It’s tempting, in retrospect, to believe that the 2016 food story was shaped by a January ruling from the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI). The regulatory body, which began cracking down on laissez-faire food imports a few years ago, declared that nothing would be allowed into the country unless it still had 60% of its shelf-life intact—no matter that goods packaged in the European Union and the US carry “best by" dates, not dates of manufacture.

Self-serving as that starting point may be—the notification came on the back of a series of similarly well-intentioned, if clueless, steps, including a 2011 ruling that recognized only “non-animal rennet" cheeses—its implications, coupled with concurrent concerns about carbon footprints, agricultural futures and costs, have been transformational for the restaurant industry this year.

How? Consider the cheese. Animal rennet is at the heart of prized products like Italy’s Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC)-certified Parmigiano Reggiano. Its non-availability encouraged the rise of the artisanal Indian cheesemaker, who uses vegetarian rennet and Internet recipes to develop tweaked versions of Brie and Grana Padano.

Like brothers Prateeksh and Agnay Mehra, who set up The Spotted Cow Fromagerie in 2014 and now produce 100kg of cheese every month. “We make bloomy cheeses, two in the French style and one in the Italian. We call them Bombrie, Camembay and Rombay (after Robiola), since the originals are geographical indication or DOC-tagged and can’t be reproduced elsewhere," says Prateeksh.

Dishes from Pritha Sen’s vegetarian Bengali pop-up Unish Pawd. Photo: Commeat
Dishes from Pritha Sen’s vegetarian Bengali pop-up Unish Pawd. Photo: Commeat

As thrilled as the Mehras were with the welcome their cheeses received, their biggest validation came when Craft, a casual dining place in Kurla, Mumbai, put “handcrafted, artisanal, preservative-free cheese from The Spotted Cow Fromagerie" on the menu. “This was something completely new and unexpected," admits Prateeksh.

Call it jugaad, making the best of a bad situation or simply a huge opportunity, “the use of indigenous ingredients in food—Indian, European and beyond—can define 2016," says Riyaaz Amlani, chief executive officer and managing director of Impresario Entertainment & Hospitality Pvt. Ltd and president of the National Restaurant Association of India. Virtually every single trend that has emerged or intensified over the past year looks to dig deep within the borders, make the best of locally available resources, fragmentize broad regional cuisines and crown Indian—be it cuisine or ingredient—as the king of the palate.

Dal Chawal Arancini from Farzi Café. Photo: Farzi Café
Dal Chawal Arancini from Farzi Café. Photo: Farzi Café

Even for veteran industry-watchers, the triumph of Indian flavours in “affordable casual dining"—a price bracket covering per-person spending of Rs500-1,000—comes as a surprise. “The millennials are far less experimental in their choices of cuisine than their parents," says Bakshish Dean, five-star executive chef-turned-executive director at Prime Gourmet Pvt. Ltd, a restaurant company.

What helped, says Zorawar Kalra, five of whose six brands spin north Indian food in various ways, was presentation. “Indian food used to be poorly marketed, poorly packaged. Farzi Café put a modern molecular twist to the food in a high-energy, youth-oriented environment and now the modern Indian genre is the No.1 mega phenomenon in the country," says the man who added 12 outlets to his Massive Restaurants portfolio in 2016.

Staying with the Indian theme but pushing the creative envelope significantly, Manu Chandra of Toast & Tonic, Joy Banerjee of Kolkata’s Bohemian, and Thomas Zacharias of The Bombay Canteen make the ordinary exceptional. With a Twitter feed full of photographs of fresh produce from markets in Mumbai and around the world, Zacharias puts his money where his eyes go: His current winter menu features a barley salad with ponkh (green jowar), a ceviche with locally sourced red snapper, kokum (a souring agent), salt and black rice, a haleem with tender wheat berries, and a slider served with a pickle of the humble tendli (ivy gourd).

Organic Black Rice Mushroom Risotto from Kala Ghoda Café.
Organic Black Rice Mushroom Risotto from Kala Ghoda Café.

“This is our second winter and it’s quite astonishing to see people come back and ask if we are serving ponkh or pink guava or even unexciting veggies like parval or tendli again," says Zacharias. “Beyond Mumbai, we have also sourced bamboo rice from Tamil Nadu and black rice from West Bengal."

Black rice is also a big hit at Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda Café, where owner Farhad Bomanjee—self-confessedly more ideator than chef—gives the very Indian ingredient a foreign twist: He uses it in a mushroom risotto and as a side to a Thai red curry with grilled rawas. “I encountered black rice for the first time in a sample bag from the Original Indian Table (OIT)," says Bomanjee. “I tried it out and immediately put in a bigger order: It’s important for me to promote indigenous grains so that farmers continue to grow them. And for that I really appreciate the work that OIT does, because it’s not something I would do."

A large part of the credit for the Indian-food-first zeitgeist, then, must go to the all-new provenance entrepreneur, professionals in their 20s and 30s who introduce structure, ethics and accountability to a notoriously ad hoc system. Consider OIT, set up in 2015 by finance professionals Ishira Mehta and Puneet Jhajharia after they had spent two years travelling across 20 states for their agriculture value chain solutions company.

Guava Tan-Ta-Tan from The Bombay Canteen. Photo: The Bombay Canteen
Guava Tan-Ta-Tan from The Bombay Canteen. Photo: The Bombay Canteen

“In pockets across the country, we found farmers moving away from pesticide-reliant agriculture and growing local varieties of crops that require fewer chemicals, if not going organic. But they were lost when it came to larger markets. At the same time, there were people in the cities looking for newer, healthier products. So we stepped up to bridge the gap," says the Delhi-based Mehta. Besides varieties of rice, OIT’s products include barnyard millets, munisiari rajma, nuts, rock salt and the like, all of which are picked up by their restaurant partners and sold on their website, as well as on Bigbasket.com and Amazon.in.

A similar quality code governs cutting-edge seafood suppliers Era Fishery Products Pvt. Ltd, run by Anurag Dewan and his brother Prabhat. “What sets us apart is the fact that we process our catch—red snapper, reef cod, emperor, barracuda, everything that’s found in the Andaman Sea—at source," explains Prabhat. “Our unit in Port Blair allows us to blast-freeze fish and seafood to minus 35 degrees Celsius as soon as they make landing. The produce, about 50 tonnes a month, travels to Chennai in reefers and then joins the mainland cold chain. Compared to chilling, blast-freezing maintains the properties of the seafood, thereby ensuring a better product on the plate."

Among Era’s clients are Viva O’ Viva at Goa Bhavan in New Delhi, Guppy By Ai in New Delhi and Coastal Reef in Gurgaon. Prabhat’s big test, though, will be the imminent retail supplies in northern India, where, he’s convinced, people have no idea how fish really tastes.

Jackfruit Tostada from Toast & Tonic. Courtesy: Kunal Chandra
Jackfruit Tostada from Toast & Tonic. Courtesy: Kunal Chandra

The success of indigenous ingredients in no way surprises professional home chefs, who were the first to tap into the nostalgia-rich, experience-hungry migrant populations of India’s biggest cities, and who have experienced something of a boom this year. “I source 80% of what I need—grains, greens like colocasia leaves, broad mustard greens (not to be confused with sarson saag), even herbs like mandhoniya, lawfah or musondori—from the North-East," says Gitika Saikia, who is popular in Mumbai for her home-cooked Assamese food pop-ups.

The “authentic" tag appropriated by home chefs cooking up everything from Iyengar to Kayasth to Khasi to Chettinad, however, comes with a caveat. Home chef Pritha Sen, well-known for her one-off storied East Bengali meals, points out: “When a trend catches on the way pop-ups have, the gatekeepers—be it the home cooks or the aggregators—have to be extra vigilant. Otherwise mediocrity will creep in and then it’s just a question of time before it goes bust. The focus has to be on a new experience and great value-addition, nothing else will work."

There’s a takeaway there for the restaurant industry as well which witnessed, as Amlani says, a 15% growth in the affordable, casual dining segment over the past year. At the moment, it may sync neatly with the muscular assertion of a national identity, mashing up a robust respect for indigenous ingredients with a distinct disregard for foreign intellectual property, balancing a celebration of the local with a growing insularity. But unless it’s nurtured with integrity, empathy and foresight, the repercussions could extend well beyond the plate.

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