In the middle of India’s restaurant boom, what are the trends that emerge from consumer preferences? Here’s my list of what I think works in the restaurant sector – and I’m willing to bet that these trends will hold till the end of this year.
In the old days, when people went to a restaurant for a big night out, they wanted tablecloths, formal service and even a violinist or a singer. The era of that kind of dining is over. But don’t be fooled into thinking that people no longer go out for the experience and only want to focus on the food.
They still want the experience. Only, the nature of that experience has changed. Now, they want to feel that they are at a funky place or one with a ‘happening’ vibe. That doesn’t just account for the success of the Farzi Cafes all over the India, it also explains the boom in such areas as Delhi’s revived Connaught Place, where the food at most new restaurants is incidental to the experience.
At The Junkyard Cafe in Delhi, the experience is so crucial to attracting customers that the owner has even marked out ‘selfie spots’ or places where the lighting is perfect and the background is suitably funky so guests can take selfies of themselves and post them on social media. At Johnny Rockets outlets, guests may like the food, but it is the ‘cheers’, the staff dances etc. that make the experience even more memorable.
Five-star chains have tried this with limited success. The Taj used to do this at its NCPA outlet in Mumbai a decade ago but at Fifty Five East, at Mumbai’s Grand Hyatt, I was startled to see virtually every second guest get up to dance with the serving staff at a Sunday brunch (they were playing Gangnam Style!).
So, yes there is a restaurant boom. But it is not necessarily about food. In a country where there is little in the way of theatre, where there are few concerts and not that many good clubs, restaurants become the default option for a night out. And while bad food may drive guests away, good food won’t necessarily draw them in unless the experience itself is fun.
As you probably know, umami is the sixth basic taste that Western scientists have finally acknowledged – after years of lobbying by the Japanese who discovered it. All tastes are hard to put into words, but umami is contained in the taste of chicken broth, of soya sauce, of shiitake mushroom, of Parmesan cheese and of tomatoes.
Our food history suggests that Indians have not bothered with umami flavours in our cuisine. The most umami-filled Indian ingredient is the tomato and we only got that from European colonialists.
But the history of Indian restaurant cuisine in the 20th century is the story of an umami takeover. Punjabi restaurant food in the post-Partition era is all about adding tomato to dishes. A traditional black dal never had tomatoes. But all restaurant black dal (invented by Moti Mahal and refined into dal bukhara) depends on tomatoes. Butter chicken is all about a tomato gravy. Chicken tikka masala, as made in British-Indian restaurants, can even use canned tomato soup as part of the recipe.
The lust for umami reached a new high with the creation of Sino-Ludhianvi or Indian-Chinese cuisine in the ’70s and ’80s. This mixes Indian flavours (and masalas) with heavy doses of soya sauce for an umami heft. At many places, they make the thick red gravy that characterises this cuisine by mixing soya with tomato ketchup for even more umami. Check out a roadside Chinese food stall. The vendor will have two bottles of flavouring: soya sauce and ketchup.
Now even ‘Japanese’ food in India has followed the Sino-Ludhianvi path. People order ‘sushi rolls’, which consist of highly spiced and fully cooked (sometimes, even deep fried) ingredients covered with rice and then soak the rolls in soya sauce.
And so it is with Italian food in India. It’s the Parmesan (or cheap industrial substitute) and tomatoes that make us love pizza. Tomato sauces are the preferred option for pasta; with Parmesan sprinkled on top. Even Indian food has Ajinomoto (pure umami flavour) added to it at many restaurants.
Go through any list of the most-ordered dishes at any stand-alone restaurant in India and you will find that umami is often the key to the popularity of those dishes. After the cuisine of our ancestors ignored umami for centuries, we have more than made up for that lapse in the last few decades.
When it comes to texture, Indian food has a mixed record. There are parts of India (Gujarat and Maharashtra, for instance) where we value the texture of a dish in the way that they do in East Asia. But in much of the North, the focus is on stuff like fragrance and aroma (hence the use of the horrible kewra in biryanis), consistency (as in thickness of gravy) and flavour.
Even our pakoras are rarely crisp. All too often they can be stodgy. Contrast this with Japanese tempura where crispness and texture are the point.
The Japanese don’t use besan for their deep-frying batter: they use wheat. And increasingly, Indians are giving up on besan in restaurant cuisine. Look at any menu. You will find that a startlingly high proportion of dishes are first bread crumbed and then fried (often deep-fried). At most fast food chain branches in India (even Burger King or McDonald’s) a so-called hamburger consists of a breaded chicken fillet between two slices of flabby bun. Such chains as KFC are, of course, all about breading and frying. Even at Indian Chinese restaurants where nearly every bit of meat is first fried (or deep-fried) in cornflour before being cooked, breadcrumbs seem to have suddenly taken over the menu.
Is it because we like breadcrumbs? Possibly. But mostly I think it is because breadcrumbs give us the crispy texture we crave.
I get abused every time I say this but I’ll say it again: rare is the Indian who knows how to make good bread. I’ve heard millions of explanations: we don’t get the right flour, customers are used to bogus bread (made using an industrial process without proper fermentation of dough) and so on. Not one of these excuses is fully satisfactory.
But despite this failing, it is boom time for bakeries. Some of them are fine, but most are staggeringly mediocre. Two years ago, they all made so-so cupcakes. Now they make really bad macaroons, (macarons, if you want to get pretentious about it).
Once again, I have no idea why this should be so. Macaroons are now an industrial product: the likes of Laduree make them in their thousands in factories. And once again, there are the usual explanations: the quality of the almond flour is wrong, all chefs don’t use a real Italian meringue etc.
But what’s important is this: customers don’t seem to mind. So, expect the boom in bakeries to continue, without any real improvement in quality.
Expensive chocolates are to rich people what mithai used to be, a decade or so ago. Now, it is considered too unsophisticated to give mithai as a gift. So everyone looks for chocolate. And because gifting budgets are large, it is the fancy foreign brands that have the run of the market even though their stocks are often old and dated and the prices are exorbitant. Chocolate has become a designer product, bought for the label, not the quality.
Indians have rushed in to fill this gap. There are some small artisanal chocolate makers (of the ones I’ve tried, at least a third make reasonable chocolate), but the big boy on the block is ITC’s Fabelle. I wrote about it when it launched but had no idea that it would be such a success. (Nor did ITC, clearly, considering how quickly they ran out of stock.)
This sector will grow. And there will be more entrants.
And the future
More of the same, I think. The boom will continue. Indians will continue to be food-obsessed. And we’ll still go to restaurants for fun experiences and eat spicy, crispy, umami-packed food – sometimes while taking selfies!