Why Breakfast is an integral part of South Indian cuisine and not in North Indian

I suppose the more perceptive of you would have noticed this – that breakfast forms an integral part of South Indian cuisine, while it is totally absent (apart from parathas) in the North. The more inquisitive of you would have asked yourselves this question, and would have perhaps asked some friends and relatives and acquaintances also. The luckier among you would have found some answers. I think I belong to this category, too. And I hereby share my theory with you.

The fundamental concept here is that South Indian food is predominantly rice-based while North Indian food is roti-based. Yes, you have the accompaniments – sambar and dry curry in the south, and dal and sabji in the north. But let us focus on the staple component here. Let us think back a few generations, when large joint families were the norm. Division of labour meant that most women would spend most of their time cooking.

Now, those of you who have cooked, or even observed someone cooking, would have noticed that the process of cooking rice is “scalable”. On the part of the cook, cooking 10 kilos of rice takes only marginally greater effort compared to cooking 1 kilo of rice. On the other hand, rotis are non-scalable. There are minor economies of scale in terms of time taken to get the stove going, but the amount of effort involved in cooking is directly proportional to the number of rotis to be made. Roti-making is thus non-scalable. Also, observe that roti-making is high-involvement. It requires the undivided attention of a cook. On the other hand, you can just set rice to boil, and go sing a song while it gets cooked.

So the funda here is that given the non-scalable process of making rotis, whenever there were large families involved, North Indian women would have to spend a large part of their time making rotis. The long and tedious process meant that women had little time left over after cooking lunch and dinner. Contrast this with the rice-eating South, where due to the scalable process, women had a lot more free time compared to their Northern counterparts.

Another thing we need to remember here is that rice is more easily digestible than wheat, and hence doesn’t “last as long”. Hence, the rice-eater will need to eat at more regular intervals as compared to the wheat-eater. The wheat-eater can easily survive on two meals a day, but this is not the case for the rice-eater. There is the need for that one extra meal.

So, people, this is why breakfast, which is an integral part of South Indian cuisine, is practically absent in the North. There was demand – rice-eating south indians couldn’t survive on two meals a day. There was also the requirement for variety, for one couldn’t eat the same thing thrice a day. And there was supply – the free time the South Indian woman had, thanks to the scalable process she adopted for making lunch and dinner. This explains why South Indians evolved such an excellent breakfast cuisine, while people in the North eat bread.

15 thoughts on “Why Breakfast is an integral part of South Indian cuisine and not in North Indian”

  1. I think there is another reason here – “The Climate”.

    Because of higher humidity and more tropical weather in the South:
    A. You have South Indians who eat more curries (plenty of water and salt) compared to northies who eat dry foods.
    B. Warm weather throughout the year enabled women to wake up early in the mornings and prepare food.

  2. Scalability does seem deducible from the observed pattern but i don’t think it is the cause.

    Just to add to my previous comment: In summers its quite likely that Northies start(ed) work late in the fields because of longer days.

    1. ok so you are saying that
      1. cold weather in winters
      2. longer days in summers

      means that people went to work late in the north which is why they don’t eat breakfast.

      fair enough. valid funda only.

  3. Another reason could be the strong tradition of vegetarianism among the forward castes in the South, which meant that eating eggs and omlettes for breakfast wasn’t an option. This probably forced them to discover new veg delicacies.

    1. omlette, as far as i know, is a firangi thing. it’s not native to india.

      and even in the north the forward castes (who are greater in number, compared to the south) have been strongly vegetarian. it’s only recently that it’s r educing.

  4. Shtraang!

    No wonder South Indians say that bread is for dogs and humans deserve something better.

    But, why is it that the other rice eating Indian states like Orissa, West Bengal and even for that matter Kashmir don’t have good breakfast? Or is that they had and now they don’t have because of their proximity to Bimarus?

  5. That is a grossly sweeping generalization. Sure there’s parathas and lassi. But North India isn’t just Punjab. And there too, there’s other stuff to eat for breakfast – choori, sweet-semolina cooked in milk, besan-halwa. And considering North India in general – milk and jalebis, bedmi (a special kind of fried bread filled with a dal batter and served with potato curry and a chutney made with fenugreek seeds), poori-sabji, poori-chole, chana-bhatura (surprise, surprise – all these are traditonally a breakfast items), balushahi (a sweet preferred at breakfast time more than any other time of the day), daliya, a milk-and-carrot kheer made specially in winters… Of course I wouldn’t even club parathas into one generic noun there, for there exists a mind-boggling variety of them.
    And clearly, you’ve never had bread the right way, to dismiss it so is sacrilege, at the least.
    Sure, South Indian breakfast fare is awesome, and this isn’t an attack. However, for once, Skimpy’s brain-power leaves much wanting.

    1. are these normal daily breakfast items? can you eat sweets for breakfast every single day? can you fill your stomach with these items?

      i suppose that you will be eating bread for at least five days in a week. and then one of these things for the other two days. these breakfasts aren’t sustainable

    1. no. has nothing to do with that.
      basically figured this out when i started thinking as to why i prefer cooking rice to cookign chapati.

  6. Even making dosa is non-scalable & to some extent even making idli is non-scalable!

    I remember my grandfather telling me that his mom used to make dosas for several hours(for her 9 children, each consuming on an average 10 dosas) & by the time she was done, she had to start preparing lunch!

    1. yes i was thinking about that
      dosa is non-scalable. even more non-scalable is akki rotti. and it takes hours to make

      but still – imagine – if your greatgrandmother had to make dosas for the entire family and then make roti for lunch! there’s no way she would’ve made dosas then.

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