I've always wondered why, given that Indians can run world-class hotels and restaurants, our food manufacturers do not reach international standards. The packaged food business in India is dominated by multinationals, most of whom would rather import their food products from abroad and make us pay high prices. But what about Indian companies? If our hotels and restaurants can match and even exceed international standards, then why can't our food manufacturers? Why must the very mention of Indian-made packaged food only bring forth images of bhujiya and sev? Surely, we can compete with the global corporations in other areas as well?
I'm happy to report that I've found three products in the Indian market that not only top the international competition but are also reasonably priced. All three are made by Indian companies and represent a triumph of Indian ingenuity. The manufacturers don't have the vast marketing budgets or expensive distribution networks of Big Food, which is what I call the global giants. But they have spunk, pluck and a commitment to quality.
The first of the three is the best kettle chip currently available in the market. It tastes strongly of potato, the frying is perfect, the product is always fresh and never stale and the price is a fraction of imported kettle chips.
If you are in the food business then you've probably heard of the Mrs Bector group. If not, you may have noticed products under the Cremica brand name. But the chances are that the group and the brand don't mean a lot to you because they don't spend as much money on advertising as Big Food does. I first heard of them when my friend Manjit Gill, ITC's top chef, suggested that I try their tomato ketchup.
Read: Coming of age of the Indian foodie
Now, I'm the sort of guy who thinks that only Heinz knows how to make ketchup and am leery of the yellowish goo that many Indian companies claim is tomato ketchup. (In all fairness, the yellow colour is a function of the breed of Indian tomatoes they use; it does not mean that the ketchup is really made from kaddu). So I was sceptical when Manjit recommended the Cremica ketchup. But because I trust his palate and respect his judgement, I tried it anyway.
I was astonished: it really was a world-class ketchup. A few months later, I had dinner with a few guys I knew from the Four Seasons hotel group who told me how bad Indian ketchup was. Spontaneously, I organised a blind tasting. We were at the Taj in Bombay and I got the kitchen to make us some French fries. Then I placed three bowls of tomato ketchup (one from Cremica and two from famous multinational brands whose identities I will be discreet about.) The Four Seasons guys dipped their fries into the ketchup, looked at each other and smiled superiorly. "This one", they said, pointing to one bowl, "that's the best."
You know how the story ends. They had all picked the Indian ketchup: Cremica.
I didn't quite say: "So how about that, white man?" But you will understand that this was exactly how I felt. The Indian ketchup had the most tomato-ey taste of all the three and the perfect balance of umami flavour.
Later I bumped into the Bectors and they told me their story. The family had started out in Punjab, making hand-cranked ice-cream in their garage. When that worked, they had moved into making bread. But the breakthrough came when McDonald's arrived in India. Despite its multinational character, McDonald's wanted to localise its supply chain. It asked the Bectors to come up with a ketchup that lived up to McDonald's global standards, and the family came up with the tomato-heavy ketchup that had wowed the Four Seasons guys.
The Bectors sell the ketchup (and eggless mayonnaise) along with other products under the Cremica brand name, but their most loyal customers are within the catering industry, where chefs like Manjit go out and look for the best products. The kettle chips (under the Opera brand name) are a new innovation and they emerge out of Geeta Bector's (she is the daughter-in-law of the family) determination to make world-class chips in India. (Geeta loves kettle chips).
Why are they so good? I asked Geeta, who made no special claims for her chips. They were chunky-cut, fried in small batches in kettles and the potatoes were sourced from western India, where the best-potatoes come from. (McCain, the potato giant, has based its Indian operation at Mehsana in Gujarat for this reason). When I said how much I liked the Opera chips, she seemed pleased but was modest enough to sound surprised.
You should try them yourself to make up your own mind. My own preference is for the simple salt and black pepper version. In my view, the Bectors have still to get the fancy flavours absolutely right. But the basic chip is terrific.
Shortly after I began corresponding with a company called Paper Boat, I noticed that they had begun advertising. I don't know if you've seen the ads but Paper Boat is a range of largely fruit-based drinks with extremely innovative packaging and typically Indian flavours. I tracked down the guys who had started the company and discovered that they were all young, well-educated, first-generation entrepreneurs, some of whom had learnt the ropes while working for Coca-Cola.
Neeraj Biyani, who grew up in Ranchi had thought of the flavours, Neeraj Kakkar who went to Wharton had grown up in a small town near Karnal. And the two Neerajs and a third founder called Suhas Misra had enlisted an old Wharton buddy called James Nutall. James designed the eye-catching packaging. Their company has private equity funding from Narayan Murthy's personal fund, Sequoia Capital and Footprint Ventures who believe in the quality of the product.
I got Amit Kaul, the witty brand manager of Paper Boat, to send me a list of their flavours. Paper Boat started out with aamras and jaljeera last August. Now they have kokum (which was a discovery for some of the company's north Indian founders who had never heard of it before), jamun kala khatta, aam panna, imli ka amlana and even golgappe ka pani. Kanji, satoo and rasam are some of the products they are working on.
I asked Neeraj Kakkar why they went with such Indian flavours, given that they had foreign educations and multinational experience. He agreed that this was odd especially since one of the founders is an American. "Stranger than fiction is this white guy thinking how to make aam panna," he joked. But the answer is simple enough. Nobody has ever bottled a great green mango drink before. There is no widely marketed kokum drink of this quality. So they are exploiting a gap in the market and betting that a new generation of Indians is finally ready to enjoy the flavours of our own soil.
Speaking for myself, I'm not sure about the new generation. But I do know that in my house, the Paper Boat drinks have now become our drink of choice.
Which leaves me with the third outstanding Indian product I've tried. I've written about my love for custard (or crème anglaise if you want to get all fancy) before so I won't bore you with the reasons why. As much as I appreciate high quality custard made with free range eggs and vanilla pods, I often crave a bowl of satisfying nursery-style custard that brings back all kinds of childhood memories.
I've tried most foreign brands but with a very few exceptions (Waitrose's own label is the best, I find) they don't really cut it. So I was startled to find that the best pre-packaged custard I have eaten recently is made by an Indian company, in Ghaziabad of all places!
It is a company called Amrit Foods, established in 1989 by a family with some experience of the food business. Its CEO Viveck Batra, is an IIT, XLRI Jameshedpur alumnus, with no previous experience in the food business. But because of a relentless quest for quality and perhaps because the custard is made from buffalo milk, which has a higher fat content than the cow's milk that Western manufacturers use, their custard is richer and has a more satisfying taste.
If I have a criticism, then it is about the way they package it. For a start, they call it "Instant Dessert Mix" which is misleading. Why not just call it custard? It is not an instant mix. It is a ready-made product. Secondly, they ask you to keep it in the freezer, which is a huge no-no because it destroys the texture. This is a preservative-free product with UHT packaging. All you need to do is put it in the fridge (for taste reasons - in our climate), cut open the packet and eat, eat, eat!
So far at least, they have not got their distribution in place so you can only buy it online - which frankly, is a little crazy. (Who goes on the Internet to buy custard?) But it should be in the shops soon. And I know that they are guaranteed at least one devoted customer: me!
From HT Brunch, May 11
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