’t knowing how many people are really seeing it,” Ms. Tanya said.

WhatsApp’s wide accessibility allows it to function as a dynamic database for Indians from various generations to record and share their food knowledge — often for the first time.

Saee Koranne-Khandekar, 36, a writer and culinary consultant in Mumbai, created a WhatsApp group for her family, with about 50 members. So many recipes were being exchanged, particularly by older relatives, that she turned the messages and photos into a family cookbook in 2014.

What she liked most about the application was that it “allowed for active debate over recipes,” she said. “If somebody said, ‘This cook in the family used to make onion pakoras using sliced onions,’ someone else would come on and say, ‘No, he didn’t slice them, he chopped them fine.’”

Sharanya Deepak, a 28-year-old food writer in New Delhi, said older cooks used to be reluctant to share recipes.

On WhatsApp, where messages are freely and frequently exchanged, “they seem to give away secrets more easily,” said Ms. Deepak, who for years had pestered her mother’s friend for a recipe for rajma chawal (kidney beans and rice). But when asked on WhatsApp, “she sent me the screen shot right away.”

Groups like these can provide not only a voice for their food-loving members, but also a source of income.

Asha Nair, 38, a member of Ms. Gopalakrishnan’s PB Kitchen, started offering homemade spice powders on the group. They sold so quickly that in 2016 she started her own food company, Health to All, which conducts most of its business on WhatsApp.

Still, the service has its flaws. It has spread culinary misinformation: kitchen hacks that don’t work, unproven theories about supposedly dangerous foods.

Mr. Naik, the scientist, said many plant-based home remedies posted to Anna Arogya have turned out to be hoaxes. This is especially problematic for his organic-advocacy group, he added, as members turn to it as a credible source of health advice.

There’s also the issue of noise. WhatsApp users in India are well known for sending a constant stream of daily “Good Morning!” messages, jokes and videos, regardless of their relevance. Mr. Naik said he has had to remove several people from his group for flooding the chat with emoticons and greetings.

Users have also complained to him that all the chats, photos and videos consume too much of their phone’s memory. “A few have deleted the group because their memory was getting full, and they were unable to use their phone for anything else,” he said, while others have upgraded to a new phone just to stay in the group.

Mr. Bandawane said he doesn’t like the 256-person limit on the group sizes, given the huge number of farmers across India interested in joining.

Kaushik Ramasway, 40, a caterer in New Delhi, said he preferred promoting his business on Instagram rather than WhatsApp. “A message popping up on WhatsApp saying, ‘Buy my aloo chokha’ seems a bit intrusive,” he said. “Instagram is what culinary artists and restaurants and caterers have used from the very beginning to promote their food.”

But Ms. Tanya, the Goya Journal co-founder, remains optimistic about WhatsApp’s impact on India’s food culture.

She recalled interviewing Ummi Abdulla, an expert on the Muslim cuisine of Malabar, in Kerala, for an article. Ms. Abdulla, 84, is known for cooking traditional food, but for Ms. Tanya, “she made this dish that was so innovative and out of the box: It was homemade bread in the shape of a cone, stuffed with minced mutton.”

What had inspired such creativity? Ms. Abdulla was frank: She had seen the dish on WhatsApp.

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