The very mention of food makes Pallavi Mithika Menon’s eyes light up. She becomes more animated as she talks about bringing cultural diversity to the meals she prepares for her guests. The Bengaluru-based chef is the co-founder of The Navu project, which she started with fellow chef Kanishka Sharma; the two host The Supper Club and curate private dining experiences.

Menon’s ancestors trace their roots to four communities, and it’s those local food habits, and her travel experiences, which inspire her work. A feast at their pop-up events would probably include Goan prawn blachao, topli nu paneer (a Parsi version of cottage cheese), and spare ribs with offal served with a side of German potatoes.

Menon and Sharma’s interpretation of traditional and global recipes finds takers among millennials, who are looking for authentic food experiences. Urban millennials are exploring native and indigenous foods, eating local produce, and diving into curated food experiences. Knowing the carbon footprint of their meal is increasingly important, and they are more aware and curious about what they eat and drink. And a number of young chefs are putting a spin on traditional and local foods to cater to this need.

This is a big shift from two decades ago when eating fast food from brands such as McDonalds and Pizza Hut, which made their debut in India after liberalization in the 1990s, was seen as aspirational for Indian households. Indian millennials are eating out a lot more than their parents did. In a 2017 report, market researcher Nielsen noted that urban Indian milllennials spend between 10% and 13% of their total food expense on eating out. Eating out is the biggest entertainment expense for the cohort.

“People are very passionate and possessive about their food," explains Anahita N. Dhondy, chef-partner at Parsi restaurant SodaBottleOpenerWala in Gurugram. “They are looking outwards and seeking new trends but also looking inwards and discovering what’s in their own backyard," she says.

For millennials, nostalgia also drives choices, be it in food or clothing, explains G.D. Prasad, assistant vice-president at advertising firm Dentsu Webchutney. Prasad says digitally connected millennials are going back to their roots, discovering whatever was around for years, and branding it as “cool".

In Bengaluru, chef Kavan Kuttappa, who returned to India from the US in 2014, says that regional cuisine has now become the “mainstay for anyone who wants to do a modern Indian restaurant". He is head of creative culinary at pH4 Food and Beverages, the operating company of the popular Permit Room in Bengaluru, which serves contemporary south Indian food.

The idea emerged after the company’s owners, who also run Toit microbrewery, wanted to serve something “unabashedly south Indian and have fun in the process", says Kuttappa. “No one gives south Indian food its due. People have eaten only elements of it but not discovered it entirely." At the Permit Room, the traditional haleem samosa (minced meat with barley or wheat) and Coorgi pandi curry continue to be favourites.

Menon believes using the right platforms, like private experiential dinners and events, has helped chefs like her start a conversation around food and make it more intimate for diners. At her events, for instance, the experience does not focus only on eating but also “debating its origins, pondering over the story that’s been woven around the elements of the dish, deconstructing the components and creating a sense of community around it all," Menon says.

India’s millennials are also finding resonance in buying local produce, and switching to organically grown produce. This has led to entrepreneurs and urban farmers setting up farmer markets and organic stores.

Madhuchandan Chikkadevaiah, founder at Organic Mandya, which sells organic produce sourced from farmers in Karnataka’s distressed Mandya district, is planning to open two more stores in Bengaluru. Chikkadevaiah, a former techie, says organic food is “not something new", but is now gaining popularity because of the way it is being presented to consumers.

When Ambika Seth, co-founded Delhi’s catering company Caara six years ago, the idea was to celebrate local produce and small-scale entrepreneurs. Over the years, supported by the interest and determination of farmers, chefs, and consumers at large the entire ecosystem of eating clean and sourcing locally has been solidified, says Seth, who procures quinoa from a young farmer in Jaipur, while her cheese comes from Uttarakhand. “It’s like we are all speaking the same language finally," says Seth.

There is a lot of interest in organic that is part of a larger trend of healthy eating and living. People are increasingly conscious about climate change, and their carbon footprint," said Sourish Bhattacharya, co-founder and director, Tasting India Symposium, a food event in Delhi.

Kuttappa says that some of world’s best restaurants are using sourcing locally, and India is clearly following suit. “We have always craved something that is not ours," says Kuttpa, referring to western influences on Indian households. But now, “we have got so much of it over the last few years that we want to return to our roots and to the food we grew up eating".

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