From Hisar, notes on a new, changing India
Hisar, four hours west of Delhi, is a medium-sized Punjabi-speaking town in Haryana with a population of 300,000. It is definitely not the kind of place that gets regular visitors from the big metros. A coronavirus scare in the family had brought us here.
On a weekday night, we happened upon Big Mugs — an unassuming “American-themed” restaurant in PLA Market. Judging by those in the reasonably full restaurant, it catered to the under-25 crowd who would normally be attending one of Hisar’s universities. But it was also the only place in the vicinity with an espresso machine. Amid the anxiety of dealing with ailing family members, day after day, week after week, the daily espresso became our 10 minutes of peace.
We were clearly not from Hisar, and over time, we built a polite, if socially-distanced, friendship with the owner and head chef. One day, we ended up at Big Mugs only to find the espresso machine broken, but getting such a machine fixed in Hisar is no easy task. It would take a couple of days for the repairman to come from Delhi. But it wasn’t just the espresso, as we found out — vegetables, cheeses and a variety of other ingredients were all being brought in from Delhi.
How did this make sense? In the middle of a coronavirus pandemic, how could such a place survive in Hisar?
Rather than abandoning the place for a lack of coffee, we struck up a deeper friendship with the owner and head chef, no doubt fuelled by the peculiarity of our respective presences. They explained to us how Big Mugs did make sense. We discovered that Hisar, like other towns in the hinterland, are undergoing a major transformation, driven by a complex interplay of aspiration driven by social media, an international supply-side shock from the coronavirus pandemic, and untapped markets.
To begin with, the owner of the place did not grow up in Hisar — he grew up in more cosmopolitan towns in Punjab such as Amritsar and Ludhiana. Like so many with his background, he aspired to go abroad with options in Thailand and Greece. But family compulsions forced him to come to Hisar. Over the years, he noticed not only a demand for pastas, pizzas and burgers, but also for food to be presented in an aesthetically pleasing manner.
To him, there is no doubt what is fuelling this demand — social media. Instagram is a social media service in which people communicate through photographs and short videos, and India is now Instagram’s second-largest market (behind the United States) with up to 120 million users. Trends on Instagram are not set by fashion houses and Michelin-starred chefs but by “influencers” — ordinary citizens who strategically build a following on social media. The large number of users in small towns, coupled with the visual manner of delivery, creates a greater demand for certain ingredients and aesthetically pleasing food presentation in places such as Hisar.
But if demand moves quickly, supply chains are the last to adjust. Hisar has a small number of restaurant distributors who engage in monopolist pricing. For instance, Hisar seems to suffer from a dearth of reasonably-priced cream cheese for cheesecake. To solve this problem, the owner hired a “buyer” whose sole job is to drive to Delhi, buy high-quality ingredients at a reasonable price, and bring them back to Hisar. With supply chains figured out, one piece of the puzzle remained for us. Who was cooking the food?
The head chef, who says he specialises in Italian food, insisted that we try his pasta with freshly-made pesto sauce. We were impressed, the dish was perfectly textured with balanced flavours — at least as good as most fancy restaurants in Delhi or Mumbai. It turns out that before he came to Hisar, the head chef was cooking in an upscale restaurant in Kuwait when the pandemic hit, and, before that, he cooked in the kitchen of a five-star hotel in Mumbai. Most surprisingly, he had no connection to Hisar. The head chef was simply recruited to Big Mugs three months ago to run its kitchen. In normal times, it would be difficult to recruit a chef of this calibre to Hisar.
But these are not normal times. For a long time, Gulf countries have been a major destination for Indian service staff who draw higher salaries and send remittances home. Of the 17.5 million Indian migrants abroad, about nine million are purported to be living in the Gulf. But due to the unprecedented lockdowns and slowdown in economic activity, not to mention declining oil prices, opportunities in the Gulf have dried up. The World Bank estimates that remittances back to India will shrink by 9% this year (from $83 billion in 2019 to $76 in 2020), a stark change from a 5.5% growth in remittances just last year, no doubt driven by declining prospects in the Gulf. Those who have been able to make their way back to India form the missing supply of those who can cater to new demands in the hinterland.
It may seem strange that the chef would take up a job in Hisar, but he insists that, with changing demand, there is more opportunity for growth in these markets than in places such as Delhi or Mumbai. It’s a message that has been taken to heart — the owner and head chef plan to expand their business to Sirsa, another Punjabi-speaking town about 90 minutes from Hisar and even further from Delhi. They do admit that, at times, the dishes have to be adjusted to North Indian tastes, usually by upping the spice quotient with masala and chilli.
It would be tempting to view this as a tale of a unique entrepreneur, but it’s a lot more. Three years after Big Mugs opened its doors as a one-of-a-kind restaurant, PLA Market has been transformed. It is now full of restaurants with chic interiors serving continental food. It would be naive to believe that these kinds of market transformations can mitigate the sheer drop in consumer demand and loss of income generated by the pandemic.
But it is important to chronicle a market for food that used to only be available for the precious few is now expanding its boundaries into the hinterland — aided by the homogenising effects of social media and an unexpected supply shock of those who can meet these new demands. When one global market is stressed, a local one might find its feet.
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