Issue 9

Food Beyond the Mess: Why Campus Outlets are Invaluable to Indian Colleges

Food hasn’t changed much after a year of the pandemic but a sub-culture of Indian eating has: that of campus food. While the cafeteria (known better as the mess) in Indian colleges falls under the purview of private catering enterprises, there are yet other, more loved outlets dotted throughout campuses. They usually aren’t well-known franchises (with the exception of a Subway or a Dominos), but instead smaller restaurants. These places don’t only offer up great food, but also a refuge in the secluded island that an urban university can become. These outlets suffered the same fate as other small Indian restaurants: business faltered more and more with each lockdown. Now with the vaccine as a slim purveyor of hope, and the distant likelihood of universities restarting—it’s time to take stock of what was lost in the past year, and what might still change. 

The charm of any great dining out experience in India, whether it’s a highway dhaba or a high-end restaurant, is found in a deep sense of hospitality. Granted, this is what makes any restaurant go from good to great as delicious food on its own is no longer enough. However, it’s not a bonus but often a thumb of rule here—even more so in most local street food joints. These places run on loyalty, word of mouth, and old friendships as much as they do on relatively meagre earnings. Anthony Bourdain, chef and writer, said of his visit to Punjab for his show ‘Parts Unknown’: “A traveller tip for India is to get used to people being really nice to you, it may take some time.” If this is true for most restaurants, then it’s especially true in the tucked-away corners of private and public universities alike. 

Order Up! From the Kitchen to the Students

For students, their favorite outlets go above and beyond food. It’s about tearing through buttered naan in internal joy and external frustration over some deadline, and about lugging yourself the short walk back to your dorm room in a welcomed food coma. It’s also a source of socialization, of bonding over midday coffee habits or a go-to dinner spot. This is unsurprising given a 2011 study which found that the effects of comfort food as a social surrogate, or a way to fulfill the need to belong, were especially high among the college-aged sample. 

To be fair, going to college can be a moment of pivotal change for many leaving home for the first time. Although comfort food might seem like an obvious resolution, a 2010 study found that dynamic environmental changes can “break habitual cues” prompting consumers to step out of their comfort food zone. As students slowly return to campus, it’s possible that they take similar food risks to when they might’ve first arrived on campus bright-eyed and hungry for more. However, risk-taking can only go so far when the menu is full of student favourites anyway. The aim of campus food is not necessarily to revolutionise or innovate at the cost of student loyalty. 

Standard dhaba fair. Credits: @deepz1207 on Instagram

Depending on the outlet, it also works as an antidote to the classroom. Professor-student relations can stay formal and syllabus driven, but some professors also try to get to know who their students are outside the classroom. Conversations then flow with the same academic rigour, only softened by comfort food and emanating laughter from the other tables. Many students will also eat with the outlet owners, digging through a new repository of stories each time. 

Behind the Scenes and Inside the Kitchen

The outlet is a well-oiled machine with many distinct components. Sandeep Rathee, known better as Sandeep Bhaiya on the Ashoka University campus, talks about what makes an outlet work: 

“A good administration is the main thing for an outlet. Without one, the outlet can make do with a bribe, some money but then the students will face the brunt of that.” 

This is especially true in a pandemic. An outlet is only as good as the way its staff is treated not only when the going is good, but when it comes to a financial standstill. It determines not just the quality of service, but its longevity in the face of constantly volatile circumstances. To this, Sandeep Bhaiya says that based on what he’s heard from others, a good administration and thereby fair access to medical facilities and the fulfillment of staff rights can’t be taken for granted. He went on to add that he finds the administration at Ashoka is “one of the best” in this regard. 

Sandeep Bhaiya at his outlet, Fuelzone. Credits: @_officialhumansofdelhi_ on Instagram

In any restaurant, Bourdain in his book Kitchen Confidential calls cooking a “seriously focused waltz” or a kind of “hard-checking mosh pit slam-dancing”. Coordination is crucial, but so is fun. In my experience, at certain times of the night you can hear loud Bollywood music blaring from the dhaba kitchen. This kind of good cheer follows the food out of the kitchen doors and onto your plate, always bringing you back for more. 

Great outlets have something else in common: they offer great food and coffee, alongside good conversation. Sandeep Bhaiya fondly recalls bonding with the founding batches of Ashoka, when there were less students and more downtime for him. This looks like your standard tired, dark circles-ridden student rushing up to the campus coffee store only to find that the staff already knows their usual order. With every year, student batches get larger and present a precarious balance. While it’s good for business, Sandeep Bhaiya says that interactions now condense down to just a “hello” or a “kaise ho” here and there. 

View from the Dhaba at Ashoka University. Credits: @ishitaasinghh on Instagram

Even so, word of mouth is unfazed by the passage of time as older students traditionally fill in freshmen on where to go for the best coffee or food. When it comes to favorites, Sandeep Bhaiya says that as soon as it’s summertime, students start asking after his famous Mango Shake. In fact, he posted a video of him making it on Facebook so students could follow his recipe from home this time last year. In a 2016 study on the psychology of comfort food, it was found that food items can become associated with people, and so serve as reminders of them. On his recipes, Sandeep Bhaiya says that “you can find food anywhere, you give some money and you can buy it but for our customers, or the students, it’s important that they remember us”. 

Graduating From Campus Outlets

When students are about to graduate, Sandeep Bhaiya invites them into the kitchen to learn how to make their favourite cold coffee or mango shake. That is to say, the influence of something as simple as sugary coffee, butter maggi or aloo parathe transcends the timeline of college, and so remains undeterred by the pandemic. Longlasting success for a campus food outlet is a function of its food, its interactions, loyalty, comfort and the community it creates. This is why a vibrant network of campus outlets is a measure of wellbeing for any university and its students. 

Devika Goswami is a second-year Economics and Media Studies major, an aspiring coffee-snob and always on the hunt for a new addition to her already overflowing to-be-read list.

Picture Credits: Anjana Ramesh

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 7

From the Screen to your Couch: Here’s to Binging with Babish

Courtesy: Youtube, Babish Culinary Universe

There’s just something about food in movies, TV shows and anime: it looks unachievable-y better. Yes, it’s the colour-grading, the impeccable cinematography and the breathtaking animation but I would go as far as to say: it’s also the story and what it means to you. I feel an odd attachment to Ratatouille that has little to do with the dish and everything to do with the movie. So, the Youtube algorithm inevitably caught on and presented me with Binging with Babish— a channel where cinematic food is serious business.

Andrew Rea cooks all of this food better than you ever could but it truly is more about the journey—filled with witty quips, shiny kitchen equipment and fancy camera angles—than the “destination” (not least because we can’t eat the food). Watching Babish whip-up food from Seinfeld or Friends not only leaves me giddy with childish nostalgia, but also with a little too much faith in my own culinary abilities. That’s really not too bad given the times we find ourselves in. We could do with a restful break from all the stress—whether it ends in great food or just a “huh, so Homer Simpson really wasn’t kidding around with those waffles”.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Issue 5

Dosa: A Culinary Marvel

The Dosa is a culinary gift from South Indian cuisine that has become a popular breakfast snack all across India. Although the dish has been gaining global popularity for a while, when a video of Kamala Harris (before she became the Vice President of the United States) and American actress Mindy Kaling making Masala Dosa emerged on social media, the dish received a lot of attention. The desi roots of the two women have now put the Dosa under a much deserved global spotlight. 

Across the planet, the origin of traditional dishes is often contested. The Dosa too faces a similar dilemma. While some believe the version presented by historian P. Thankappan Nair, who claims that the Dosa originated from the town of Udupi located in the Indian state of Karnataka, there are others who believe the claims made by food historian K.T. Achaya. According to him, Tamil Nadu was the birthplace of Dosai because instances of the dish were found in Sangam literature (ancient Tamil literature) dating back to 1st century AD. 

Although debates about the origin continue to persist, what most can agree upon is that the Dosa is not similar to a pancake or crepe. Many have tried to explain the dish by claiming it to be a type of “South Indian” pancake or crepe but true Dosa enthusiasts know that it is one of those dishes that can’t be compared to an existing one. Only once you devour a Dosa will you realise that it has a unique description of its own. 

In India, there are many varieties of the Dosa: Ghee Dosa, Rava Dosa, Benne Dosa, Mysore Masala Dosa, Ragi Dosa, Neer Dosa, Plain Dosa, and the list goes on. But the most popular of them all is the Masala Dosa. In the traditional process of making this Dosa, a fermented batter, made of rice, dal and fenugreek seeds, is scooped with a deep bowl ladle and is poured on a hot plate. Before pouring, the hot plate is sprinkled with water. Once the water sizzles off, the batter is spread on the hot plate spiralling outwards in a circular motion. Oil is then drizzled on the Dosa. Many people prefer smearing the Dosa with a spicy red chutney before topping it with the Masala, which is made of semi-mashed potatoes sauteed with several herbs and spices. The Dosa is ready once it turns golden-brown and the edges start to lift off. It is served with Sambar and Coconut Chutney. 

In Southern India, although you can find the Masala Dosa in almost any Dosa joint, each state enjoys its own set of Dosa hotspots that have a unique version of the Masala Dosa. In Bengaluru, the capital city of Karnataka, one such hotspot is Shri Sagar, popularly known as Central Tiffin Room (CTR). Located in the corner of a street in Malleshwaram, CTR was founded in the 1920s and has been feeding the souls of generations of Bangaloreans. Their in-house special Benne Masala Dosa is a butter-laden Masala Dosa that is served with coconut and mint chutney. While the place would earlier be crowded with waiting-lines extending across the road, the sales have now been severely impacted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to 25-year old Ganesh Sanjeeva Poojara, who manages the place with his elder brother Sandesh, “Since people have stopped coming out due to the pandemic, we have seen a decrease in footfall by around 60-65 per cent during the initial days of the lockdown. Although we do have orders coming in from Zomato (a food delivery service), even now, footfall has increased only by around 5-8 per cent. Comparing it to a time before the pandemic, we are currently running just at 30 per cent.”

Ganesh Poojara standing at the entrance of Shri Sagar – Central Tiffin Roon (CTR), Malleshwaram, Bengaluru, Karnataka.

Reception desk where Zomato delivery men come to pick up food orders.

Menu of CTR, written in Kannada, hanging on a wall.

Two staff members standing by the railing, waiting for orders to come in.

Two plates of Benne Masala Dosa making their way out of the kitchen.

“After the Coronavirus outbreak in March, this is the first time we have come. We came to Bangalore in 2001, since then we have been coming here every month. We get our guests here too”, said Dinesh and Shantini Rao. 

A man enjoying his Dosa on a Monday morning by the window.

A table with two plates of Benne Masala Dosa and a plate of Idli-Vada.
The Dosas at CTR are thick and fluffy, yet crispy. An epitome of golden brown achieved by their special benne butter. 

Shrishti is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In her free time, you’ll find her cooking, dancing or photographing.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).