Why feasting on festival sweets is no longer a treat

Annie Zaidi
Annie ZaidiDec 25, 2014 | 15:32

Why feasting on festival sweets is no longer a treat

This is a time for sweet indulgences. A time for cake and pudding, roast and stuffing. It is probably not a good time to be talking of the steep costs of indulgences. Christmas comes but once a year, right?

Actually, wrong! Christmas - or Diwali, Eid, Baisakhi, Holi - comes around once a year only in name. The ways in which we "celebrate" are hardly a rare event. For a new generation of middle and upper class Indians, chocolate, mithai and deep-fried snacks are an everyday affair. If the annual treat becomes an every-other-day habit, then how are we celebrating?


Festivals are intended to mark the goodness, the richness, and the sweetness of life. Halwa, kheer, siwain, chocolate, marzipan, biryani - these were not consumables that you bought as and when you could afford them. These indulgences had to be created. And I do not mean "created" in the limited sense of cooking. You had to earn them.

You had to carry the plough, put in the seed, water the field, watch over the crop, and pray hard that no pestilence arrived. If you were lucky, you reaped the harvest. Or, you took the animals grazing in the heat and the cold, you birthed the lambs, and bathed buffaloes, and weaned the young ones so you could milk them. You sheared sheep and skinned dead cattle. You traded camels like your life depended on it, because it did.

After you had suffered eating the same four boring, coarse-grain dishes all year around, you gave yourself a festival. You thanked God/the Gods, and you made a small offering which was usually both savoury and sweet, made of the richest foods you could find. Meat, honey, white sugar, white flour, butter, ghee. You lit lamps. You spent a little time and money decorating. You bought new clothes. But food was the most vital part of the celebration because it was the one time in the year that you ate your fill of sugar and ghee and highly processed meals. Maybe twice or even four times a year. Not more.


Until a few decades ago, even for urban upper class Indians, a surfeit of sugary, fatty food was rare. I remember that cakes had to be "ordered" for birthdays and even on your own birthday, you usually got just one slice, the width and length of a forefinger. You waited for a mela or Christmas when some kid's mom would take the trouble of baking. You waited for Holi for a platter of gujiya. Whole boxes of sweets arrived only on Diwali.

That happened once a year. Most normal people didn't go visiting laden with boxes of chocolate. Samosa and kachori treats were for when guests came home, or when you went to a birthday party. This was not necessarily on account of frugality. It was also because that's the point of a celebration - to eat something you don't get on regular non-festival days.

What does it mean to "indulge" in a food culture that has made sugar and grease the norm?

Today, you can get a bar of cheap chocolate for ten rupees. You cannot buy any fruit (except bananas) for that price, nor a bajra roti, boiled peas, boiled potatos. Cookies, full of sugar, salt, fat, are available for less than that, as are deep-fried chips and colas, where the main ingredient is sugar. You can get salted butter cheaper than a litre of whole milk.


How has this happened to us, and what are we going to do about it?

It is worth asking because time is running out for a new generation and not all of them are particularly privileged. One report reckons that global obesity is touching 30 percent - close to two billion people - and in India, 20 percent of the population is overweight or obese. However, researchers were also quoted as saying that this figure misrepresents the scale of the problem; if the middle class was looked at in isolation, the figure might go upto 40 per cent! India also has some of the most malnourished people in the world, so they make our average figure look better than it is. A lot of kids are malnourished because pulses are so expensive - much more expensive than sugar.

Here are some bits of information for us to chew on: India is the world's second largest producer of sugarcane and the land devoted to sugarcane has almost doubled over four decades. Sugarcane is one of the largest (in quantity terms) crops in the world. Sugarcane takes a long time to grow - anywhere between nine and 24 months - and India exports a lot of it. Sugarcane is a cash crop - which means it is grown mainly for money, not because it can be eaten by the farmer and the local community. Gandhi (the father of the nation) had been pushing for palm sugar; apparently he called it "the antidote to misery". Palm sugar is almost impossible to find in grocery stores. Corn syrup is cheap in the USA because their government subsidises corn. Sugarcane is subsidised and protected in India.

This is a week of dietary indulgence, so eat to your heart's content. But also, chew on the question. What are we going to do with all this sugar?

Last updated: March 02, 2018 | 22:41
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