Expat guide to the Indian Kitchen

10:01 AM

Today I am rewriting and republishing a very old post dating from 2011, for several reasons:

1) The pictures were not up to my standard of blogging

2) The content felt a bit outdated and poorly written

3) I got absolutely sick and tired of the picture of the kitchen above being stolen week after weeks.

Number 3 was my ultimate motivation to rework this blog post to be fair. I decided to make the life of whoever Googles "Indian kitchen pictures" life a bit harder by adding my own text to that ridiculously popular picture. In the past few years it has been snagged and used by home developers, manufacturers of kitchen cabinets and exhaust fans, people making videos about health and the kitchen, guest houses claiming them as their actual kitchen, and real estate brokers plastering it on all their listings regardless of the flat location.

One thing that is accurate though, is that it is as good a picture to represent a more "traditional" or rather old fashioned Indian kitchen. Which is why this blog post ever came to be in its original avatar in 2011.

If you are an expat living in India, there are two rooms that will provoke a reaction in your Indian home : The bathroom and the kitchen.
Both are significantly different in design than what you would find across Europe or the US. I once wrote about the bathroom. Now it's the time to give you a few pointers about kitchens.

There will be a space management issue

Indian kitchens are not necessarily tiny. They are compact in cities, but still fairly big in many houses and even some apartments. 
The big problem is that most of them have been designed with no thought into them and a lot of lost space. In our previous flat, the kitchen was pretty much a case study of everything that should not be done in the kitchen
Too deep cabinets, not enough shelves, kitchen counter with lost space, you are likely to encounter at least one of these problem in your kitchen. In some of the older kitchens, you may not even find space for the fridge (that pink kitchen had that problem).

DH and I pondered the great Indian Kitchen space paradox over and over again and we aren't anywhere closer to figure out what the exact problem is. The kitchen we had when hubby was working in Zurich was smaller than any kitchen we had in India, yet it had a built in fridge, cooking range (yes with an oven), a dishwasher, twice the amount of cupboards and pantry cabinets we have in our current kitchen, a microwave, a broom closet and still more than enough free counter space to prep food. 
Even our very old super huge kitchen in our Bangalore rooftop flat from back in those days could not even accommodate half of that because as kitchen goes it was totally unfinished. There was no cabinets under the counter, the fridge took a lot of space on one wall that could have been used otherwise if there had been a built in nook, and we only had two tiny spice cabinets overhead. 

This kitchen wasn't even an isolated case, landlords rarely spend money on those details if the property is going to be a rental, and as a tenant it is up to you to find a non permanent way to store your stuff. You'll need to be quite inventive depending the kitchen situation. 

Forget about appliances and fixtures as you know them

That picture above is my current kitchen, in the flat we just moved in, and it is one of the best kitchen we ever had in terms of planning even though it is still nearly twice the size of that Zurich kitchen I mentioned.

Unless you own your home in India, forget entertaining the idea of a cooking range. There is no spot to install one in about 99% of all the kitchens I saw over the years. People in India rarely use an oven for their cooking and Indian cuisine isn't really about baked dishes so the priority was given to counter top stoves which can be built in if you own your home or had a landlord who did plan it. 

But the more likely scenario will be that you will have to invest in a counter top stove. And it will have to be a gas stove as most of India is plagued by power cuts that would make electric stoves highly impractical (unless you live in Mumbai where electricity is not an issue at all).
The most rudimentary gas stoves will make you think of a camping stove, but the more modern ones have an elegant, easy to clean glass top, and you can get them in 2, 3 or 4 burners combination. 
The two burner combination is the most popular because it is the most compact solution to already tiny kitchens. 

If you bake a lot, you'll need either an OTG (Oven Toaster Grill) oven, or a Microwave oven with a convection mode (it works just the same as a regular convection oven). 
The flat we currently live in is the FIRST one I have with a specific niche for the oven, and was probably built to accommodate a proper built in oven, this is definitely not your default rental property arrangement. 

The washing machine in more modern apartment building fits in the utility space which is generally a balcony off the kitchen. Dishwashers while now being more commonly sold in India are still not something you can easily put in your rental kitchen, as kitchen were and are still not build with that need in mind. DH and I are still trying to figure out if we can squeeze one in on the utility balcony since we decided to do without a maid.

No hot water in the kitchen

That is the one thing you will have to get used to very quickly. In India there is no central water heating, and you only get water on the water pipe you hooked to a heater (called Geiser in India). Bathroom are planned with the possibility to hook one. 
Kitchens...not necessarily, and certainly not without your plumber having to make a mess adding pipes and stuff (can't do that in a rental property).
This means that washing the dishes is going to be a pain in the butt, trust me on that, DH and I split the load these days.
Speaking of doing the dishes, in most flats I lived in over the years the sink area is tiny, and there isn't always the space to drain them without making a mess. This current flat we live in included. 

If you have some super greasy dish you can still boil water on the stove and fill the sink with it ,provided you have a way to plug said sink of course, and wash your greasy pots that way. It's less convenient, but it comes in handy as tricks goes. I just don't have the time to apply that solution to every single dish washing sessions, it's already annoying enough to have to wait until the shower water has heated.

This picture below was from our previous flat, and it was the only kitchen with two sinks and a draining platform. Yet there was no way to plug the sinks to use them as it should be used. 

Keeping it clean

Most kitchen, are poorly planned and you will find it quickly that cleaning them is going to be an ordeal, get used to doing it yourself, even if you have a maid because they won't understand the necessity to not let water sit in corners, or why the back splash area behind the stove needs very frequent degreasing (Chimneys aren't yet common either).

Most of India enjoys a hot climate, if not hot and humid on the coasts, this means kitchen pests like cockroaches will breed fast, be prepared to conduct extermination rounds frequently. 
Though one way to ensure your kitchen is less roaches friendly is to prevent moisture and grease to accumulate and store all food stuff in airtight containers.

When it comes to kitchen cleaning, I really could not recommend owning a steam cleaner more strongly. We steam our kitchen clean every 6 months with it. Know more about steamers and steam mop in this blog post. Convinced about them already? This is the one we own and love (affiliate link).

It's not that bad

I know I know this blog post might have scared you if you aren't yet living in India (and plan to) but trust me it is not that bad. 

You will get a bit of a culture shock in your kitchen, there will be days you'll seethe, but with if you think out of the box, you can gain a lot of storage space you thought was lacking in the kitchen.

Remember, I lived through 9 different kitchens situation in India (been living in India for close to 14 years now), all of them with the counter space issue,  and limited useable space, that is not stopping me from cooking and blogging about it, and pulling things like  Christmas cookies backing using a tiny oven and with a work surface smaller than half my desk space. 

Heck I even make space for pretty corners like this tea kettle station (you can learn about the fairy lights in the kitchen here) : 

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  1. Dear Cynthia,
    Can I please use your kitchen picture in my lecture?
    It is a purely educational video, for M.B;B.S students. No commercial use.
    I have tried to make a lot of changes to the picture in MS Paint before use. Still if you feel offended, i apologise and will remove it next week.
    Please let me know
    Dr Tiwari

    1. Dear Dr Tiwari,

      I require more than permission alone to use pictures from my blog, I also require proper credit and a link back to the original source, in this case, my blog link : http://www.homecynhome.com/2011/11/expat-guide-to-indian-kitchen.html

      Commercial use or not, pictures from my blog can’t be published anywhere else on the internet without those requirements. The video being published on YouTube and therefore search engines means it is public enough for me to take action. Be aware that anything you find on Google is copyrighted by default unless specifically stated otherwise. There are many free online stock photo resources that can be used instead of taking pictures found in a Google image search.

      This picture might be an older one, but nowadays I spend 6-7 hours a day working on my blog, in one way or another. The most recent pictures are now carefully edited and taken with an artistic value to them. I spend hours every week taking and editing pictures in Photoshop. Then there are the hours I spend writing blog posts and promoting them.
      I am sure you understand this hard work as you spend time preparing these lectures and videos yourself. I am sure you would not appreciate anybody just taking them without giving you any credit or modifying them to make them their own and redistribute them via their own channel.

      My pictures have been taken without my permission way too many times over the past few years for me to show any kind of leniency on this matter. I now report copyrights infringements as soon as I find a picture of mine anywhere I have not authorised it to appear.

      If you want to continue using this picture, you must abide to my terms and conditions. In this case, I have already reported this issue to YouTube, I don’t know if they already have contacted you on this matter though.

  2. Hi Cyn,

    Good points!

    I actually have a full size cooking range with a full size oven in my very large kitchen here in Nepal. It came from Italy at great expense. The problem: the kitchen isn't wired to accommodate a western-style oven. To upgrade the electrical hook-up to our home would cost about $3,000 so we never did it. I now bake with a toaster over/otg. So there's another aspect you might want to consider before buying an appliance be it a dishwasher, clothes dryer, oven or whatever- Is your residence properly wired for that appliance?

    1. Good point about the electrical setting. In modern flats thankfully a few 15 Ampers plugs are put in the kitchen and utility area to accomodate "heating appliances" which are front load washing machines and convection ovens. But in our old flat in Bangalore we had to have an extra plug point installed for the front load, and thankfully it was still an OK load for the fuse box, in some flats it's not possible to get away with it.

  3. Anonymous11:02 AM

    I think most people are scared of the prohibitive price of modular kitchens, the one that you see in magazines, which cost a bomb. If is quiet unaffordable. The kitchen alone, takes up atleast one fourth of your total budget, if your are refurbishing an entire house from scratch. We had our kitchen done last year. We had a limited budget, so we went for a carpenter. Not that carpenters do not do a good job, you need to know the right guy. The results were not quiet up to our expectations. The only thing which is satisfactory is the electric chimney and its lights. Fantastic illumination, on dark days.

    The awareness about kitchens is also very rudimentary. People based their ideas on what they see in other houses, which is also true about the other parts of the house. Then, from word or mouth you get to know about a good carpenter and he does a good job.

    When people started living in apartments, they gradually realized what to do with lightings, bathroom fixture, cupboards and now I think slowly they would figure out what to with the kitchen.

    Flats now come with modular kitchens, which is fantastic but the trend of having an open kitchen, right next to the drawing room is offputting.


    1. Well Open Kitchen is really something that is more of a thing in theUS, you won't find them in Europe as commonly.
      The really problem in India is not the modular kitchen being a novelty, it's how the entire room is built and managed. There is no logic to it whatsoever and way too many cubic feet of space wasted in impossible corners, weird shaped layout.

      As I said, the kitchen we have in this current flat is way bigger than the kitchen we had in a flat in Zurich. Yet the Zurich flat could accommodate a cooking range with oven, a built in fridge and freezer, a dishwasher, a microwave, a sink with ample space for draining dishes, enough cabinets to store a lot of plates, pots and all the pantry items and a broom closet that could accommodate everything one need to clean a home including a full sized vacuum cleaner, and still have tons of counter space left to work on prepping food.

      In my current kitchen, which has again twice the floor surface and IS modular, there is very limited cabinet space, the stove takes almost all the usable space on one side of the kitchen, and I am super thankful there is a oven nook built in otherwise I would have been screwed and would have needed to find another alternative as the counter on the other side is half the size in depth as the stove counter. It is just a glorified shelf for all the stuff that won't fit into the cabinet and sadly the only place there is a plug point to plug in the mixie or the rice cooker.
      But hey 3-4 people can be in the kitchen with ease because there is space to stand in the middle, which if you ask me is wasted space.

      In bigger kitchens than my Zurich one, the work area is still narrow with big counters on both sides, but it extend to a dinning area in the kitchen as culturally people eat in the kitchen, a measure made necessary from the old days of no central heating where people would gather where the stove heat was.

      In our old rooftop terrace flat in Bangalore we had a HUGE kitchen that was bigger than the one I had in my childhood flat. But again it had a totally illogical layout, lacked storage space and because of the huge amount of lost space we could not set up a dinning table, the space was taken by the fridge, and later a crockery dresser we had to set up because of the lack of cabinets under the counter top. But hey it was so big 5-6 people could stand in it, so who cares pots and pans and appliances hog all the usable space?

      Modern flats in Mumbai have modular kitchen, but it's the same old space management crap that strikes. It's useless. Modular kitchens aren't just about fancy cabinets, it's about proper planning too, and that part is missing in India

  4. Kitchens & bathrooms ALWAYS cost a bomb. Every country I have lived in & every house I have built - the majority of the $ goes into the kitchen & bathrooms.
    The question is not how much $ you spend on the kitchen- it's how wisely you spend it! That's where good planning comes in. A kitchen that not only looks beautiful but functions beautifully too. (Same goes for bathrooms)

    1. Exactly! It will cost a bomb anywhere. In Switzerland a lot of home owner will head to IKEA to cut cost on the material, but still opt in for the consultation service to plan the kitchen space in a smart way. Kitchen space planning is paramount, a good kitchen is not about what cabinets finish and fittings you opted for as much as it is about how you planned the floor plan, and the type of cabinets to meet all your needs and negate as much "lost space" as possible.

      In our big kitchen in the Bangalore flat, it was totally useless to have 5-6 people stand idle when there was just about enough space for one or two people to prep food on the kitchen counter. It was also stupid to have the fridge stand against a long empty wall yet still nearly in the way of the entry door when all that was needed was cut a nook in the kitchen counter to push it out of the way and therfore making room for a 4 seat table against that wall (and still have space to go around it)

      Don't get me started about bathrooms in India, they are death traps, and there is nothing that justify these freaking wet rooms.

  5. Anonymous1:10 AM

    Jeez, I'm not surprised your pictures get stolen, this kitchen is amazing and spotless clean ! I especially love your tea corner, it looks like a shrine. You got me thinking about buying a steam cleaner. Take care xxx Padparadscha

    1. Thank you for the compliment on my kitchen :-)
      The most popular picture is the one with the ugly salmon pink walls for some crazy reasons.

      I do consider tea drinking a meditative activity, so a shrine dedicated to preparing it in the kitchen sounds pretty fitting.

      Get a steam cleaner, trust me you will not regret it.


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