1990s: The decade of junk food and cola wars
From the burgeoning fast food revolution to the birth of Western-style stand-alone restaurants, eating out in India slowly transformed from home-grown hakka to the world on a plate
It is a few hours before midnight and I am at the colonial-era Tollygunge Club in Calcutta, as Kolkata was then called, at an end-of-the-year gala. The date is 31 December 1999 and this is a party like no other—in a few hours, the world will purportedly end. As doomsday prophets hold vigil in the run-up to the Y2K apocalypse, my lasting memory of that night is of hot chocolate fudge.
As the sun rose on a new millennium, the children of the 1990s lived to tell the tale. And in hindsight, hot chocolate fudge did seem like a good hat tip to the decade gone by. Touched by liberalization, my club’s little ice-cream parlour had suddenly reinvented itself with a gleaming new soft-serve machine and shelves lined with bottles of Hershey’s chocolate syrup. Efficient little plastic cups flew off the counter with a tiered vanilla soft serve dressed with chocolate syrup and topped with a pre-lib, luridly coloured karonda cherry.
This was the decade of junk food and cola wars. Pepsi and Coke kept raising the stakes and a variety of home-grown and foreign packaged foods made an appearance, much to the consternation of our parents. I have memories of singing the popular jingle “Bole mere lips, I love Uncle Chips” as we munched our way through spicy packets of potato crisps. And of course we thought we were channelling Clint Eastwood when we dangled Phantom sweet cigarettes from the corners of our mouths. The epitome of coolness was when we brandished the fake stick-on tattoos that came free with Fusen, the popular Japanese bubble gum of the time.
Eating out with the family in 1990s Calcutta meant golden fried prawns from Kim Fa in Tangra, Chicken a la Kiev in Mocambo, and potato-laden biryanis from Nizam’s. Bombay (now Mumbai) and Delhi had a similar foodscape, says chef Rahul Akerkar, who started his career in the 1990s: “Most restaurants in Bombay back then were pretty stuffy and one had to either choose from Indian restaurants like Khyber, Chinese places like Ling’s Pavilion and China Garden, and of course staples like Zodiac Grill and Shamiana at The Taj Mahal Palace.” Chef Ritu Dalmia also remembers the 1990s in Delhi being about only a handful of restaurants. “I remember going to Nirula’s, Moti Mahal, some Chinese restaurants and the different state bhavans. For special occasions, there was Orient Express in the Taj Palace, but that was pretty much it,” she says.
It was this triptych of stand-alone Chinese, “Continental” and Mughlai restaurants that ruled India’s culinary landscape in the first half of the 1990s, with few variations on the template. Towards the second half, however, the food industry began picking up on the changes sweeping through the country’s socio-economic fabric. Pop culture influenced our pallettes. TV shows like Friends and Beverly Hills, 90210 instilled the idea of conversations in coffee shops, teen romance over chocolate shakes and heartbreak in pizza parlours.
The decade saw the emergence of the well-travelled Indian, who knew what pasta cooked al dente really meant. The setting was ripe for the foot soldiers of this revolution, the young “foreign-returned” chefs, to enter the scene and transform how, what and where we ate.
Piece of the pie
Let’s step a little back to 1977, when a restaurant called Nirula’s opened in Delhi and introduced the inconveniently trendy idea of self-service, hot dogs, and thick-as-sin hot chocolate fudge sundaes. This was a portent of things to come. In the late 1980s, India’s first foreign burger outlet arrived in Connaught Place, Delhi, via the UK chain Wimpy. It paved the way for McDonald’s entry and the explosion of the quick service restaurant (QSR) format. The Golden Arches finally arrived in 1996 in Delhi’s Basant Lok market with a beef- and pork-free menu tailored to the Indian market and starring the game-changing McAloo Tikki.
In fact 1996 was an eventful year for the Indian food universe. This was also the year the first international pizza chains—Domino’s and Pizza Hut—opened shop in Delhi and Bengaluru, respectively. While Domino’s got the upper hand by introducing the concept of home delivery and the idea of “eating in”, Pizza Hut on Bengaluru’s Brigade Road had a bit of a tough run. Along with its sister concern KFC, it was targeted by farmer groups protesting against the imminent “fast-foodization” of India.
The early days of pizza, then, were fraught with danger and one had to scarf down the pepperoni slices under the watchful eye of a police van parked outside the pizza parlour. But both Pizza Hut and Domino’s stood their ground and emerged as game changers in the long run.
Not everything was met with brickbats in Bengaluru. In 1996 (again), the home-grown brand Café Coffee Day (CCD) opened its first outlet, also on Brigade Road. Banking on the growing popularity of the Internet, CCD’s first outlet was a cyber café-cum-coffee shop that introduced Italian-style coffee-based beverages such as cappuccinos, lattes, espressos and frappés at an affordable price. “The objective was to position CCD as a place where young people could just hang out,” says Venu Madhav, chief executive officer, CCD, on email. Young people in towns and cities quickly warmed to the concept. Indian teenagers finally had their own version of Central Perk from Friends.
Dining out in sunday best
In the first half of the 1990s, fine-dining remained synonymous with luxury hotels. Their role as bastions of Western lifestyle and cuisine remained unchallenged. Growing up, I remember five-star hotels as places meant for special occasions. As the economy opened up and there was more disposable income to go around, a luxury dining experience became less intimidating, even though dressing up in one’s Sunday best remained de jure—something old hands in the business like Taljinder Singh look back on fondly, especially when they see confident millennials striding through hotels today in their ripped boyfriend jeans. Singh, who is area director and general manager at The Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai, describes the 1990s as a time when the hotels were experimenting with new templates; back then, every luxury hotel worth its salt thought that the combination of a disco and a 24x7 coffee shop was the key to success, the latter as a hub for conversations and late-night snacks, drawing people with its vertiginous club sandwiches.
As the decade progressed, a handful of young chefs started experimenting with a new kind of food. Hauz Khas Village (HKV) in Delhi was one such hub. The area had started becoming trendy after design entrepreneur Bina Ramani opened a boutique in a refurbished cowshed in the late 1980s. Following her cue, young restaurateurs set up shop. “All of HKV had turned into a little Soho and a bunch of us had opened restaurants here. I had an Italian restaurant called MezzaLuna,” says Dalmia. “Next door was a Thai place run by Radhika Singh, and Andy Verma ran Duke’s Place. All of it was very hip and cool and way before its time. I was the first one to shut down in 1995, and the others followed soon after.”
Dalmia says that while this was an exciting time, it was a slow process—exposure levels were still quite low. Very few people had had the chance to travel and eat European, Mexican, or south-east Asian food at its source. Alcohol licences were difficult to procure. The concept of wine by the glass was some years away and Nashik and Nandi Hills had yet to become wine-growing hubs offering a range of locally produced and affordable wines.
“Every evening, Radhika (of Sukhothai) and I would meet at MezzaLuna and exchange sob stories of how Delhi wasn’t ready for us, for we were making excellent Thai and Italian food and there just weren’t enough takers,” says Dalmia. “We were all young and this was the kind of food we wanted to do, but unfortunately none of us had pockets that were deep enough to stick it out and wait for the impending change that would come in the latter half of the decade.”
In Mumbai, chefs Akerkar and A.D. Singh were also making their bones in the business. In 1990, the concept of “just going out for a drink” was still alien. “And then in October-November that year, two big things happened. A café and a pub opened in south Bombay,”says Singh. The café in question was Just Desserts, which Singh and Akerkar started with another friend. It was an Irani café by day and a hip jazz café serving coffee and cakes after 6pm. Just Desserts, along with The Pub in Churchgate, paved the way for other places such as Akerkar’s stand-alone restaurant, Under the Over, in 1992, which served Tex-Mex, pizzas, pastas, barbecue and Creole dishes. This was followed by nightclubs like Razzberry Rhinoceros in Juhu and The Ghetto in Breach Candy. Things were changing.
Ready for lobster bisque
By the time Indigo opened its doors in Colaba, in 1999, the city was ready for something as sophisticated as lobster bisque. With its bold and clean flavours and elegant plating, Indigo heralded a new approach to food. It’s hardly surprising then that the dish is still on their menu, though Akerkar himself has moved on. It was this combination of timing, concept and location that clicked—the chef admits that had Indigo opened earlier in the decade, it probably wouldn’t have worked.
In India, it was this crew of chefs and food entrepreneurs who paved the way, flagging off a journey of discovery from cheesy masala macaroni to the understated aglio e olio. This was the decade we stopped using the umbrella term “Continental” to describe any dish that came from foreign shores, no matter which side of the Atlantic it was on. It was when burgers and pizzas made inroads into our dal-chawal weeknights and old-school Coffee House brews transformed into cappuccinos with customized frothy hearts. It was a culinary coming of age.