If an army moves on its stomach, then a nation tailors its appetite to its circumstances. I always think that one of the flaws with most predictive assessments of the food scene over the next year or so, is that they are made in isolation. People will eat more nachos, we say. They will drink more flavoured vodka. They will order takeaway kathi kebabs. And so on.
All this may well happen. But it won’t happen in isolation. The fascinating thing about watching a nation eat is that by observing its appetite you can diagnose its health. Virtually nothing happens in the food scene that is not a reflection of a larger reality. The true importance of food is that it is a symptom of the progress of a nation.
The significant thing about the food scene in India is not whether we will eat more hotdogs or drink more rasam. It is that the food scene in India will grow – and that it will keep on growing – because the Indian economy will keep growing. We live in the world’s second-fastest growing economy. We live in a society where the overwhelming majority of the population is under 30. And we live in a nation that has discovered the virtues of global media over the last ten years.
All this leads to one inescapable conclusion: the India of 2011 will be nothing like the India of, say, 1991 or even 2001. The average restaurant-goer of 2011 will have virtually nothing in common with his parents when it comes to his food habits.
It sometimes surprises me that restaurateurs and hoteliers don’t grasp this basic reality. For years and years, I have heard people in the hospitality industry tell me that only two kinds of cuisine sell in India: Chinese (or Sino-Ludhianavi) and north Indian. That’s the only kind of food that Indians want to eat. Everything else is doomed to eventual failure.
I do not dispute that this may have been true ten years ago. But we live in a new India. Our country is in the grips of a massive demographic change. Our young people watch global television, trawl the Internet and have access to International information. Their world is very different from the one their parents inhabited. Consequently, their needs are different. Their interests are different. And their food habits are different.
Combine the emergence of India’s first global generation with an unprecedented rise in middle-class prosperity and you have some idea of the magnitude of the change. Experience has shown us that when societies get richer, people want to eat out much more. There are few more reliable indicators of lifestyle enhancements than restaurant-going. Once you understand this, then the restaurant boom (and the night-spot and bar boom) of the last decade begins to make perfect sense. When people have money they like to go out to nice places to spend it.
When prosperity is combined with globalisation, then other consequences follow. For years, restaurateurs have argued that Indians will only go out to eat food that tastes vaguely Indian. After all, they insist, Chinese food only took off in India in the 1980s after it became masaledaar and full of red gravies that could be eaten with rice.
That argument has now been exploded. The newer generation of Chinese restaurants no longer bothers with that kind of Punjabi Chinese. And yet, the new restaurants do extremely well. The fast-food chains have shown us that Indians will experiment with global food. KFC is back in India and is growing phenomenally even though its basic product – deep-fried chicken – hardly mimics any Indian dish. So it is with pizzas. Nobody I know goes into Domino’s looking for a masala pizza. They are quite happy eating that delicious thin-crust pepperoni pizza which has nothing to do with any Indian flavours.
The single greatest example of the change in preferences is, of course, the sushi boom. Many people of my generation took time to get used to the idea of eating raw fish. And yet, our children seem to suffer from no such hang-ups. I am forever astonished by how readily my son’s friends will eat sushi and other kinds of simple Japanese dishes of the sort that their parents would have been reluctant to try. Each day, a new Japanese (or Pan-Asian with Japanese influences) restaurant seems to open somewhere in India. Nearly all of these places appear to be flourishing.
The other great change which nobody expected is the growth of a new kind of restaurant that is neither part of the hotel sector nor is it a stand-alone. As we all know, hotel restaurants can be bland and expensive. Stand-alones have difficulty finding the right location and in hanging on to good staff. But over the last three years, a new sector has developed. These are restaurants that are located in specially-created environments: shopping malls, airport terminals and the like.
These restaurants do not suffer from the disadvantages that traditionally plagued stand-alones because the malls and terminals have created a comfortable and luxurious ambience. Because they are not hotel restaurants, they need not be bland or expensive. And more often than not, they end up being parts of new restaurant chains which combine high professional standards with attention to quality.
For instance, before the new Terminal Three opened in Delhi Airport, I would end up at the Fresco restaurant in the old terminal – and very nice it was too. It took me a long time to work out that it was part of a conglomerate that included other Fresco outlets, the wildly-successful Punjab Grill chain and the Asia 7 collection of Pan-Asian restaurants. Now that I know what the conglomerate does, I keep noticing its outlets at malls and airports in Indian cities. But until around four years ago, it was impossible to conceive of a company like this existing or to think that it could hire a top-quality executive chef (Bakshish Dean, formerly of the Park and Taj Groups) and serve food that could give five-star hotels a run for their money.
Though this is not a parallel that many people in the food business accept, I always see a similarity between Hindi cinema and the restaurant sector. Till around 15 years ago, you only had two kinds of Hindi movies. You had the big-budget movies that did well in the A-class, B-class and C-class sectors and recovered their vast investments. And then, you had the smaller movies that did well in certain metropolitan markets but, because these markets were relatively small, such movies were made on moderate budgets to have any hope of recovering their investments.
Over the last decade, however, the market for Hindi movies has grown so massively that there is room for every kind of cinema. You can make a Dabangg which will pack in the crowds in every small town but will also have the audiences laughing along knowingly in the big cities. Or you can have a Dev.D or a Bheja Fry, which are aimed at a more restricted audience. The size of the market has grown so massively that both kinds of movies will not find it difficult to make money.
I imagine that something similar has either happened – or is on the verge of happening – in the restaurant sector. The old rules are dead. You can open a big blockbuster restaurant that will do very well. But you can also open a Tote (on Bombay’s Race Course) or a Gunpowder (in Delhi) and still find an audience for your kind of food. Because more Indians are eating out and because there is more money to be spent, the restaurant sector is supporting a greater level of variety than ever before.
A final observation. When I lived in Bombay in the 1980s, there used to be a shop called Rustom’s in Cuffe Parade, which was frequented by the rich because it stocked various kinds of imported food items. When I moved to Delhi in the mid-90s, adventurous housewives would trek to INA Market to buy exotic foods that had been smuggled in from abroad. Today, when I go to the average grocery shop in Delhi’s Defence Colony, let alone something like Godrej’s Nature’s Basket, I am always struck by how far away that era of Rustom’s and INA Market now seems.
You can still go to INA Market, I guess, but you don’t really need to. These days, you can buy almost every kind of exotic food at your local grocery shop. At my Nature’s Basket outlet in Defence Colony, I can pick up good quality chorizo and every kind of Thai seasoning that I am likely to require. For the younger generation, it is hard to imagine that there was ever a time when these were rare commodities or had to be smuggled in from abroad. Today’s young consumers are growing up in a food culture of abundance and plenty. Every kind of global food is available at their finger-tips.
You’d have to be crazy not to recognise that all of these factors will utterly and completely transform the way in which Indians eat. The conventional wisdom has been turned on its head. The food boom is here. And over the next few years, India’s restaurant scene will be transformed beyond recognition.
From HT Brunch, December 26
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