Wait a minute. What’s happening? Every time you turn the corner, a new restaurant façade calls out to you with its themed textured walls, polite hostesses, inviting smells, exotic concoctions and alluring ambience. Everything is Michelin starred, farm fresh and responsibly sourced. Even though statistically, nine out of ten restaurants shut shop in the country every year, it doesn’t seem to deter seasoned or first-time-restaurateurs from gambling their life’s savings into the F&B industry. They are out there to please and food snobs like us are out there to get spoilt. Nothing has been left to the imagination. The food genie is here to please.
India is talking mango caviar and world cuisines like Turkish, Spanish and French are making inroads. Modern Indian food in the form of bharta filled Cornetto topped with goat’s cheese is coming of its own. It’s accepted, appreciated and adapted to without a question. Kitchen creativity of the new age chefs is bursting at the seams and the dining scene is getting avante garde. The F&B sector is booming, gourmet and organic groceries are hip and the average Indian who is the beneficiary of this food revolution is like a kid let loose at the carnival, lapping it up and craving more.
New Taste, New Ingredients
Food trends develop from time to time and depend heavily on socio-cultural conditions. “INA Market in Delhi was inundated with all kinds of raw materials and couldn’t take the pressure anymore. Other vendors caught on to its popularity and started offering it at various nook and corner. Today your local vegetable cart vendor has the most exotic selection of fruits and vegetables,” says Manu Chandra, Executive Chef and Partner, Monkey Bar and The Fatty Bao and Executive Chef Olive Beach, Bangalore. He reiterates, that with access to television, everybody is exposed to what’s happening in kitchens the world over. Popular reality show Master Chef has proved to be the bank of fantastic culinary ideas. It has led to aspirational cooking at home as well. “Such has been the influence that today 12-year-olds don’t want to have alu-gobi for dinner. They demand a certain kind of food that has to be visually appealing and soul satisfying,” he says.
A dinner invite these days would mean labneh and hummus dips with baked chips for starters, zucchini sticks and steamed broccoli instead of the quintessential salad plate, main course would comprise lasagne and grilled meat, and one would end it with gourmet ice-cream or a 75 per cent couverture dark chocolate and tangerines and kiwis.
Making these products available under one roof, Avni Biyani, concept head of gourmet grocery store Foodhall, says, “Tastebuds of Indians have evolved. They are very keen to explore new flavours and ingredients and discover different cuisines. We have taken a conscious decision to keep the shopping experience very interactive. We have seen a change in consumer demand as we now have customers buying avocados to make guacamole, salad dressings for making various salads and even truffles. When we started we were not very sure of products such as squid ink pasta, miso pastes, Japanese seaweed, but these are doing well. A super foods category has emerged with quinoa, chia seeds, miso etc and there is huge demand for them.”
International chains chant India, India
Not only are gourmet foods coming to India, international chain of restaurants find India a lucrative market. “Brands like Yauatcha and Hakkasan are running successfully in London. With increase in awareness due to widespread international travel, the discerning customers in India have learnt to appreciate good food and service. Yauatcha and Hakkasan in Mumbai are now in their third year of operations. With the opening of Yauatcha in Delhi and Bangalore in 2013 and the newly opened Yauatcha Kolkata, I can see the increasing demand for fine cuisine and service in a casual atmosphere,” says Kishor Bajaj, Founder and CMD of Badasaab Group.
Chef Chandra begs to differ a little here. According to him, very high end luxury dining options don’t have a great future in the country as of now. He explains: “You would not buy a Louis Vuitton every week. You would buy it only once a year. It’s the same with some of these super expensive international restaurants. They are offering fantastic food that has many takers, however, it’s difficult to survive with those exorbitant prices. Since every restaurant is heavily dependent on repeat customers, it will be difficult to get a steady foot fall with prices going through the roof.”
“You enjoy the fruits of your neighbour’s endless hours of biryani-making in the form of a sensational aroma arising from their kitchen and entering your house and then drooling over what they would be eating. Food is all about senses,” chuckles Chef Sujan Sarkar of Olive Bar and Kitchen, Mehrauli. He believes molecular as a trend has toned down globally but is still catching on in India. “Molecular gastronomy is a thing of the past and now what we serve is modern food. Modern food takes into account all the human senses and takes the visual appeal, texture and overall experience of dining several notches higher. Modern food is made using science and equipment, instead of pots and pans. A stabilizer, foam, froth, texturizer and liquid nitrogen form the key elements,” he says.
Masala Library in Mumbai serves progressive Indian cuisine with “strong elements of molecular gastronomy,” says Zorawar Kalra, Founder and MD of Massive Restaurants. “The food is authentic Indian but the treatment makes it different. The presentation is progressive, new and out of the box. There are international influences at times too,” he says.
With his exceptional take on Indian food with a twist of modern elements, the fabled Chef Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent, Delhi is a trendsetter of sorts. People queue up for his panko-crusted bharwan mirch filled with goat’s cheese, an innovative take on mirchi ka pakoda, his mishti doi Cannoli which has a shelf life of 15 minutes from kitchen to table, his iconic mini blue cheese naans, all fall under modern Indian category. “I believe we Indians have explored many a cuisines and it is now our turn to bring Indian food to the fore. Little things like props (he serves ice lollies in a tiny pressure cooker and chooran on a mini charpai) make it more appealing. We are still having ghar ka khana but with new elements we are eliminating boredom from daily dining,” says Manish.
Small is the new big
Small plates are buzzing on the menus. Chef-owner Ritu Dalmia features small plates on the menus of two of her restaurants—Cafe Diva and Latitude 28. Ritu explains, “Small plates work in all-day dining places and restaurants that run on the cafe format. They are introduced keeping in mind the appetite level of patrons. Small portions make more sense when one is conducting a business meeting or having a fun meeting with friends.”
Vikas Singh Narula, the hands-on owner of Deport 29, a predominantly American food joint in Delhi’s Safdarjung Enclave, echoes the same thought. “Small plates allow you to taste many things without having to worry about finishing the portions. It’s a good way to gauge a restaurant’s menu comprehensively,” he says.
Bijoy Majhi of Angels in My Kitchen in Delhi has seen customers embracing smaller portions with open minds. Desserts are meant to be nibbled upon which has clearly not been the case in India. “We Indians love to buy our desserts by the kilo. However, gourmet cakes have paved way for bite-sized cupcakes, macaroons, beignets, profiteroles and friands. Customers want to experiment, while staying away from additional calories. The finer nuances in a bite-sized portion are more appreciated, with enhanced taste, texture and presentation being the draw,” says Bijoy. “Breads are the mainstay for any bakery, with artisanal creations like sun-dried tomato focaccia or a spiced plait loaf being extremely popular,” he adds.
Moving from one to many
Moving beyond one restaurant and making their bread and butter from just that source, the new age restaurateur is a businessman who focuses on expansion of his brand. Zorawar reveals his success story and tells about the new outlets of their restaurants by explaining that “the market is growing at the rate of 21% CAGR which means that the market is doubling every four years. We think corporate. We see the market demand and come up with restaurants to meet that demand. Also, these days the chain of restaurants is not limited to a single format; we have juggled between modern Indian and molecular. The market is upbeat and nothing is stopping us.”
An ongoing celebration of expansion is when you see a chain grow from 5 to 55. Rohit Aggarwal, promoter of Lite Bite Foods says his venture began operations in February, 2002 with a couple of franchises from Subway in Gurgaon. “At present, we run more than 69 outlets in various formats including fine dining, casual dining and quick service in Delhi/NCR, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore and Singapore and the count will go up to 88 by the end of this month. After successfully running a few outlets of Subway, we decided to start Zambar, Asia Seven, Street Foods of India, Baker Street and much more. We realised that the only way to mark our presence in the highly competitive industry is to expand,” he says.
Shivkaran Singh opened Smokey’s BBQ with the ambition of delivering what he as a consumer and lover of ‘good burgers’ had once yearned. “Fresh, in-house breads are trending and patrons are increasingly becoming more demanding and knowledgeable. Small is big and we serve sliders as well as mega burgers,” he explains. “Globally inspired flavours are featuring in menus and we are contributing our bit by using Indian spices in the hara masala chilli tenderloin burger and the curried vegetable burger.”
The second we met Vikas, he sat us down and made sure we understood how good the burgers at his restaurant were. “The hearty Classic Beef Burger we offer is by far one of the best on the menu,” he says, adding, “People are tired of having frozen pattie burgers. Freshness has its own taste and we get our meats from the local market, everyday.”
Popularity versus others
Food writer and Restaurant Week India co-founder Mangal Dalal feels a cuisine that travels widely is the one that is most adaptable and the one which is most relatable to the palate. “While Russian cuisine has not taken off, Korean food has travelled but has never been high-end. Indian food on the other hand is again not high-end because of the use of pulses and the high on spice quotient. Japanese food is popular due to the freshness of ingredients,” he says.
“Peruvian is the new fast-growing favourite due to its simplicity. Another sought-after cuisine is Vietnamese. It is light and nutritious and gains on the health quotient. It is high on fish, shrimps and fresh herbs. And again, it is palatable to the global audience as it is not spicy unlike Thai food from the same region,” he says.
Global warming, pollution and other such hazards call for ethical eating where we eat food that is not produced at the cost of the environment. Chef-owner Abhijit Saha of Caperberry in Bangalore says, “Locavorism or eating what is readily available in the local market, produced locally and food that has not travelled long distances to reach your plate are the best practices of ethical eating. Such food is healthier.”
Ragini Mehra, owner of an organic store The Kirana Shop in Delhi, says, “It may have begun as a trend but ‘organic’ as a habit, as a fact and as a lifestyle is here to stay. Once people understand the hazards of packaged food, or vegetables and fruits that are loaded with pesticides, they switch to organic permanently. It is a life altering practice.”
Businessman and environmentalist Manjunath Pankkaparambil has his fully organic restaurant Lumiere in Bangalore, organic poultry and vegetable farms, organic store and organic e-grocery store, providing a 360 degree product. He says, “The percentage of people adopting organic as a conscious lifestyle change is increasing. And some who switch to organic only feel that it is a healthier way of living. Little do they know about the holistic approach, where by eating pesticide and chemical free food we are also reducing our carbon footprint, our soil is getting healthier and with minimum damage to the environment.”
Snacking habits are also evolving from the erstwhile deep fried samosas to roasted seeds and other nutritious and wholesome foods. As people awaken to healthier lifestyles, High Tea is giving way to low tea. “Cream and sugar loaded cakes and pastries and butter/cheese laden finger sandwiches are paving way for baked goods and lighter, wholesome snacks during the evening tea and snack time,” says Jaideep Sippy, Founder and CEO of The Style Kitchen. His health food brand Missisippy is a good example of snacks that are filling.
Raising the bar
Liquor consumption over socialising has given way to people experimenting with their intake. A slight healthy streak is seen here as well. “Bottled drinks are giving way to craft cocktails and fresh stuff and hence there is a shift towards microbreweries,” says Chef Abhijit. Mixologist and owner of Cocktails & Dreams, Speakeasy in Gurgaon, Yangdup Lama says, “Bloody Mary is famous because of tomato juice. I make buckets of Bloody Mary in summers using fresh, hand-picked tomatoes. We also add whole seasonal fruits to cocktails. Cucumbers, red bell peppers and chillies are being increasingly used in bars and pubs. Herbs like mint, coriander are very popular additions to drinks.”
“But it is craft cocktails that is wooing the patrons. With a few changes to regular style of serving we are able to make drinks that taste exactly the same every time we make them. We use in-house ice and house-made syrups. The result is a higher taste profile,” says Yangdup.
Return to roots
It’s all about exploring, experiencing and promptly going back to the basics according to Chef Manu. “Today everybody can cook pasta or a green curry. How many of us still get to savour food made by our grandmothers? We’re losing touch with simplicity of food so now in the next five years, everybody’s going to try and go back to the roots—to home style recipes that got lost amid all the noise being made about contemporary food,” he says.
Chef Velumurugan P of Dakshin at Welcom Hotel Sheraton, Delhi, has toured the Western Ghats to bring back hitherto unknown recipes to Dakshin. “Places like Servarayan Hills in Tamil Nadu and also Anaimudi in Kerala offer fresh recipes, grow lesser known root vegetables and fruits that I bring back and make the patrons savour. We have also promoted the food of Nadar community, of Syrian Christians and also Kerala’s Moplah cuisine at Dakshin,” he adds. He goes on to explain the importance of being in touch with your roots with a marvellous example, “Late Chef Jacob Aruni worked extensively to promote various South Indian cuisines. He was famous for using Vimla Akka Masala, the recipe for which he never had. Chef Jacob procured this masala from his Vimla Akka (sister) back home and never took the recipe because he feared he would lose touch with his Vimla Akka, and hence with his roots.”