In the early seventies, the Maharashtra government issued a rule that forbade restaurants from serving rice twice a week. The ban was part of an austerity drive following food shortages in India in the late sixties, and the government wanted everyone to sacrifice a little.

In the Grant Road neighbourhood of South Bombay, the wily folks at the Delhi Darbar restaurant found a way around the rule. Every Wednesday night, moments after the clock struck midnight, they would bring out platefuls of biryani.

This was a blessing for the famished night duty staff patrolling in the jurisdiction of the three neighbouring police stations. A plate of biryani cost Rs 2 or Rs 3. “At one minute past, the owner was ready to serve,” said Deepak Rao, a Bombay police and city historian. “Nobody dared serve any before that.”

Restaurants needed special permission to stay open after the official deadline of around 11.30pm, which Delhi Darbar did. So, for an hour or so after the deadline, it managed to do brisk business even on rice-restricted nights. The rice rule, issued under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955, did not last more than two years, Rao recalls. Neither did it cause grave inconvenience to most people, since there was no such restriction on what people ate at home.

Mincing words

A fortnight ago, there were sudden fears of those days making a return in India. In Delhi, Union Food Minister Ram Vilas Paswan declared that the Central government wants the hospitality industry to fix portion sizes to check food wastage: “[They should] write that in one portion, there will be three prawns... or four, whatever, so we know how much to order.”

The comment stirred uproar online. Misconstruing the minister’s words, some people on social media envisioned a return to the days of food rationing when the Indian government advised people on what to eat and how to cut over-consumption, when it even dictated how much ration shops and restaurants could source. It was a time when hoarders could be penalised, and food inspectors had a field day, while a black market for goods flourished on the side.

The agricultural failures and food shortages of the sixties had prompted Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to ask the country to tamp down on wasteful consumption habits in a push towards a stronger food economy and self-sufficiency. Weddings, house parties and large gatherings of all kinds were monitored to prevent wastage and excess, and restaurants were part of this general drive.

Some Bombay restaurants, for instance, remained shut every Monday night in solidarity with the call to prudence. In the nation’s Capital, the Delhi Food (Restriction on Service of Meals by Catering Establishments) Order issued in 1968 disallowed a catering establishment from serving a person more than two courses.

“Apart from the control of various commodities like cement, tyres and tubes, the control orders passed in the ’60s and the ’70s allowed for the rationing of food stuffs – mostly sugar, wheat and rice – which were in short supply,” said Tarangini Sriraman, who teaches at the Azim Premji University in Bengaluru and has worked on the subject. “Rationing in the mid-1960s was resumed by Shastri to ensure there was no reckless food consumption at a time when imports amounted to 35% of overall wheat availability in the country.”

Of course this was also a legacy of the colonial era. “With the end of the war and Independence, commodity control and rationing were re-instituted owing to crises presented by a fragile economy and related to this, a mandate of socialist planning,” said Sriraman.

On Independence night, at the Taj Hotel in Bombay, a special menu with French-sounding dishes came with the rider that a person could have soup and two of the three courses. “By government order, soup plus one dish of A with B or C OR B and C can be served,” said the menu.

A special menu at the Taj Hotel.

Even earlier, between 1939 and 1945 – during the Second World War – Britannia, the venerated Irani institution in Bombay’s Ballard Estate area, could only serve a single dish per customer and pav had to be rationed. “But, when the waiters were bribed they may have given double dishes,” said Boman Kohinoor, 95, the senior partner, with a chuckle.

This is what got the restaurant in trouble twice in the forties: complaints were filed after waiters served double dishes despite the prevailing rules that forbade this. The cases were later dropped.

Checks at Britannia were fairly common, especially given that the office of the food commissioner was right above the establishment. Sometimes, they sent bogus “customers” to test the restaurant, Kohinoor suspects. In any case, the war and the period after it were tough for the business. “We had very few customers in the forties,” he said. “It picked up later.”

The national mood of austerity set in earnest again in the sixties through a series of orders issued by various state governments under the Essential Commodities Act. Depending on supply and availability, the government could regulate the movement of goods and the quota of rice, sugar and other commodities to be distributed to restaurants and other commercial catering outfits in the late sixties and early seventies. As a result, food inspectors wielded significant power, and enforcing such rules was often a matter of discretion. One food inspector told Sriraman that Delhi’s famous Wenger’s restaurant was once found to have eight bags of rice more than their allowed stock.

Britannia & Co. in Mumbai. Credit: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

“The Wenger’s managers were supposed to have produced the Stock Register and perhaps reported the excess to [the inspector] but had omitted for some reason to do so,” she writes. “[The inspector] tells me, ‘All I wanted was for the Manager to personally hand over the Stock Register.’ He did not mind adding that he stopped all supplies of rice to the restaurant for a while until the Manager met him personally and produced the Stock Register.”

Meanwhile, in Bombay, bakeries were put through the same scrutiny. At the American Express Bakery in the eastern part of Byculla, white broad loaves had to hew to weight specifications. For instance, a small white bread loaf had to weigh 400 gm and the price across bakeries was fixed. The weight specifications were also drawn up for dinner rolls and French loaves.

If in a random check the authorities found the loaves weighed less, theoretically they could pull up the owners. This was tricky, given the chemistry involved. When the bread just came out of the oven, it was 400 gm, but when it cooled it would go down by 2 gm and then a day or two later by another 2 gm. “There is evaporation, one couldn’t stop that,” said Ross Carvalho, 78, one of the American Express Bakery’s partners who worked through the inspection raj. “There was bound to be loss of water over time.”

In case there were checks, these discrepancies would have to be explained to the officials. Over and above that, ingredients like flour, sugar and milk were rationed, with establishments getting these by the bag. “You name it and there was a ration,” said Carvalho. “Even wrapping paper [to wrap the loaves] was rationed.”

Sweet and sour

Sweet shops and halwais too, were places of interest for a government keenly trying to control distribution and meet the population’s needs. Milk was precious and milk-based Bengali staples like sandesh came to be forbidden under the West Bengal Channa Sweets Control Order, 1965, in the eastern state, much to the public’s dismay.

Similarly, the Delhi, Meerut and Buland shahr Milk and Milk Products Control Order, 1969, forbade milk from being used in the making of rabree, cream, paneer, khoya or other such sweets. Similar orders were passed in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.

“…[I]f milk is utilised for the preparation of Khoya and other luxury products of milk, the supply of milk is bound to get diminished, it is well known that during the summer months, before the start of rains, the milk yield goes down and it results in reduced availability of milk,” the Delhi High Court noted, while rejecting a challenge to the Delhi order.

Likewise, in another case, when a bunch of halwais and khoya manufacturers went to court against the Uttar Pradesh order, their plea too was dismissed:

“It is true that the prohibition on the manufacture of cream seriously affects the rights of the petitioners and some others to manufacture butter out of cream,” the Allahabad High Court noted, “but the restriction is in the interest of general public for making liquid milk available to it.”