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Couscous, as well as garam masala
Once, shopping at gourmet stores used to be for the elite. Now they are for anyone who loves to cook.
In the middle of Delhi's newly opened Foodhall is a shop in a shop called A?A. It is manned by two Europeans and it sells - get this - Indian spices! A?A embodies all that Foodhall stands for, so here's the back story on it. One-time chef and restaurant manager, Julian Amery from the UK drives a bus to India, Nepal and Tibet, falls in love with the land and scouts around for a business to do here. He hits upon the idea of spices and in the fullness of time, sets up a fair-trade business in certified organic spices, not only from India but from the Middle East and North Africa. The first A?A store opens in Copenhagen because that's where Amery has moved to. He sets about melding the mutually exclusive objectives of European quality standards and Indian heritage. Obviously he managed to do it quite well, because one day an Indian family of four - father, mother and two children - walked into their shop and began sampling the masala chai mix on offer and the garam masala too. Amery made desultory conversation with them and when he asked the father what he did in India, pat came the deadpan reply "I am a shopkeeper. " Amery was happy because that is what he himself is: a shopkeeper. He didn't doubt that his affable customers were from India's vast middle-class, out on a holiday in Copenhagen. And then, one day out of the blue, he received an email from the "middle class shopkeeper" asking him if he would like to set up an A?A in Delhi. The 'shopkeeper's' name was Kishore Biyani.
Avni Biyani, the youthful daughter who looks after Foodhall, says that like A?A, the whole store is classless and caters to anybody who is interested in food and cooking. As it is, the brand new store has rice bran oil, cold pressed coconut, mustard and groundnut oils besides a variety of Indian brands of spice blends, like Keya, Naturesmith, Roopak, Al Fez, Premium Harvest and Carmencita, besides of course the enticing display of A?A with its jars of sumac and long pepper (pipli).
Foodhall with its impressive display (it is by far the best-stocked gourmet store in India) is the icing on a cake that has been getting more and more fancy with the passing of the years. From a decade ago when packets of pasta were available at grocery stores, to the present day when Nature's Basket and other gourmet stores sell Japanese kombu and hijiki in single use packets, we've come a long way.
At the bottom of it all is the changing face of how we view food. At one time our kitchen at home was where daal and chaawal were cooked every single day of the year. It was a painful drudge to be sure, and nobody particularly enjoyed it. Then, as cable TV exposed us to round-the-clock cookery shows, including the gamechanging Masterchef Australia, food became more than sambhar and idli. Several changes have occurred simultaneously. Kitchens have become progressively less ethnic;international ingredients, including speciality ones, are available relatively easily;food forums and TV shows have given us the taste for cuisines other than our own. Today you can find quinoa or couscous in middle-class kitchens and hobby cooking, including for men, is the order of the day. Travel has widened our horizons like nothing else has: browsing through supermarket aisles in the countries of South East Asia, picking up gravy granules for when we are feeling a bit adventurous - this is a trend that transcends just the chattering classes. Which is what Avni meant when she said that Foodhall was classless: it really is for everybody.
Sonia and Manu Mohindra, hospitality consultants are razor sharp when it comes to honing in on culinary trends. "We went to the house of a commodities trader in Ludhiana, and the lady of the house had done an excellent job of making canapês from store-bought tart and barquette shells blended skilfully with home-made and imported ingredients. It was not done to impress, which is what made it especially impressive, " was the reaction of Sonia Mohindra. She points out to her own maid who can rustle up an impressive meal for guests with a host of packets and jars. "First tadka Chinese was the only non-desi cuisine we could entrust to our domestic help. " All this is a direct result of the widespread availability of fine ingredients within the country and the relatively affordable price they command.
What's the next step in the gourmet sweepstakes? Perhaps the emergence of regional Indian ingredients in a well-appointed space like Foodhall, which would imbue them with a certain mystique.
ON A FOOD TRAIL
Sonia and Manu Mohindra travel the world on work, and never fail to return with ingredients. "It's the new shopping for bags and shoes," they say. The Mohindras' suitcase is invariably full of several varieties of dates and olives, Kalamata being a favourite. "It is not easy to get olives that have not been processed in a factory within India."
The other great traveller, Dilip Cherian, image consultant, is passionate about food and exults in ingredient shopping on his travels. He does not, however, make the distinction between international and Indian shopping. "When I am in Milan, I'll make a beeline for truffle oil;in London the smoked salmon keeps excellently in vacuum packing and in Bangkok, I always buy fish sauce from niche producers. In Kolkata, in the season I try never to miss nolen gur, and I never go to Kerala without bringing bunches of tiny bananas."
Divya Burman, whose husband Amit Burman is a fitness freak, is a serious hobby cook, who cooks the family meals at least four times a week, looks forward to family vacations in Europe, particular Italy, where she never fails to return with truffle oils. "When they're in season, I try and buy truffles too. And I just love buying a host of artisanal cheeses."
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