The Aloo aur Gosht ka Salan by Ghosht Stories, a cloud kitchen in Mumbai that serves up only mutton dishes.
The Aloo aur Gosht ka Salan by Ghosht Stories, a cloud kitchen in Mumbai that serves up only mutton dishes.

Bite dance: A look at how the pandemic has changed what we eat, who feeds us and how

Picnic baskets, family meals, DIY kits and home chefs with super-specialised menus — tracking the sea change.
By Madhusree Ghosh | Hindustan Times
UPDATED ON DEC 04, 2020 08:54 PM IST

A year ago, restaurants around the world were gearing for the Christmas rush. In India, new cuisines were emerging and fading away at street corners. Home chefs’ pop-ups were still getting a lot of attention. Takeout was booming, amid discounts from competing delivery aggregators.

Then everything shut down and everything changed. People who’d never boiled an egg right had to fend for themselves; others who’d served hundreds a day had to find new ways to reach out with their skills.

How we ate changed too. With everyone home, the family meal made a roaring comeback. Restaurants that once jealously guarded their secrets began sending out DIY kits so locked-down diners could recreate their best dishes at home. Chefs on Instagram switched from the showy to the doable. What could you do with five staple ingredients, no oven and no experience? They were there to help, as they too struggled to remain relevant.

“People are looking for comfort food and the food industry is providing it,” says Jaydeep Mukherjee, brand head for Smoke House Deli restaurant chain. That would also explain the world’s sudden obsession with bread (sourdough and banana but a bunch of other ones too). So obsessed did the world become with home-baked loaves that there was a shortage of flour and yeast in parts of the US and UK.

Then things changed again. A few months in, the initial exuberance faded. The long-term began to loom, and new formulas emerged for how we would feed ourselves as the pandemic stretched on. Home chefs stepped up to deliver niche specialties; picnic baskets began to make an appearance; caterers signed up to cater for just two.

Experts are predicting a world where dining out will feel like a privilege, mock meats will gain popularity and kitchens will forever cease to be a place to dread. Wknd takes a look at key food trends that have emerged during the pandemic.

The specialists: As the market flattened out it no longer helped to be a big brand; a 25-page menu became a liability rather than an asset — home chefs stepped up and became even more specialised. Some who had focused mainly on Kerala cuisine, for instance, now offered only mutton. Others who had done a range of desserts began to offer only one kind of cheesecake. It’s much easier to capture a market, they realised, when you’re the only one in it. And it’s easier to economise.

A vanilla Basque cheesecake by Ayesha Nallaseth, a hyper-specialised home chef from Mumbai offering just this kind of cheesecake, in just three flavours.
A vanilla Basque cheesecake by Ayesha Nallaseth, a hyper-specialised home chef from Mumbai offering just this kind of cheesecake, in just three flavours.

Chefs Mrigank Singh, Kabeer Murjani and Raunak Rajani offer only mutton dishes (from across the country, though) at a cloud kitchen called Ghosht Stories that they launched in October. It’s a set menu of five starters and four curries that changes from time to time. “It’s exciting to see people order three or four days in advance, to get the dishes they like!” says Singh. Ayesha Nallaseth, a home baker, aims to be the first person people think of when they want Basque cheesecake (burnt top, no biscuit base) in Mumbai. Having quit her job as a content developer just before the lockdown, she began baking for her five-year-old. “I wanted to get my income flowing and no one was specialising in Basque cheesecake so I captured that market,” she says. She began taking orders in August and does only three flavours — lemon, vanilla bean and salted caramel.

New ways of dining: All the outdoor tables that were once frowned upon (it is after all always either too hot, too muggy, too cold or too rainy in India’s metros) are turning out to be the only places people want to sit, when they do dine out. Cafés are being picked over well-appointed sit-down spaces. “People are dining out earlier than before too,” says AD Singh of the Olive group of restaurants.

A new menu at the Olive Bar & Kitchen chain focuses on quick-to-serve, easy-to-eat items like the burrata salad.
A new menu at the Olive Bar & Kitchen chain focuses on quick-to-serve, easy-to-eat items like the burrata salad.

“The delivery orders are also coming earlier. It might be that staying at home has given rise to better habits.” Quick-service foods are being picked over meals that take longer to arrive and / or eat. “We’ve created an all-day menu of quicker foods like burgers, sandwiches and pies. Food that ensures quick service, since people are no longer looking to have a leisurely meal,” AD Singh says. In the same spirit, the two-Michelin-starred fine-dining restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark, made international headlines in June when it reopened as a burger-only affair with just two burgers on the menu.

The food courier: Delivery services such as WeFast, Dunzo, Swiggy Genie and Uber Connect have seen business boom, driven by the growth of home chefs and orders to cloud kitchens. It isn’t just the professionals. Families are sending food to one another. Caterers are delivering wedding meals. “It wouldn’t have been possible for me to run my business from home if it wasn’t for these delivery services,” says home chef Jayalipi Dutta from Kolkata. The apps are set up to be transparent and dependable so it’s like having your own delivery system, for a fraction of the price. “Picking up home-cooked food makes up about 25% of Genie tasks. Restaurant food remains one of the most popular errands too. Genie is also helping small business owners deliver goods to their customers including cafes and bakers,” says Srivats TS, vice-president for marketing at Swiggy.

Homemade desserts: Ready kits that offer the right amount of ready dough, frozen crusts, pancake mixes, usually microwaveable, with a simple recipe and a little encouraging note, have made it far easier to manage dessert without outside help. And easier for chefs to stay relevant even with their kitchens shut.

A DIY dessert kit by Ether Chocolates, which delivers across India.
A DIY dessert kit by Ether Chocolates, which delivers across India.

“Two weeks into the lockdown, everyone started cooking exotic dishes and I asked myself, why aren’t people baking more?” says chef Prateek Bakhtiani of Ether Chocolates, which delivers across India. “All that banana bread! The lack of creativity and experimentation pained me. So we launched a bake-along kit.” His is among the scores of outfits — like Smoke House Deli in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, Rosarte Chocolaterie and Bakery and AnnaMaya in Delhi, CakeZone in Bengaluru — that have begun to specialise in ready kits for desserts.

DIY food kits: After the initial exuberance, the inevitable fatigue set in for those not used to cooking every meal for themselves. It became clear that this was not a matter of weeks. It could be a matter of years. For restaurants, this was an even more alarming thought. The do-it-yourself kits were helpful all around. From dumplings to burgers, khao suey to tacos, restaurants began to reformat their staples and send them out in the form of ingredients, all in the right proportions, with a note on the method and the assurance that you could take it from there yourself.

The Kheema Pao Juicy Lucy DIY Kit by O Pedro, Mumbai.
The Kheema Pao Juicy Lucy DIY Kit by O Pedro, Mumbai.

“It was a massive shift for us,” says Hussain Shahzad, chef at O Pedro Mumbai. “We wanted to interact and innovate, so we came up with our first DIY kits in April. The burger kits flew off the shelf.” The restaurant paired the kits with regular video uploads showing how the recipe could be executed, so it turned out just as the chef ordered. Restaurants across the country are doing the same, including Smoke House Deli across outlets, Pebble Street and Diva in Delhi, BurgerMan and Koox in Chennai; Chefkraft andLittle Italy in Bengaluru.

The picnic, and the home delivery of the picnic: It’s been the one way to safely eat out in the pandemic — pack a box or a basket, head out to a park or a river or a monument or the rooftop, and enjoy a change of pace. Once again, food services stepped in with curated picnic boxes of easy-to-assemble and easy-to-eat food and drink.

Sliders, sides and cake from the picnic basket by Mumbai home chef Annabelle Lobo.
Sliders, sides and cake from the picnic basket by Mumbai home chef Annabelle Lobo.

AnnaMaya in Delhi has two types of picnic baskets — for breakfast and high tea. Graiz in Mumbai has a picnic box of a baguette, two types of cheese, a dip, seasonal fruit, two kinds of crackers, olives, crudité, dry fruit and cookies. Also in Mumbai, home chefs Annabelle Lobo and Ryan Braganza have been offering similar baskets since July, packed with sourdough sandwiches, sliders, salads, brownies and bottles of iced tea.

Chef collaborations: With their doors closed to the public and their professional rivalries somewhat on hold, chefs began to collaborate across brands. Gresham Fernandes of Impresario (which owns the Salt Water Cafe, Smoke House Deli and Social brands), Hussain Shahzad of O Pedro, Masque’s Prateek Sadhu, Thomas Zacharias of The Bombay Canteen, Prateek Bakhtiani of Ether and Daya Singh of CinCin came together in August to make pizza toppings in innovative ways

“We call it Pizza Club,” says Karyna Bajaj, owner of CinCin. “We knew the food industry would have to come together to help each other.” The pizzas that emerged were topped with Kashmiri morels and miso; roasted kale, fontal cheese and garlic; spicy Goan chorizo and egg. “Every time anyone ordered one of these pizzas, it came with a QR code that took the foodie to that particular chef’s playlist,” Bajaj says. Chef Amninder Sandhu is in the midst of a similar collaboration. This one is called Dinner Box, and she will work with a different chef each month. Her current menu has been co-created with chef Sujan Sarkar of Rooh, Delhi.

The passion project: Bankers, advertising executives, businessmen and bloggers, all began experimenting with food for subsistence or as a small-scale passion project. Some immersed themselves in cheeses, others baked cakes for no reason other than to give them away (and later, sell them too). Sonel Sinha, 36, who worked with the British Council Library in Kolkata for eight years, decided in the lockdown to “give my passion a chance”. Every Thursday she picked a cuisine at will, crafted a menu and posted it boldly online — it could be Goan one week, Kashmiri the next, Malwani or Odia. “I never thought people would pay to eat my food but when they did it was a wonderful feeling,” she says. Sinha has since quit her job and now caters fulltime.

“Many who started cooking in the pandemic for something fun and creative to do, realised they had a talent and a passion that could be turned into a side or full-time business,” says Ayandrali Dutta, a food critic from Delhi. “Many people had also lost jobs or seen incomes shrink and this was a good alternative source of income.”

The return of breakfast: With no train or bus to rush for, searches for breakfast recipes jumped by 35% on Allrecipes.com. People, worldwide, are returning to the breakfast as first meal of the day, comfort food, and easy dinner when you don’t have the energy for anything else.

An obsession with breads: Is there anyone who didn’t at least consider baking bread during the lockdown? Brent Minner, the marketing director of Hometown Food, which owns the Pillsbury, Arrowhead Mills, Martha White and White Lily brands of flour, told The Atlantic in May: “It was very similar to what you’d see during a hurricane, except it was happening all over the United States… We are making the flour as fast as we possibly can and shipping it to our customers, and it’s flying off the shelves as soon as it gets there.”

The popularity of this particular fad can be put down to a craving for comfort — bread is the ultimate comfort food, and the process of making it, kneading, rising, baking, is calming and feels (and can be) productive. All good things at a time like the present.

The return of the family meal: Searches for family-friendly recipes on Allrecipes are up 34% over last year. “It’s also happening across all three meals. Home is the epicentre of all activity, and meals are a big part of that,” Esmee Williams, brand strategist of Allrecipes, said in an interview with the Washington Post in September. Families are also gathering around comfort food recipes that hold a touch of nostalgia —stews, soups, one-pot meals, the kinds of meals the children of working parents grew up on in the 1980s and early ’90s, before takeout and fast food and restaurant chains, says food historian Kurush Dalal.

Catering for twos and threes: With weddings cancelled, events banned and gatherings down to nothing, the catering business took a huge hit. “Reinventing meant rethinking not only how they served food, but also what they served. Healthy options began to appear on their menus, to attract more customers,” says Dalal. Many began offering single- and two-person portions, home-delivery and takeaway.

“The lockdown was like a bloodbath for the caterers of Delhi,” says Puneet Ahuja, co-founder of the catering service Cream of the Crop (COTC). “All our events got cancelled. To keep the company going, we launched a curated menu service for house parties. We deliver four-course meals in boxes and our minimum order is six people. We used to cater for a thousand at big events, so this is like a drop in the ocean, but we have to stay relevant,” Ahuja says. In Mumbai, services like Pratap Caterers have pivoted to deliver for two-person lunches and dinners too.

Branding: The branding of staples like tea, ghee and salt has extended, amid fears about safety and sanitation, to dals, besan, rawa, sugar, poha, sabudana. “The sight of a brand name is working like magic now,” says Delhi chef Balpreet Singh Chadha.

Online classes by star chefs: Remember Italian celebrity chef Massimo Bottura’s Instagram live, Kitchen Quarantine? The chef of Michelin-starred restaurant Osteria Francescana was one of the first chefs to start a quarantine cooking series online where he shared simpler recipes and did Q&A sessions with viewers. Chefs back home also doing this include Thomas Zacharias of The Bombay Canteen, Ajay Chopra of Northern Flavours, Hussain Shahzad of O Pedro, Anahita Dhondy of SodaBottleOpenerWala and Saransh Goila of Goila Butter Chicken, among others.

“Before the lockdown, the number of people that were experimental while cooking was much smaller. People are more adventurous, and more confident, now. I have realised this just from the response of the recipes I have been posting on Instagram,” says Zacharias. “I have a hashtag called #CookingwithTZac where I’m documenting recipes from around the country using local regional produce. They are not day-to-day known recipes, still it’s incredible to see how many people are actually cooking those dishes and posting their results online.”

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