Vantage point

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Marathi Food and Marathi (Non)Migration

Through Amit Varma's blog I came across this interesting article by Vikram Doctor. He wonders why Maharashtrian food is not popular outside the state.

I should also qualify my initial statement about Maharashtrian food not being popular: it is, but only within Maharashtra. In Mumbai you’ll find several simple eateries in areas like Dadar or Girgaum serving vegetarian food (Dattatreya, Phansikar, Prakash, Tambhe Arogya Bhavan) or non-vegetarian, with an emphasis on seafood (many places calling themselves Malvani, Konkani or Gomantak restaurants).

Sindhudurg offers a more upmarket option, as does Viva Paschim (which used to feature in-meal entertainment with lavni artistes and two men dressed as a dancing cow) and now there’s Diva Maharashtracha where occasionally decent food is overshadowed by its phenomenally self-promoting owner.

On the street, you get snacks like vada-pav, kande-poha and missal (especially from the zhunka-bakhar stalls which ended up serving almost anything except that besan curry-roti mixture). And elsewhere in the state you’ll find restaurants serving local specialities with savour and style.

But only within the state. Outside, if you ask people about Maharashtrian food you’ll mostly get blank looks, or some vague knowledge of vada-pav, thanks to the Sena, which recently flew a vada-pav maker to Delhi to dish it up for national leaders, and chains like Jumbo Vada Pav which are taking it national (Dheeraj Gupta, Jumbo’s owner, tells me that local tweaking is needed, like buttering the pav to get Gujaratis to buy it: “We made this simple change and volumes jumped 250% in one month!”).

Beyond this though there’s not much knowledge, and I find this puzzling because many of the factors that leave a cuisine obscure do not apply in Maharashtra’s case.

I think Doctor has ignored a rather obvious explanation. My guess is the answer lies in the non-immigratory nature of the Marathi manoos.

Think about it. Who made idlis and dosas a national breakfast fare? People from places like Udupi who migrated from their states to other places in search of livelihood. Who made the generic Punjabi fare popular? The Punju migrants. Heck, even the street kulfis you see have the name "mevad" plastered on them because people from the Mevad province travelled to other states to sell kulfis and make a livelihood.

This is true worldwide too. Italian and Chinese food is more popular in the US than Indian food, because the purveyors of those foods got an immigration head-start. Meanwhile, Indian food is a lot more popular in Britain because Indians started migrating there in big numbers much earlier than to the US.

The Marathi manoos is not particularly known for leaving the state in search of livelihood. The causality here is ambiguous. One explanation could be cultural, and sociologists could explain why Marathis don't venture out too much. Another one could be just realistic and practical. Maharashtra in general and Mumbai in particular have been the original "sinks" for immigration because of employment opportunities. Everyone wants to come to Bombay. There was a big stream of immigration from the south in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, and since then North Indians have been filling the city. Gujaratis, Punjabis (pre-green-revolution reasons) and Marwadis have always been known to immigrate and set up businesses.

But the Marathi restaurateur didn't need to leave the state. He had no incentive to. If a Kolhapuri wanted to sell misal or a Malvani wanted to sell sea-food, they could just move to Bombay(or Pune) and prosper. Why go all the way to Delhi or Kolkata when you have massive markets just a few hours away? Also, relatively speaking, the infrastructure and law and order has been better in Maharashtra than most states. If everyone is coming to Bombay, why would you want to go in the opposite direction?

And maybe this lack of an incentive to immigrate..... or even stronger - the lack of a disincentive to stay where you are, perpetuates the phobia against going elsewhere. Talk to Marathis working in white-collar jobs in Delhi, Bangalore or Chennai, and most will have plans afoot to get a transfer to Pune or Bombay. I don't think this "take me home, to the place, I belong" sentiment is as strong with people from other places.

And who knows, maybe the immigration-phobia also dampens entrepreneurial spirit. If you are someone who has moved thousands of kilometres from your home to make a livelihood by setting up a food business, it means you probably have or develop (direction of causality very ambiguous) a greater drive to succeed and grow. So most successful marathi food business are happy to reach a certain level of financial success and then maintain the status quo. Whereas, udupis and punjabis and suchlike want to keep growing.

Let me end with a personal anecdote. When we moved into our house in Pune in the late 80s, the locality we lived in was on the outskirts of the city. Rickshaws charged huge premiums to go there. If we wanted to go to a proper sit-down restaurant, we had to travel a few kilometres on my dad's loyal Lambretta. So we often had to make do with the meagre options available in the vicinity.

There were 3 food stalls. One was a vadapav seller. The other was a bhelpuri wallah. And the third was an idli-dosa stand. All of us who grew up in the locality patronized these places regularly. Twenty years later, the locality is no longer on the outskirts. It is heavily populated with a lot of traffic.

The erstwhile idli-dosa stand is now a sit-down restaurant called Kinara. The vadapav and the bhelpuri guys.... you guessed it.... still have stalls. Not that they are doing badly. Whenever I go to Pune, I eat bhel and vadapav from those stalls regularly, and talk to them at length, because they have literally seen me growing up. Their sales volumes are quite high and they make more money than I did after my MBA :). They used to live in slums, but now live in apartments. Their kids went to college, did well, and are white-collar workers themselves. Both guys are moderate successes and happy with their lives.

But they were just content hiring one or two guys to wash the dishes, cut the pavs, cut the onions alongside them standing at the stalls. While the guy from Udupi invested his profits smartly, hired more people, bought a bigger shack, then an even bigger, then bought a small shop, then expanded, until he now owns a biggish restaurant called Kinara (Remember the scene from Kamal Hasan's silent movie Pushpak, where they show how the Pushpak grew from a tiny shack to a big hotel.... that was the transformation we saw happening with Kinara over 20 years).

And here's the real kicker. The last time I visited the bhelwallah, he told me about how he had been taking vacations all over the country, how he enjoyed visiting Goa, Bangalore, Agra, Delhi, Shimla, and so on. Then a guy who owns a shop next to him told me the bhelwallah could be in Australia now. Apparently one of his regular patrons who, like me, grew up in the neighborhood, had moved to Australia, owned a successful restaurant, and had all but offered the bhelwallah a blank cheque to move with him. He ensured he would get him a visa, get him a house, and set up a "marathi fast food restaurant" with him. The bhelwallah refused. Why?

"ikde sagla first class chalala aahe na... kashala ugaach dusrikadey jaaycha traas?" (Everything is going fine here... why should I take the trouble of moving elsewhere?)

And in that lies a big part of the answer to Vikram Doctor's question.