What’s common to zucchini, red cabbage and dragon fruit? They are all associated with Chinese or South-east Asian cuisine—exotic produce popping up in vegetable markets that are now being Indianized by local eateries.
Although Indians have been eating fancy for a long time now, two trends have withstood the test of time—the love for Chinese food and a growing desire to eat healthy.
This has led to a gradual increase in interest in vegetables such as zucchini, broccoli, red cabbage, red and yellow capsicum and fruits like the spiky dragon fruit—a so-called superfood that is almost entirely imported from South-east Asia.
Imports of dragon fruit and seeds of zucchini and red cabbage are rising in keeping with these trends and farmers are taking up cultivation of these new crops to feed the new demand.
According to Sushil Kumar, a retail vendor at the Dadar vegetable market in Mumbai, zucchini, red cabbage and red and yellow capsicums are in demand because they add variety to regular Chinese cooking at home.
“I have been selling these for over 10 years in Mumbai," Kumar said. “The prices of zucchini and others fluctuate a lot because their volumes in the market are low and seasonal changes affect supply." He currently sells green zucchini for Rs20 a pair.
The once exotic dragon fruit, also called pitaya, has successfully survived supply-demand fluctuations. This succulent cactus, native to Mexico, has seen a sharp increase in demand from 2014 onwards in India. Between January and March 2014, an average of 26,920kg of dragon fruit was imported into the country, according to import and export data aggregator Zauba. This jumped over 12 times to an average of 330,010kg between August and October 2016.
The vast majority of dragon fruit comes from Vietnam—imports were worth $450,000 in November 2016—with a small portion from Thailand. Prices of the fruit have also risen as demand rises. Starting at Rs48 per kg in January 2014, it had risen to Rs70 per kg in October 2016.
Dragon fruits at the Dadar vegetable market have been selling for some three years. Prices here vary between Rs25 and Rs50 per piece, each piece weighing approximately 150-250 grams. Most ask for the fruit, which they simply call “dragon".
A vendor at Dadar, Mohammad Ashraf, said doctors recommend it for good health. Three of his customers—all middle-aged women—said they had been told both dragon fruit and kiwi are good for building muscle strength.
A vendor in Mumbai’s Versova area cites the example of kale, a dark green leafy vegetable often recommended for so-called ‘detox’ diets. “This used to cost anywhere between Rs200-300 a bunch when we started, 3-4 years ago," he said. “Now, we get it from areas like Uttarakhand, Ooty, Pune and Nashik in the winter months", he said.
“I have been selling broccoli for nearly the last 10 years. Then, it used to go for Rs300-400 per piece. Now I sell it more than regular cauliflower"—at Rs50 per piece. “People see all these (exotic vegetables) on the net, and they want to come and buy them."
Wholesalers say their primary business comes from “continental" hotels and Chinese restaurants.
But the Chinese association with these vegetables has slowly begun to change as they crop up in Indian cuisine. Deewano Da Dhaba, a restaurant in Versova, offers tandoori broccoli, a healthier alternative to tandoori gobi in its menu of snacks. Last June, Puranmal Restaurants, an Indian cuisine chain, introduced zucchini chaat in its catering menu. The recipes are getting more local—in Ghatkopar East, local fast food joint Pure Milk Centre offers broccoli cheese pav bhaji.