Rude food by Vir Sanghvi: Welcome to curry king
Sometimes social media gives you some idea of what public expectations are like. Last week I posted an Instagram story, which began with a photo of what looked like tandoori pieces of chicken.
The caption read: “I will give you a prize if you can guess where I had lunch today.”
The second photo showed a paneer curry. The third, a chicken curry. And the fourth a bowl of pilau-type rice.
I waited an hour for the responses. Something like 2,000 people saw the story within that hour and many of them replied with their own guesses.
Most took the easy way out and said the food was home cooked.
Others suggested various well-known restaurants: Daryaganj, Bukhara, Dum Pukht and others.
Of course it was none of those.
It was Burger King.
When I revealed that on Instagram, there was much shock and horror. The responses ranged from cynical to awestruck. Cynics pointed out that if you could make Burger King look like Dum Pukht, then this just proved that Instagram was a very misleading medium.
Abhishek Gupta, a very gifted chef from the Leela group, responded to say that his mind boggled. “Can we really recognise a restaurant or chef’s style only by seeing his/her food?” He was right. Show me a good photo of a Domino’s pizza and one of a pizza from a famous pizzeria in New York and I am willing to bet that it will be hard for anyone to tell the difference.
But I reckon the reason that people were more shocked was because we don’t really associate Burger King with Indian food.
But perhaps it is time we should.
The fast food revolution seems to me (speaking as an outsider who is not a habitué of fast food places) to have had three distinct phases. The first was when the (mostly American) great global brands came to India. We were surprised by the ruthless efficiency of their operation and their ability to maintain consistent quality, day after day in location after location. No Indian restaurant had ever managed that before. We were also admiring of their ability to source first-rate ingredients.
Until McDonald’s came along it was hard to find decent French fries in India. We were just not conscious of the need to grow the right potatoes (ours often had too high a sugar content and too much moisture). McDonald’s got McCain, its global potato partner, to open an Indian operation in Mehsana and the impact was such that nearly every fast food restaurant in India now uses frozen French Fries. (Peas and French fries are the two categories where frozen is often better than fresh.)
The first phase of the fast food boom also gave Indian manufacturers like Cremica and later, Veeba, an opportunity to perfect mayonnaise, ketchup and other sauces. Eventually their sauces became so popular that the manufacturers targeted the domestic retail market. Consequently, India is one of the few major markets where domestic players easily outsell, say, Heinz Ketchup or Hellmann’s mayonnaise.
But the real lesson of the first phase was that multinationals could not just roll out a global menu or ignore local sensibilities. McDonald’s struggled with the Maharaja Mac (a goat burger) and eventually, it began redesigning its menu. KFC had to retreat, like the chicken after which it is named, and then only made a re-entry years later.
The second phase marked the beginning of India’s love affair with fast food. (QSR to use the food industry term: it stands for Quick Service Restaurant.) As malls opened, food courts opened too. Families that could not always afford to eat at proper restaurants began treating a day at the mall with a QSR meal as the highlight of the week. Many working class families watched in admiration as their sons and daughters learnt English, found jobs at QSRs and joined the middle class.
This was accompanied by a rise in food delivery. Burgers do not travel that well so pizza become the fastest moving item, usually delivered swiftly by young motorcycle riders. In many cases, the word “pizza” slipped from usage. “Shall we order a Domino’s?” people would ask, acknowledging the brand’s effortless rise to the top to the extent that it defined the genre.
It was in the second phase that the Indianisation of fast food menus gathered steam. By the time that Burger King came to India, its owners had decided to not even bother to serve the global menu. I remember writing about its launch in November 2014 and being surprised that the menu included a chicken tikka sandwich, a paneer king melt, and the overall willingness to add chilli to the recipes.
Obviously it has worked well for Burger King in North India (though the brand might also have benefitted from McDonald’s problems over the last few years in the region) but I think that it was the phenomenal success of Domino’s that should have pointed us to the future.
The third phase of the fast food revolution (the place we are now in) is only partly about families going to malls. The most important development in the entire Indian food industry over the last three years has been the growth of the eat-at-home segment.
This includes take-out but is largely powered by delivery. People are quite happy to order food they could not normally cook in their own kitchens and to eat it at home. To an extent, this trend was always there but even as we admired Domino’s we did not realise that delivery, a concept that the pizza chain pioneered in India, was the future of restaurant-type food.
I am not sure how many of the fast food giants have realised this but in the years ahead, the market they need to conquer is home-eating. When more and more people order food from Swiggy or Zomato, how many of those orders will consist of fast food?
Pizzas are a home-delivery item but does a burger travel quite as well? My guess is that it doesn’t. And when you can order virtually anything you want, how long will people keep ordering burgers?
I don’t know if there are any statistics to back this up, but my theory is that one reason why India suddenly seems obsessed with biryani is because we get it delivered home. It is a single focus dish that can be eaten on its own and people would rather order a biryani than a full Indian meal with curry, sabzi, dal, kebabs, rotis or whatever.
There is one other key factor. Rice travels better than bread or roti. A paratha is pretty much useless half an hour after it comes off the tava. A pulao or a biryani will taste nearly as good. A curry might taste even better.
So the cult of delivery has given a new lease of life to rice dishes and to Indian curries.
I think the fast food chains are waking up to this new reality. I asked Burger King about the manner in which its products are consumed. It turns out that only around half of its sales are at its restaurant: 55 per cent. The other 45 per cent are consumed at home: 15 per cent is takeaway while delivery is already 30 per cent and rising. In the South, the figure for delivery is even higher.
The delivery boom poses a threat to some of the products that fast food chains have always served but which, it now turns out, seem less attractive to Indians than a good curry with rice or a biryani. (According to Swiggy, biryani is the most ordered item in the delivery sector.)
But it also presents an opportunity. Fast food chains can now venture into new areas. Perhaps because the idea of a cold fried chicken on its own seems less appetising than a good Hyderabad biryani, KFC is now placing its chicken on a bed of spiced rice.
At Burger King, they have moved so completely away from the American menu, that they are grabbing the new market with both hands. Last year it introduced rice bowls, which are essentially curry and rice combinations. They come in circular cartons, meant for transportation and are perfect for delivery. (My Insta post.)
The chicken-rice bowl and the paneer-rice bowl are already in the market but the possibilities for innovation and extensions are endless. You can, for instance, do Andhra rice bowls for the south with a spicier gravy. And eventually, the QSR operators will have to get around to serving a biryani – given the current craze. And any dish made to the stringent consistency-and-quality standards of the giant QSR chains will have an edge over dishes turned out by cloud kitchens for delivery.
It is a measure of how far removed most foodies are from the fast changing food scene that everyone who saw my Insta story was so gobsmacked when the curries turned out to have come from Burger King.
India is changing. And the food scene is changing even faster.
Disclaimer: The promoters of HT Media Ltd and Jubilant FoodWorks, which runs Domino’s, are closely related. There are, however, no promoter cross-holdings.
From HT Brunch, March 1, 2020
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