Thursday, November 17, 2011

Indian food, the Ngram viewer, and some statistics

I heard an interesting talk recently by Jean-Baptiste Michel from Harvard’s Cultural Observation Laboratory, on tracking the appearance of specific words in print since the early 1800s.  Their database was the vast collection of digitized books, that now cover about 4% of all printed books in English.  The results offer a window into cultural trends through the ages, and has the potential to become a useful quantitative tool in the hands of social scientists.  This tool is available on the web ( and for some amusement, given that this is an Indian food blog, lets take a quick look at how Indian food has been received in the West through the years.
Blue: tandoori; red: vindaloo; yellow: raita, green: mulligatawny

Take a look at the graph above.  The Y axis shows the frequency (as a function of percentage of all printed words) with which the words tandoori, vindaloo and raita appear in all English books printed since 1800 that are available via Google Books.  I picked these words as being representative of Indian dishes popular in the West.  They make their appearance in print around the 1960s, coincident with the wave of sub-continental immigration into the UK.  The curves rise rapidly, reflecting the popularity of Indian food the past 15 years.  Compare them against the granddaddy of Anglo-Indian cuisine—the Mulligatawny Soup.  Nobody has Mulligatawny soup these days, we never had it growing up in India, and it is largely unavailable except in some Indian restaurants in the US (and perhaps England) who strain to create a “Raj” ambience.  But at one time in the 1800s, Mulligatawny was king of the hill, and one of the first culinary products that came out of the British –Indian encounter.  Consider this advise given to a young man considering a commission with the East India company in “The Surgeon’s Daughter” (1800) by Sir Walter Scott,
 “'If you, my dear fellow,' continued he, extending his hand to Middlemas, 'would think of changing sheep-head broth and haggis for mulligatawny and curry, I can only say that, though it is indispensable that you should enter the serv-ice at first simply as a cadet, yet, by , you should live like a brother on the passage with me; and no soonef were we through the surf at Madras than I would put you in the way of acquiring both wealth and glory…
And, Walter Scott was not the only one--the graph shows a steady representation for Mulligatawny since the 1820s that has continued to this day.

How popular is Indian food compared with Chinese?  The figure below shows the frequency of Chow Mein, Chop Suey, and Lo Mein over time. Chinese food of course became popular at an earlier time compared to Indian--this is supported by the graphs; what is also interesting is the relative use of the words themselves. Chop Suey is an older term, was at the height of its popularity in the early 1940s for reasons that are unclear (perhaps related to WWII?). Its usage has dwindled, though it is still popular today, at about the same level as Chow MeinLo Mein camd later, around at the time that Indian food started becoming popular.  I would have thought that Chinese fare is still ahead, but we find that the popularity of tandoori and Chow Mein--at least in print-- are now about the same.

Blue: chow mein, red: chop suey; green: lo mein

And, digressing a bit from food, what about Indian stereotypes?  Even into the 70s and 80s, the “Indian snake charmer” kept alive the colonial concept of the mysterious East; it was even pandered to—I recall Mad Magazine from the 70s with a spread from the well known Indian cartoonist, Sudhir Dar, which had an entry that played on this same theme.  This embodiment, as we all know, gave way to the Indian programmer in the 2000s—even making their way into TV commercials the past few years.  So how do they look on Ngram? Surprisingly, the Indian snake charmer is still around, after enjoying some peak attention between 1900 and 1920 for reasons unknown.  The Indian programmer has climbed steeply since 1990, though unexpectedly, still neck and neck with the snake charmer .
Blue: Indian programmer; red: Indian snake charmer


  1. This is a very interesting post! Thanks for posting.

  2. great post. people will be benefited for that.......