Fancy a Hyderabadi biryani and roganjosh for dinner, topped up with a Jodhpuri moong dal halwa for dessert? Or a hot parathas and palak paneer dinner, topped with Hazoori petha halwa for dessert? You don't have to go restaurant hunting for these - just pick them up from retail shelves in branded heat-and-eat packs, and eat in the comfort of your home.
Although the market for ready-to-eat (RTE) and ready-to-cook (RTC) foods is still nascent, the fact that there is heightened activity from brands in both these segments points to the opportunities they see in them. While there is a lot more in Indian cuisine in RTE, RTC foods are more about non-traditional foods such as soups, noodles and pasta; vermicelli is also popular. For instance, Maggi is seeing some serious competition from big and small, national, regional and retail brands now.
"No one wanted to take Maggi on directly. Smithkline Beecham launched its Horlicks Foodles in wheat to Maggi's maida and rides the health platform; Hindustan Unilever went for Knorr Soupy Noodles. Ching's is offering Chinese flavours in noodles," said a market expert not wishing to be named.
Indian consumers have taken more readily to RTC foods because, according to Devendra Chawla, business head - private brands, Future Group, "it still involves the woman of the house doing (or getting done) the actual cooking at home, something that the Indian homemaker has traditionally taken pride in and kept control over, since it defines her position in the family."
He added: "Necessity may push Indian woman towards RTE foods, but her core intuitive preference will always be for fresh food. Though with time, the heat and serve segment may grow, for food brands, factory owners and modern retailers, it's pertinent to note that unlike in the West, Indians' preferences will not shift towards packed and preserved food in the 'cold chain and home freezer' system easily. Brands will have to be sensitive to these cultural mindsets to succeed."
So while in the future RTE will grow due to changing urban lifestyles and time pressures on the woman, he said, the growth will be slower than RTC, which finds more takers.
KK Chutani, marketing head - foods, Dabur, agreed, saying, "The RTE segment in India is still very small as this is a highly occasional phenomenon that is more need-based. On the other hand, RTC offers convenience to your daily cooking and gives the woman in the household the independence and opportunity to add her special flavour to the cooking and retain that 'maa ke haath ka swad'. Hence, the RTC products are more preferred in the Indian context."
Both Big Bazaar's Tasty Treat and Dabur's Hommade brands will concentrate on RTC foods, as a result.
Retail consultancy Technopak's own observations are somewhat different. Pratichee Kapoor, its principal consultant, observed: "Both RTC and RTE are urban phenomena. I don't see a huge growth rate gap between the two in the future. As increasingly, there is lesser disposable time and more disposable income, both RTC and RTE will do well. We will see more intense competition in both segments going forward."
Sharda Agarwal, director, Marketgate Consulting, said: "For the urban Indian woman, the kitchen as a means of self-definition in the family need not necessarily remain the focal point. For example, investment of time and effort in the children's academic performance is becoming a strong defining attribute for the homemaker today."
Saloni Nangia, senior VP, retail consulting, Technopak, added, "Urban women in their late teens and early 20s have career plans today. These are consumers five and eight years hence and would not define their importance at home by the kitchen. Food will remain important but she will combine skills with convenience. For example, she may round off the meal with an RTE option."
Godrej Tyson, which has processed RTEs - vegetarian and non-vegetarian - under the Yummiez brand, agrees. Sushil Sawant, its associate VP, marketing and business development, said, "We launched two years ago and have seen faster growth than the market rate of 25-30 per cent. Last year, we grew at over 80 per cent. With Tyson (USA), we have future perspective on market and consumer evolution. Eating out has more than doubled in the past two years; the next stage is bringing prepared food home." Besides Yummiez, Venky's and Al Kabeer have also extended their non-vegetarian RTE offerings.
The RTE segment has seen big brands expanding their ranges. ITC's Kitchens of India, Gits, MTR, Kohinoor and others have all expanded their ranges significantly, while new brands have launched.
Two key factors have fuelled the RTC and RTE opportunities. One, Chawla pointed out, is modern retail. "It has been instrumental in increasing visibility and availability of RTC and RTE food. Besides, retailers themselves have launched their own brands."
Two, the increasing number of brands are creating the noise that is attracting consumer attention, pushing consumption.