Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: Keeping old traditions alive
Every few months, I try and feature new food and drink products that have excited/intrigued me. There is just so much happening in the world of food that most of us find it hard to keep up with everything that is hitting the marketplace.
Let’s start with mithai. I am not the first person to notice how odd it is that when Indians send out hampers or give gifts, we include overpriced boxes of chocolates.
Why, I (and many others like me, I imagine) have always wondered, don’t we just send mithai? Have we become so fancy that the sweets we grew up on no longer seem posh enough?
That’s begun to change in recent years with the opening of upmarket gifting from mithai shops like Khoya. But hotels, who have whole kitchens dedicated to Indian sweets, have been slow to catch on.
So I was delighted when the Roseate mini-chain launched Mithai By Roseate, a mithai brand that took a break from Almond Rock (and all the other tiresome hotel chocolates) to sell Marble Barfi, Milk Cakes, Besan Laddoos as well as some innovative sweets like Hazelnut Pedas and Date and Nut Barfi.
The Mithai By Roseate idea comes from the chain’s young founder Ankur Bhatia, who launched the range in just six weeks from the time he thought of it. Bhatia comes from a family with a background in travel (The Bird Group, Amadeus, etc.) but the foray into hotels was his own initiative.
It started with an old family home not far from Delhi airport, which he converted into a luxury resort property. His wife, Smriti, is an architect so they conceived of a resort that was design-focused and architectural in style. It opened as the Dusit Devarana but is now called The Roseate – Ankur decided he wanted to run an Indian chain that also managed foreign properties rather than the usual cookie-cutter model of foreign chains managing hotels in India. Roseate House, a funky property in Delhi’s Aerocity, came next and then, The Roseate Ganges.
Simultaneously, Roseate has expanded in England with properties in London, Reading and Bath. It is probably too early to talk about it but Roseate will open three or more hotels over the next year or so.
Much of Roseate’s activities are owner-driven by Ankur’s enthusiasms and passions. The mithai project is one such passion. There will be outlets in London and in Reading soon. And no doubt, other hotels will now follow.
I first heard of Tarun Khanna when he reached out to me on social media. He had heard, he said, that I avoided gluten. Would I like to try his bread? This was easier said than done because Sprinng, Tarun’s company, is Mumbai-based and I live in Delhi. But I managed to get a loaf of his gluten-free bread when I was on a work trip to Mumbai.
The bread was very good so I asked him who he was and how he had thought of the gluten-free business. Most hotels and top bakeries in India offer gluten-free bread and it is usually pretty disgusting. But Sprinng, which I had never heard of, had managed to create breads that tasted liked normal bread even though they were gluten-free.
It turned out that Tarun was not a baker. He had been part of a luxury foods start-up before deciding that there was a bigger future in gluten-free products. He had been put in touch with Tommy Dane in Northern Ireland, who understood baking and the two of them had founded Sprinng together.
The secret of their success was that Tommy imported the flour mixture from Northern Ireland. Because Sprinng wanted an asset-light structure, they tied up with a large bakery in Khopoli (on the road between Pune and Mumbai), which set aside a special area to make Sprinng’s products.
In no time at all, they launched several kinds of breads: plain, multi-seed, herb, etc. Then they expanded into gluten-free pizza bases (regular and 10-inch), burger buns, brownies, muffins and cookies.
The catch with Sprinng’s products is that you can only get them in Mumbai or Pune. Within those two cities, they are easy enough to find. You can buy them at Bigbasket, Nature’s Basket, Foodhall etc. In all, Sprinng is available in over 70 locations in the two cities.
How Tarun and Tommy will get their products to Delhi or other cities is not clear. I imagine that they will have to do a deal with a large bakery in each major market to set aside a special uncontaminated area for them. That shouldn’t be difficult to manage and I look forward to eating gluten-free burgers and pizzas in Delhi once they get their act together.
Ambika Seth has a distinguished background. Her father is Chetan Seth, lover of cigars and good food, and her husband is Rahul Khanna, one of the founders of the Mamagoto chain.
More credit to her, therefore, that she has made a success of Caara without help from either of them. She started out as a hotel professional, going to hotel school in Lausanne and then working in senior positions in hotels across the Far East including Vietnam.
When she came back to India, she wanted to start a hotel school (the ambition to do that still persists) but became interested in the idea of organic and sustainable foods. She worked with farmers, encouraged them to not use chemicals and did some farming herself.
She met Alice Helme, who had studied at the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland, and the two of them set up a catering business, trying to do light and healthy food that upheld organic and sustainable principles. They opened a café at the British Council building in Delhi and then two more, one at the Ogaan store in Delhi and another in partnership with the Nicobar brand at Delhi’s Chanakya mall.
While all of these ventures were successful, they came to greater public attention when Caara, their catering brand cornered the market in dinner parties organised by such high-end luxury brands as Hermès and Chanel.
On the back of that success, they launched a more causal (and cheaper) catering operation where they would just deliver healthy food to homes. If you were having a party and placed a substantial order, then they would send a chef along to finish the food before service.
I have eaten their food and it is very good but that’s not why I thought I would write about Ambika. It is Caara’s products that have always struck me as exceptional: the pesto, the sundried tomato paste, the home-made Nutella-type sauces, the bakery products, etc.
You can, of course, buy pesto and tomato paste at grocery stores all over India but most of what is available is industrially-manufactured, not very tasty and packed out with chemicals and preservatives. Caara’s products, on the other hand, are fresh and artisanal and contain no chemicals, no artificial flavours and no preservatives.
You can buy them at their restaurants but it is much easier to just go on the net and order them (www.caara.com).
Ambika credits Alice for much of Caara’s success (she is super-articulate but modest) and says that though Rahul and she run their operations independently, she frequently asks him for advice “though he can be intimidating because he knows so much about food.” (He does; I have had many conversations with him on the subject.)
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about India’s pickle traditions and how we need to honour them and keep those traditions alive. By some co-incidence I met Jaya Bajaj at Diva Spiced in Delhi and she told me that her husband’s family had a pickle tradition of its own.
In 1964, Pushpawati Khaitan started Nari Shiksha Kendra to provide the women of her local community with livelihoods by making hand-ground masalas and pickles. Over 50 years later, they still make those pickles explained Jaya, whose husband Vikram, is Pushpawati Khaitan’s nephew.
I have since tried the pickles and we eat them all the time at home. The traditional ones (made in the same space to the same recipes) are delicious and Jaya says they have introduced new flavours over the last few years. Nari Shiksha Kendra has made pickles for Fabindia for decades but now they also have their own brand and sell online (www.aamrabynsk.com).
So that’s four individuals, all working out of passion to create foods that all of us can enjoy.
I am sure there are more of you out there with great products and great stories. You can use social media to reach me and I will try your products. But be warned: if you waste money on a PR agency, which will spam journos with junk mail about your products, I will never try them. Nor, I imagine, will other people in the media.
If you have an artisanal product you are proud of, then use the direct approach!
From HT Brunch, January 5, 2020
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