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Refrigerating India

When refrigerators became widely available in India in the 1970s, refrigerator manufacturers expected that Indian elite and middle class households would rush to buy them with the same zeal as Japanese households of a decade earlier (Mazzarella, 2003; Wilhite et al, 1996). Marketing experts were soon scratching their heads over Indian consumers’ lack of enthusiasm for the refrigerator. Through my interviews and interactions with Indian households, I was able to identify that this lukewarm reception was mainly due to a deeply anchored food ideology – with its roots in the Ayurvedic health principles popular with Hindus of South India – which regards two of the main practices enabled by the refrigerator as unhealthy: the imbibing of cold foods and drinks, and the storing and then reheating of cooked foods. Food should be ‘alive’ in order to give life to the eater, meaning that it should be prepared from fresh ingredients and eaten right away. Cooked foods that are set aside or stored lose their vitality and eating them is said to cause laziness and stupidity.

Figure 1

Colour photograph of an indian woman offering cooked rice to others

Freshly cooked rice, the staple of the South Indian diet

I found that in Kerala’s middle-aged and elderly generation, the practice of preparing food in bulk and reheating it at later meals was rare in the early 2000s, even among those families who owned a refrigerator. The aversion to imbibing cold food and drinks was widespread. To quote from a classic Ayurvedic text, ‘Processes like digestion and sexual intercourse require heat to separate, to distil and to mix different (bodily) substances’. Imbibing cold foods and cold drinks is thought to disturb these processes. Our housemates and neighbours, who did not usually intervene concerning my family’s food habits, would invariably get agitated when we gave cold water from the refrigerator or chilled bottled drinks to our children. We were admonished time and again about the health risks of drinking cold beverages. We were told that ingesting cold foods or drinks was not only a source of throat and stomach problems, it would lead to sluggish and lazy children.

I found that many of those households who did not have a refrigerator set aside a cool, dark place in the house where vegetables, eggs and dairy products such as milk and ghee (clarified butter) were placed. This is still the case in many of Kerala’s rural and low income households, where a closet or a small, dark room is set aside for cool storage of raw foods. I found that freeing up space was a stronger motive for many families who purchased refrigerators than an interest in cold-food practices. This is consistent with Garnett’s (2007) findings in her research on the motivations behind the spread of the refrigerator in England in the 1960s, where food was mainly stored in cool basements. A refrigerator liberated food storage space for other uses.

In the early 2000s in India, sales of refrigerators began to pick up and ideas about healthy food began to change, especially among younger households. In the next section I discuss what I found to be the three main reasons for this: the abrupt change in the political economy of durable goods after the opening of India in 1991; time pressures on women who were entering the workforce and yet still maintained responsibility for all household chores, including shopping for food and cooking; and the flow of ideas and goods through Kerala’s extensive work migration.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/180903/004