A Brief History Of Eggs In India

From an evolutionary standpoint, the egg is a giant leap forward, a sturdy organic vessel to carry a fertilised zygote to incubate an embryo till it becomes a foetus capable of surviving on its own (clearly not something that doesn’t happen for mammals, which lay eggs, as evidenced by the cis male of the homo sapiens species which never learns to survive on its own).  From a culinary perspective, it was a great leap forward too as a food item which was easily procurable and nourishing. A glance through the history books will show that eggs have been consumed ever since man learned to domesticate the wild fowl, sometime around 7500 BCE.

For most of us, eggs are an indelible and delightfully edible component of our childhoods, even though they were considered a luxury once. They turned up in various iterations from fried, half-fried, poached, boiled and bhurji (the desi iteration of the scrambled egg).  The egg was the first introduction to the weird dietary schisms that exist in Indian society. In boarding school, I learned that beyond vegetarians (an endangered species in Bengal) and non-vegetarians, there was a connecting species called eggetarians who’d consume eggs but no other meat.

In Kota, now in the news for trying to prevent suicides with spring-loaded fans, I learned that restaurants that served meat could be located in only particular neighbourhoods, but eggs could still find its way to most places for daily consumption. And with good reason, eggs remain the cheapest source of protein for a major chunk of the population. As the old 80s slogan goes: “Monday ho ya Sunday roj khau anday (Whether it’s Monday or Sunday, eat eggs every day).”

So, how did eggs become popular in India?

History is a little murky there and any search for the egg’s origin story leads back to medieval (Islamic) roots. Even noted food historian KT Acharya despaired that he couldn’t find any link and stated: “Some sort of taboo seems to have prevailed in Hindu India against eating eggs.” It’s corroborated by foreign travellers. Al Masudi, in 716 found that all kinds of eggs were prohibited while missionary Sebastian Manrique found no one ate eggs in Bengal in the mid-seventeenth century. All this, as Vir Sanghvi notes, is rather odd since the chicken was definitely domesticated in the Indus Valley.

However, fast forward to modern times and India is one of the world’s largest producers of eggs, if not among its consumers. In 2021, India was the second-largest producer of eggs with 122 billion eggs, second only to China’s 586 billion. However, it’s still not among the highest consumers of eggs and per capita it stands as Mexico (409 eggs per capita), Japan (337 eggs per capita) and Colombia (334). India meanwhile only consumes 81 eggs though there are attempts to increase it to 365.

And it's a good reason, there are a variety of health benefits that would make eggs one of the world’s first superfoods. You can read about its health benefits here.

Veg or non-veg? That’s the question

Perhaps what’s particularly curious is how the egg vacillates between vegetarians and non-vegetarian in India. It’s a debate that has raged for decades. Even the world’s most proponent of vegetarianism Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi believed that while eggs and milk weren’t “strictly vegetarian” – a view held by vegans across the world –he believed that eggs were at least as “vegetarian” as milk.

He had written: “On the other hand, eggs are regarded by the layman as a flesh food. In reality, they are not. Nowadays sterile eggs are also produced. The hen is not allowed to see the cock and yet it lays eggs. A sterile egg never develops into a chick. Therefore, he who can take milk should have no objection to taking sterile eggs." Of course, one should keep in mind that if one has grown up a certain belief, it will be very hard to change one’s views with reasoned argument, especially when one’s olfactory senses have been trained since childhood. Somehow who has never grown up around eggs will find the smell too pungent.

However, it’s hard to argue against its health benefits and eggs made a great comeback in 1981. It was a time when the Indian poultry industry was on the brink. From the ashes, was born the egg-bearing phoenix: The National Egg Coordination Committee (NECC).

An Eggcelent Campaign

Now, the NECC is the world’s largest collective of poultry farmers, and its aim was to cut down the middleman and popularise eggs. Back then eggs were considered a seasonal product. The campaign to popularise used a catchphrase we’ve all heard in our lifetimes: “Monday ho ya Sunday roj khau anday (Whether it’s Monday or Sunday, eat eggs every day).” It was sung by Devendra Patel, of Patelscope fame, who has also done memorable political campaigns.

The NECC’s advertising campaign was done by Enterprise Advertising which focussed on several things.

First, a print campaign to establish the egg as a superfood. It also reached out to people with special nutritional needs like mothers and children so that they added eggs to their diet. Ads showcased how eggs could spice up any meal, from chaat to biryani.

Today, poultry is big business, especially with people of a peculiar morality who seem to believe that the food they consume should come from animals that have led a happy life. In fact, reading the average description of a chicken suggests it had a more comfortable upbringing than yours truly and reads something like this: “Chicken brought up on a high-quality farm. Fed only non-antibiotic vegan avocados. Went to Doon School. Graduated from Westminster University.” Reading its CV, one would assume that the chicken would've ended up as a fellow at ORF or become a writing tutor at Ashoka University if it didn’t end up on one’s plate.

Fowl jokes apart, the concept of a happy chicken laying happy eggs, or what’s  called “free-range eggs” abroad was pioneered with Keggs eggs by Vinod Kapur. The tagline: “Don’t ask for eggs, ask for Keggs” has been around since the mid-1960s. Today they sell 6-7 crore premium Keggs, a clear marker that elite eggs have a place in India. It wasn’t an easy journey and while the entire country embraced industrialisation post-liberalisation, Kapur decided to go back to the village model. This included genetic engineering that resulted in a smart Kuroiler breed that could produce more meat and eggs while living in rustic conditions. Another variant Kensington Golden lays 250 eggs but with a rich golden yolk. Another change was in the distribution model so that people would get fresh eggs. And it worked.

Today, you can get eggs of almost all varieties and shapes and sizes. The egg story has reached its pinnacle and if your dietary beliefs permit, you should definitely consider adding this superfood to your diet.