The first issue of Brunch in Delhi came out on February 1, 2004. Nine months later, with the launch of the Hindustan Times in Mumbai, Brunch was introduced to readers there as well. The Delhi Brunch completes 10 years this month.
And so we bring you a special two-part anniversary issue, on the theme 'Look How We've Changed!' We asked writers, specialists in their field, to do a series of essays for us, chronicling these changes.
In this essay, Vir Sanghvi, Advisor, HT Media Ltd writes how several factors like digital media, demographics and more have influenced contemporary Indian's food habits.
Indian restaurant scene: then
How have things changed in the food scene in Delhi in the decade since Brunch came out? Well, cast your minds back - if you are old enough to remember that era. Western food was a hotel cuisine. Unless you went to Diva or one or two other restaurants, there was little European food to be had outside of the big hotels. Pasta meant strands of over-cooked maida in an ocean of sauce. Sichuan was regarded as a suburb of Ludhiana. Nearly every Chinese restaurant served all dishes in a thick red gravy (usually the same gravy with minor variations to pretend that the kitchen was making distinct and different dishes). Sushi was something that expatriate Koreans and Japanese ate. It was very expensive and few Indians would go anywhere near it.
Indian food - in restaurants - meant Punjabi food of the sort that no self-respecting Punjabi would eat at home. Butter Chicken was the signature dish of Delhi. Few restaurants offered any kind of South Indian cuisine - or any other regional food experience, for that matter. There were, funnily enough, lots of Thai restaurants. But nearly all of them were terrible even if Thai chefs had been hired. (Not all Thais know how to cook). Coffee was yet to become a big thing. Barista waged a brave battle to get Indians to drink good coffee but most restaurants served Nescafé and even at hotels, the coffee was usually disgusting.
No place for adventurous foodies
For the home cook, options were limited. The shops had very few imported ingredients. It wasn't that the government banned imports, more that the shops believed that nobody would buy them. Adventurous foodies fell back on dirty and slushy markets and dodgy outlets where smuggled foodstuffs, many long past their sell-by dates, were on display. Hotels lorded it over the rest of us because they had import licenses. Even stand-alone restaurants despaired of ever getting access to quality ingredients.
Ten years ago, Indian food - in restaurants - meant Punjabi food of the sort that no self-respecting Punjabi would eat at home. Butter Chicken was the signature dish of Delhi
The wine scene was a wasteland. Imported wines were hard to find. Even if you did locate a shop that sold foreign wines, the chances were that the wine had been so badly stored that it was not fit to drink. Sadly the same was true of hotels. The wine import business was dominated by a handful of big players and many of them sold white wines that had not been properly maintained. But because most of us were too intimidated to send back bottles of spoiled white burgundy, we drank sour Chablis anyway. The Indian wine scene was non-existent. Grover made some decent red wine. But that was about it. There was not a single wine from Maharashtra in that era, which I would bother to drink.
Satelite TV transformed the way Indians looked at food. Partly it is the phenomenon of the Australian MasterChef.
So why is it all so different now?
Here's my theory: prosperity, global media, digital media, foreign (and domestic travel), mall dining and most important, demographics.
Prosperity is easy enough to cite as a reason. Experience all over the world demonstrates that when the middle class begins to have a greater disposable income, it spends more money in food and restaurants and upgrades its drinking habits (from gin to wine, perhaps).
Global media is a little more controversial but I genuinely believe that satellite TV transformed the way Indians look at food. Partly it is the phenomenon of the Australian MasterChef but it is also Nigella Lawson, Donna Hay and Top Chef that have made the difference. Our benchmarks are now global. Dishes that seemed strange a decade ago now not only seem familiar, but thanks to the TV chefs, we know how they are made.
Digital media has only just become a player but its influence is going to grow in the years ahead. At one level it is convenience. If you are looking for a recipe you need only go to YouTube to see someone making the dish. And at another level, digital media will become the key to restaurant selection. Already people go on the Net to find out about new restaurants and check out their menus. I'm writing this while judging Webchef, a contest where amateur cooks posted their recipes on the web and are now slugging it out in Chennai for the finals. The winner gets his or her own YouTube food show. Five years ago, such a contest would have been unthinkable.
The other influencers
The influence of travel is self-explanatory. If you have been to Thailand, you'll know that the Thai food you are being served in Delhi is rubbish. So restaurants have to up their game. But domestic travel makes a difference too. Most Delhi-ites now recognise that there is more to Indian cuisine than Murgh Makhan.
Mall dining is more influential than we realise. Till now, prospective restaurateurs were deterred by the problems of finding real estate, ensuring security, depending on a collapsing infrastructure etc. Malls have changed all that. As more malls open, so do opportunities for restaurateurs.
And finally there is the most important factor of them all: demographics. Our children are smarter than us. They are more tech-savvy. They are more willing to experiment. They are globally focused. They expect world-class experiences and cuisine. And they want to eat much better than you and I ever did. They fill the new mall restaurants. They go on YouTube for recipes and competitions. They tweet when a restaurant lets them down. And they push our restaurateurs into breaking free of pre-conceptions about the limitations to the Indian palate and into trying new things.
So, there is one thing I am sure of: ten years from now, when this generation comes of age. India will have the best food in the world.
Vir Sanghvi, Advisor, HT Media Ltd, writes the influential Rude Food column for Brunch.
From HT Brunch, February 23
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