Thirty six-year-old Komal Ratnani Saha, an IT professional at a Malad-based start-up finds it therapeutic to cook a meal after a long day at work. But on most days, the demands of a high-pressure job sap her of the energy and the will to enter the kitchen. That changed when Saha discovered DIY meal kits, which come with pre-portioned ingredients along with easy-to-follow recipes.
What started as a one-time experiment for Saha has quickly turned into a habit. Now, she regularly orders from Burgundy Box, a service launched in June. “Meal kits come with ingredients that are cleaned, chopped and neatly packed. All I have to do is follow the instructions and dinner is ready in less than 30 minutes,” she says. Saha says it’s not just about convenience, and that these kits are actually money savers, since one no longer needs to shop for expensive gourmet ingredients that may or may not find use after one meal. Various entrepreneurs are recognising the urban Mumbaikar’s need for balancing a fast-paced life with healthy, home-cooked food. The last half year or so has seen a small boom in the meal kits services segment. There are now around a dozen services to choose from.
These kits are a boon for people like Nisha Mehta, 49, a Mahalaxmi resident, who entertains guests often. “I have a cook who makes Indian food. But these kits offer a variety of dishes from different cuisines,” she says. Mehta regularly orders cooking kits from Out Of The Box, a service started in March, 2015 with offerings such as Mixed Mushroom, Leek and Rosemary Risotto and Spanish Paella. Priced between `150 to `500, these kits easily serve two to three people. It doesn’t hurt that cooking shows have popularised the concept of fine dining at home. Meal kits shorten the process and give Instagram-worthy final dishes.
You cook it, but who makes it?
When Sneha Arya returned to Mumbai after studying in Texas, USA, she faced the same problems that a lot of us do while trying to cook ‘fancy’. Gourmet ingredients are hard to source. “One day, I wanted to make a Mediterranean salad, which needed feta cheese and za’atar spice. I ended up finding za’atar at Crawford Market, but at an exorbitant price of `1,500 per kg. I wanted to use just 50g and was left with 950g of an extremely expensive spice that I would probably never use again,” she says. She recognised the market for meal kits, and, in October last year, started iChef. Similarly, Vishal Shah, a former investment banker who worked in New York and London, started Haute Chef in December, 2014.
Both Arya and Shah had seen the popularity of meal kits internationally, and wanted to replicate this success back home. In the US, services like Blue Apron, Plated and HelloFresh are popular amongst busy professionals, especially those who are not very kitchen-savvy. Most prominent brands here — Haute Chef, Chef’s Basket, Let’s Chef and Burgundy Box, among others — already have regular customers who are ordering at least thrice a week.
The inside story
It is clear that there is enough demand for a quick meal. But what also works is a certain level of trust, since most of these services are backed by chefs or experts who have worked with food. For instance, Burgundy Box, one of the latest meal kit services, is a venture by Chef Ajay Chopra (formerly executive chef at The Westin Mumbai Garden City). Explaining what drew him to the meal kit space, Chopra observes that changing times have led people to opt for convenient options, which are rarely healthy. “We want to bring back home-cooked meals, where the customer is the artist and makes food to his taste and satisfaction. The consumer in Mumbai is really open to experimenting, and always wants variety,” he observes.
1) The Out of the Box meal kit for Mushroom Leek Risotto includes assorted spices and vegetables.
2) Nisha Mehta takes 20 minutes to finish making the dish which would have otherwise taken her almost an hour.
3) The dish is plated and ready to be served. The texture and flavours are top-notch and of restaurant quality, she says
Reshma Sanghi, one half of the duo that runs Food For Thought café at Kala Ghoda, recognised this need for variety as well. Her kits offer Goan, Parsi, Italian, Japanese, Thai and Moroccan dishes. Her service, Out of the Box (since March 2015) began as an ingredient box she put together for the weekly cooking classes she held in Malabar Hill. “The ingredient box allowed cooking enthusiasts to convert what they had learned in class into a gourmet meal at home for their families. After repeated requests, we decided to extend the ingredient box concept for dishes served at the café as well,” says Sanghi.
Apart from the usual meal kits, there are brands like Getfresh that offer kits with really select items: only boneless chicken and marinades. The chicken is sourced from a family farm in Alibaug and the meat is free of chemicals or additives. “The delicate chunks are marinated with spices, fresh herbs or cream and cheese, portioned into 200g units and vacuum-sealed in packets,” explains Rupali Sebastian. She admits that while such products are ready-to-cook, there’s enough scope for customisation. “It creates a sense of ownership with the end product,” she feels.
Sometimes, though, fuelled by all the episodes of MasterChef, you might want your dishes to go beyond ‘home food’. For those who wish to create what Matt Preston would call a “restaurant-quality dish”, there is a simple solution. Pick a meal kit service — such as Foodesto — that offers kits from posh restaurants like The Table and Indigo Deli. “Between the two restaurants, we get close to 30 orders per week,” says co-founder Pankaj Chandra.
Chef’s Basket, by Fizzy Food Labs, formed by a team of IIT Bombay alumni, specialises in world foods (Thai, Italian and Mexican). It was one of the first to start (in 2013), and currently sells two lakh meals a month across India. Nipun Katyal, founder, Chef’s Basket, admits that he is optimistic that ready-to-cook kits will prevail in the Indian market. “We are culturally more comfortable cooking at home; however, we have also adopted convenience as the mantra and buy peeled garlic cloves instead of whole, or prefer shopping online for groceries.”
Health in your kit
Most of the kits lay emphasis on health with fresh ingredients, low-calorie meals, focus on sautéing instead of frying, and the ability to decide how much spice or salt you want to use. Nutritionist Anjali Peswani feels that kits are a better alternative to processed food, but also warns that “one should check to make sure that the kits are not prepared in bulk, stored overnight, refrigerated or pre-cooked. Ensure that there is a nutritionist on board with the brand you are opting for,” she says.
The end of cooking as we know it?
Meal kits may be a trend, but can it replace cooking from scratch in our urban lives? Data analyst Ankit Badliya (28) buys meal kits from Chef’s Basket in bulk and ends up using at least one every week. “If there were more Indian options, I would opt for this over regular cooking,” he says. For Rachna Sawhney, 36, meal kits by Haute Chef are de rigeur thrice a week as they offer a break from usual meals at home. “I have followed the directions and have never been disappointed. At a restaurant, I would end up shelling double the amount for these dishes and not be sure of the ingredients.” She adds that she can eventually see herself opting for one every day.
While the percentage of people cooking out of kits may be miniscule at present, it is hard to deny that they have made an impression. It is unlikely that they will knock all the supermarkets, kirana stores, or your local vegetable cart out of business any time soon, or ever. Yet, for a young, urban population that likes a fancy dinner with wine at home on a Saturday night, this is an option that doesn’t require you to toil through Saturday morning making it.
1) The Burgundy Box meal kit for Chicken Tikka Pulao with pre-cooked rice.
2) Komal Ratnani Saha browses through the recipe as she stirs the masala for her dish.
3) Within 15 minutes, the pulao is ready to serve.
** Ready-to-eat meal kits at a glance:
USP: Japanese, North African, Mediterranean
Must-try: Mushroom & Miso Ramen (with or without eggs)
Price: Between Rs 200 to Rs 500 (serves two)
USP: Thai, Italian, Continental and Vietnamese
Must-try: Cherry, Pistachio and Goat Cheese Salad
Price: Rs 200 for two servings; additional servings are at a discounted rate
USP: Boneless chicken and marinades that are preservative-free.
Must-try: Kovalam Chicken
Price: Boneless chicken in 16 marinades, vacuum-sealed as 200g packets for Rs 140 and Rs 150
USP: Each recipe is devised by Chef Ajay Chopra; Indian, Continental and Oriental recipes.
Must-try: Moroccan Chicken Steaks
Price: Rs 240 to Rs 330 (starters); Rs 280 to Rs 410 (main course)
USP: Kits from popular eatery The Table and marinated chicken and fish from Indigo Deli.
Must-try: Lamb Ragout Pappardelle
Price: Rs 325 onward
USP: Use only natural ingredients.
Must-try: Arrabbiata in Fusilli
Price: Between Rs 250 to Rs 300 (serves three); Chef’s Basket Explorer (single serve) are priced at Rs 99
Out of the Box
USP: Goan, Parsi, Italian, Japanese and Moroccan.
Must-try: Mushroom and Barley Scotch Broth
Price: Rs 300 (for any box)
USP: Malaysian, Burmese, Chinese, Italian and African. They plan to add videos with each recipe.
Must-try: Malaysian Laksa
Price: Salad and dessert kits cost Rs 250; main course kit costs Rs 350
*HT photos: Anshuman Poyrekar, Pratham Gokhale)