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
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