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Credit: Charon Henning

For most of the world, El Niño has transformed our thinking about the consequences of rising global temperatures from “climate change” to “weather change,” and the experience in Delhi, where I live, is no different. Delhi has been long known as the melting pot of culture in India because so many different cultures and communities reside together—but it’s also melting in a different way due to its dense population, poor air quality, increasing humidity, and precarious weather. People in upper- and middle-class Delhi neighborhoods own private vehicles in higher numbers than ever and can afford to purchase (and run) air conditioners, which only contribute to the unbearable heat in the city and the difficulties for the rest of its aggrieved urban population. There are additional challenges for those, like me, who love to cook. I’m an underpaid scholar and a passionate cook—and like most Delhi residents, I cannot afford electronics like a refrigerator or an air conditioner, much less a large electricity bill in the struggling economy. With already-scorching and ever-rising temperatures, heat waves in North India, and extreme sun exposure, food preservation has become very difficult.

In these conditions, indigenous knowledge passed on through families and ancestors in Indian households is vital: techniques for preserving vegetables, how to store cooked meals for future use, how to cook multiple meals in a single session to keep the heat needs low, how to keep milk fresh. But that knowledge is now limited to marginalized groups, in many cases, so I write here to capture some of those nuances, which I believe hold the potential for deeper anthropological and sociological exploration of the everyday, intersectional impact of climate change on marginalized groups in urban India. In my Indian kitchen, it’s easy to see the ways in which climate change is not merely an environmental crisis but also a social crisis.

Delhi is one of the most densely populated cities in the world; its air quality is poor, and it is also known for its weather pendulum, with sweltering summers and deadly winters. A typical summer in Delhi starts with excessive humidity in the morning followed by unbearable heat waves, sun exposure in the afternoon, and a damp, oppressive evening. Most shops in Delhi are closed from lunch to early evening, and residents also try to avoid the tez dhoop (fuming sun). Working in the afternoons, especially for street hawkers and small shop staff, feels like being butter on the hot pan of the road. At home with no air conditioner, my single room set with a small kitchen and an attached bathroom feels like a slow-cooking wooden oven. My ceiling fan circulates the hot air, but that only means I cook evenly—not that I’m actually cooled. My table fan is supposed to help, but contributes more to moving the heat in a sensorial experience I imagine is similar to Hades. In the mornings, I wake up drenched, and the prickly-heat talcum powder many of us use to bring a cooling sensation feels like a failure, washed off in my sleep sweat. Just to sleep, I often add a wet cloth to my face and aim the fan at it on the highest speed.

Credit: Charon Henning

In such heat, cooking a meal feels like cooking myself inside of a box; storing vegetables and prepping meals becomes a full-day task. It is crucial to reheat cooked dishes more than once for them to last the entire day before getting spoiled in summer. The raw ingredients must also be managed according to daytime temperatures; the type of vegetables we purchase is dictated by the climate. During my daily commute from my campus to my rented flat in Katwaria Sarai, I observe people buying vegetables from the local sabzi mandi (vegetable markets), just like me. I live independently in a student-populated area called Qutub Institutional Area, surrounded by the prominent educational institutes of Delhi like Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University, National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, and more. My neighborhood also includes working-class people living in rental houses in an urban village setting, dominated by a landowning community of Jats. On my way to and from my flat, I witness working-class laborers, especially men who migrated from their families, buy small amounts of vegetables to cook for dinner after returning to their rented houses. I see students, many of whom reside in groups in compressed flats, buy the same small amount of vegetables for that night’s dinner, or perhaps for the next day. Fruits are generally expensive for the working class, but some students buy bananas (the least-costly fruit in India), small melons, and mangoes in small quantities. These everyday ethnographic vignettes about people at the equator encapsulate what it’s like to be a low-income resident or a struggling scholar in the Delhi heat, highlighting class differences, consumerism, and technology, and their intersectional impact on the Global South.

As a PhD student, I find that sticking to a specific schedule helps me avoid stress and convenience eating while I manage my academic commitments, so I plan my meals ahead of time. My vegetable purchases more closely mirror what a lower-income household with a family might do: I buy my vegetables weekly, in advance, in order to plan my meals for myself, minimize the precarity of managing everyday cooking, and control costs. I consider nutrient value, calories, and time when making my selections. Alongside me, I come across women buying vegetables, as they are mostly responsible for the gendered labor of feeding the family, along with doing paid work, in some cases. Katwaria Sarai has several small-scale tiffin services—food joints serving daily meals like curries and Indian thalis—but for me, I find that cooking my own food is a more intimate endeavor. I would miss the labor of preparing meals and feel alienated from enjoying my food if I didn’t make it myself, using knowledge passed to me by my parents and grandparents—and even from observing my neighbors in Katwaria Sarai.

Credit: Charon Henning

I buy daily vegetables for base curries like sautéed vegetables or soups—these are things like onion, tomatoes, potatoes, chilies, coriander, ginger, and garlic. To those, I add seasonal vegetables like lauki (bottle gourd), turai (ridged gourd), capsicum, “Chinese carrot,” spinach, and mushrooms in the summer. For salads, I religiously consume cucumber, beetroots, and curd. I eat fruits like bananas, watermelons, and musk melons to balance my body’s water content and to fight exhaustion from constant sweating in summers that average well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. But of course, shopping for vegetables on the weekend is just the beginning; they need to be transformed, preserved, or stored using heat and cold.

Indian households often revolve around methodical, daily food preparation, largely by women as unpaid labor. Many Indian families frown upon weekly “meal prepping” because they believe food loses its nutritional value during refrigeration and storage—which is partially true for soluble nutrients like vitamins and minerals, but which could also be remedied through supplementation with fresh ingredients or salads added to leftover food. To the social opposition, we must also add access as an aspect affecting whether people cook daily in their homes. While the idea of convenience is a significant force—familiar especially in Western or colder countries more familiar with cooking and storing food in large batches­­—struggling city dwellers in Delhi don’t always have access to the refrigerators that make this type of cooking practical. That’s where more traditional methods come in.

Credit: Charon Henning
  • As some vegetables do not survive the heat of Delhi summers, I immediately place them in the open air, on a newspaper, under the fan.
  • For spinach, I chop the leaves into medium pieces, remove the stems, and wash the leaves thoroughly at least three times, because fine particles of soil can set in the folds of the leaves. Then, I boil water in a larger container with salt, add the washed spinach, and simmer it for five to seven minutes. The boiled water can then be strained or used to water plants, and the spinach can be stored in a closed container for two to three days.
  • For coriander, I sort the dried leaves or branches out and roll them in a piece of paper—or, in the case of a thick bunch, I chop off the stems and set them in a glass filled with a little water at the bottom, submerging the end roots of coriander.
  • Boiling is an excellent technique to preserve cooked food as well. My mother suggests boiling the dishes cooked early in the morning again to extend their life by diminishing the chances of germination. During a time of struggle when we had no access to electricity or a functional refrigerator, she used to boil milk three times a day, starting with breakfast.
  • Roti (wheat chapatti) in North Indian households is part of everyday meals. Sometimes, you can keep extra dough made out of wheat submerged in cold water to keep the temperature cool, which delays the beginning of Khameer (fermentation) and extends the life of the dough from 12 to about 24 hours. Khameeri roti (chapatti of fermented dough) is a delicacy in India, but it cannot be eaten daily due to its slightly sour taste.
  • Tap water or groundwater can also be used to preserve fruits like mangos, apples, watermelon, and musk melon. In the summer, I keep my fruits, especially mangos, submerged in water for two to three days, which also dilutes the acidity in mangos.
  • My maternal grandfather used to bring a packaged slab of butter for me whenever I visited his house. I would put the butter in another plastic bag to protect it from water, then place it in a bucket with cool water, alongside fruits or vegetables, to preserve it in the heat. The temperature of the tap water kept the butter solid and cold. I still use the same technique to preserve raw materials during summer.

I prepare my meal every day in the first half of the day before leaving for college, and these techniques come in handy to help the food I cooked for lunch and dinner survive the whole day. These tips were passed to me from my parents and grandparents, who migrated to Delhi with minimal wealth and power as Dalit urban poor. The very act of practicing this epistemological transfer about how to bring nutrition to a plate is vital to carry on our food culture—which is ultimately a story of survival, resilience, and negotiation of the marginalized class as well as the unpaid labor of women within it—with the impact of heat, especially rising temperatures from climate change. While one part of the class stratum has conditioned and purified air, planned infrastructure, and electricity, older parts of Delhi bear harsher consequences not only of the absence of access to those luxuries but also of other people’s use of them, since heat emissions have significant effects. The elite class has convenience—with all of its injustice, its contributions to violence (direct and indirect), and pollution. Preservation is one way we combat the heat.


Rashmi Kumar

Rashmi Kumar is a PhD candidate at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi, India. Her research interests include sexuality, ethics, the everyday, intersections of caste and gender in urban spaces. She has also worked with Zubaan, a feminist publishing house, along with several other social organizations with field research experience in the cities of Thane, Ahmedabad, and Guwahati. Currently, for her doctoral project, she is conducting an anthropological study of a lower-caste community in Delhi, exploring the experiences and negotiations of lower caste communities located in lower-income neighborhoods in urban areas.

Cite as

Kumar, Rashmi. 2024. “Cooking in the “Melting Pot” of Delhi.” Anthropology News website, February 7, 2024.