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Farmer fare & foreign flavours
2012 was the year the big names came calling on India, fine dining made way for intimate dining and macarons and cupcakes fought for attention alongside litti chokha and ragi mudde.
What a year 2012 has been for cuisine. From the ginormous restaurants of the previous years to tiny cafes of the year gone by;from nearly zero interest in regional cuisine to Naga, Sikkimese and Manipuri restaurants opening up in the metros;from food cooked by an army of disinterested maids to the passionate home cook. And from years of hardly any international brands, except a couple in the quick service format, to a flood from top to bottom, 2012 has been the year of the coming of age of gastronomy in India.
2012 was the year that we turned our collective backs on the 'gigantic restaurant' that took several crores to put together. Instead, in sync with the times, tiny neighbourhood cafes have sprung up all over the country. Bong Bong, Pantry, Poco Loco and Imbiss in Bandra, Mumbai are neither large nor spectacular in scale but they've each made a name for themselves. In Kolkata, Tea Trove, Mrs Magpie and Rouge are neighbourhood joints that offer home-like comforts. It's the same in Bangalore, where there are countless cafes and eateries in Indranagar alone. Imli, for instance, is an all-vegetarian eatery made in someone's home. In Delhi's Hauz Khas Village Futomaki and Elma's Cakes, Bakery and Tea Room are diminutive yet their popularity is disproportionate to their size. Likewise for Chennai's Upper Crust and Ashvita. Even Pizza More in Chandigarh has an Italian baker from Puglia and serious bread ovens in singularly basic surroundings.
2012 was the year of health consciousness gone sustainable. No more starvation diets, no spending 23 hours a day on the treadmill. Just healthy eating. The advent of several frozen yogurt chains tells its own story. Red Mango and Yogurberry, just two names out of dozens, both espouse the finest and most mature in healthy lifestyles with tasty eating thrown in. The base flavour of Yogurberry is not even sweetened, leaving the customer to add as many or as few toppings to create the taste and texture of his choice. Perfect whether you are an active pre-teen or a sedentary adult. Is it too much to expect that healthy choices (no transfats, honest labelling, low calorie etc) become the norm in a country where there's little legislation on the subject?
For decades, Pizza Hut and McDonalds were the most recognizable of the brands from the western world. The only trouble was that they were both in the Quick Service Restaurant (QSR) format. Suddenly, Hakkasan, Yauatcha, Megu, Le Cirque, Pizza Express, Burger Girl, Nando's and Starbucks have all made their way to our shores. Mumbai's Starbucks and Delhi's Nando's have long lines of customers, patiently waiting their turn. What is noteworthy about the international players is that they are not confined to a single price point of the market, but have spread themselves from top to bottom, and in a range of cuisines too.
Homemakers turn money rakers
There was a news item in the Mumbai papers a few months ago, in which a lady in her 50s was found to have several bottles of alcohol in her home. Suspicions were raised and theories were bandied about. The truth pointed to one of the biggest trends of the year 2012: chocolate making (including liqueur chocolates) from the confines of the kitchen. Too good to have your talent hidden under a bushel? A few silicon trays, a double boiler and hey presto! The best part of baking cakes, bread, making desserts, giving home tutorials to individuals, families or groups of friends on how to cook a pizza or how to rustle up a Thai meal in 30 minutes is that you work in short bursts and have plenty of free time. 2012 was not the year of Auntyji making brinjal pickle or grinding Goda masala. We're talking fancy here.
Food becomes sexy
Remember those whisper light macarons that melted on your tongue during your last trip to Paris? The tiny cupcakes in that shop window in New York that you couldn't resist? Remember your holiday in Vietnam where a diminutive 60 year old taught you and other tourists the proper way of making stock for pho? Or your holiday in Barcelona where a tour guide took you on a tapas trip through the city that ended after midnight? The great news is that you can do all this in our metros. Even better is the news that it is folk like you and me who do it in their spare time, so that it is passion with a bit of commerce thrown in. Food walks through khao gallis, teaching a small group of four first-time tourists to India how to make an Indian meal, buying cupcakes and macarons from home bakers and even learning how to make them: food has become a four letter word, and it's never been sexier than now.
Eat Indian, be Indian
All this talk of Vietnamese pho and French macarons are all very well, but what about desi tastes? The surprising fact is that while cuisine is going forward, it is also going back in time, to our very roots. It's not only Lucknavi and Hyderabadi food that is the subject of occasional food festivals;Delhi boasts of restaurants that showcase the food of Bihar, Manipur, Sikkim and Nagaland. Poush, a Kashmiri restaurant in Mumbai offers the heavy platters on which the cuisine is traditionally eaten: that's surprising, because not even in Kashmir can you eat off copper platters. Today, Malvani restaurants are coming into their own with customers being able to distinguish between Gomantak and Mangalorean with ease. And Kamat Lokaruchi inside Bangalore as well as on the highway, recreates not on the rustic fare of North Karnataka but the atmosphere too. Farmers' fare - ragi mudde and coarse chutneys - are lapped up by the cognoscenti, and in half-hidden pockets, the overwhelming cuisine of the Kodavas of Coorg is served to those who know their akki ooti from their noolputtu.
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