Shop and save the Indian way
Don’t waste your family budget on surplus food.
By Pamela Timms
Published: 12:00PM BST 23 Jul 2009
There’s a well-heeled woman at my gate handing over a couple of rupees for two slices of bread from the “boxwallah”, one of the legion of hawkers who tour Delhi neighbourhoods selling everything from carrots to clothes pegs. What kind of skinflint buys bread by the slice from a skinny man on a bicycle?
I can hardly believe it, but that woman is me. These days I’m just another thrifty local, but there was a time when I would snigger at the lengths to which middle-class Indians would go to save a few rupees. There was the billionaire who owned a shopping centre the size of Bluewater standing over her gardeners to make sure they saved every blade of grass for replanting; the old-money types saving elastic bands and wood from 30-year-old sofas; and our first landlady regularly checking our rubbish for signs of decadent Western waste, once scolding us for throwing out a half-empty box of sweets.
Since the recession started to bite, though, the joke’s on me, and I’ve recently been trying to uncover the secrets of an Indian brand of thrift that makes India Knight and all the other new prophets of thrift look like Loadsamoney throwbacks.
Overspending and waste have been bothering me for some time – in Britain we bin £1 billion of edible food every year – but somehow my fridge is always full of rotting vegetables and sour milk. Now it feels as if the day of reckoning has arrived, so I ask my Indian friends to take me in hand. How exactly do they do it?
It’s all very simple, says Anita Dhanda, a teacher who lives with her businessman husband and two sons in one of Delhi’s smarter areas. “Andaaza. That’s all you need to know.”
Indians of every income level are brought up to value every grain of rice, she explains. “Andaaza”, which means “approximation”, is the creed by which every Indian woman runs her household: the art of buying and cooking no more than you need. “It makes no sense to keep a lot of food,” she says. “If you need two potatoes, don’t buy a kilo.”
That way, she says, food is always fresh – Indians are obsessed with freshness, and most are on a daily mission to keep their fridges as empty as possible. Anita is visibly distressed by the furry strawberries, limp leeks, soggy salad and gallons of milk languishing in mine.
Artist Poorva Khandelwal is a modern, busy Indian woman, yet she and her husband sit down every evening and do their “hisaab”, or accounts, totting up every rupee they’ve spent that day and looking for ways to economise. Poorva recommends hisaab as the only way to watch where your money is going and avoid overspending.
For the past month I have tried to live by the hisaab/andaaza method. Looking back at the diary I kept, I see that immediately after purging my fridge, supposedly for the last time, I went straight to the market and bought 25 different fruit and vegetables.
In week two, when confronted by another mountain of mouldering vegetation, I managed to get this down to 14. Anita also came up with a range of alternatives to pouring oldish milk down the sink. So, as soon as the milk churn arrived every morning, I skimmed off the cream and in a matter of minutes turned any vintage milk into yogurt, gleaming white “paneer” cheese and little pats of butter. With the greenish liquid left over from the paneer, I made delicious whey bread. By the end I was like a pre-war milkmaid.
The low point of week three was when the yogurt and cream turned to rancid slime because I hadn’t got beyond marvelling at my new dairy talents to actually eating it.
When Indians find themselves with an unexpected surplus, according to Anita, they get rid of it before it goes off. Rekindle community spirit, she recommends, by sending food packages to family, friends, the little old lady down the road. Never leave food to become inedible.
Both of my friends stressed that, even in these busy times, it is still possible, with a little thought, to buy only enough food for two days.
By week four, I was starting to panic if I opened the fridge to find something more than 24 hours old. A month on, my fridge is not quite at zero but no longer resembles the Sainsbury’s advert I used to strive for. There’s still the odd andaaza mishap, where we end up eating the same thing for three meals in a row.
It may take more than one month to recover from a life of profligacy, but I now plan what we’re going to eat and stick to the plan, and spend a few minutes every day fretting about my balance sheet. We’re eating better and I’ve slashed my food bill. When I started this exercise, I was spending the equivalent of £100 a week on food; this week I’ve spent just over £50.
Today it’s omelette for lunch. I’ve bought one tomato (one rupee), one onion (one rupee) and am using up some leftover paneer. I’m agonising over whether to treat myself to two more slices of bread: that would be another two rupees