The premium lifestyle food store in the upmarket mall in New Delhi was brimming with weekend customers looking for things they would not get in their neighbourhood provisions shop. With her three-year-old in tow, a 20-something mother was busy sifting through bunches of asparagus to pick the freshest one for the vegetable au gratin she was planning to bake for dinner. She had already filled her trolley with the best of exotic greens like avocado, snow peas, basil, leeks and zucchini — and her next stop was to be the meats section from where she had to pick up some cold cuts to go with drinks before meal.
While some were happy to lay their hands on a packet of wanton strips, others were disappointed not to find seaweed or French bread. Many could be seen asking when the store was going to replenish its tarragon and passion fruit stock.
The crowded antipasti corner, with cured meats, olives, mushrooms, anchovies, artichokes, pickled meats and vegetables on display, and the ever busy attendant at the cheese section packing ricotta, mascarpone and cream cheese on demand only pointed to the fact that gourmet cooking is catching up fast with Indian households.
The food that was served only in star or select fine dining restaurants once is now being cooked at home. Be it arborio rice, couscous, tahini dressing, chitaki mushroom, foie gras or bacon strips, the average Indian kitchen has welcomed them all to its world food cabinet.
Agrees celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor: “Indian kitchens are opening up to world cuisines in a big way — all thanks to globalisation, with people travelling to places, trying out the cuisines from all over the world and bringing them back to their kitchens.”
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It is, therefore, not surprising that your kirana store next door now stocks all sorts of pasta sauces, soup mixes, olive oils and several things not traditionally Indian. Even the roadside vendors’ carts these days have red and yellow bell peppers, broccolis and ornamental cabbage giving company to the everyday vegetables. And you can now count on the neighbourhood confectioner for full or sour cream.
But even unavailability of ingredients doesn’t deter home cooks like Sonia Minocha, a freelance media professional and food enthusiast in Delhi, from trying out new items. She enjoys making Continental and Mediterranean dishes, picking up recipes online from food websites and blogs, and happily uses substitutes for ingredients that she fails to source or finds too expensive. “Brussels sprouts are not easily found in Delhi, so I try to use something else in its place. I love making Chinese orange marmalade and this fruit is only available in private farms or gardens so I try to pick them from wherever possible, or else make it with normal oranges which of course is not half as good.”
That the Indian palate has got so wider has a lot to do with the soaring popularity of international food-based shows on television, such as MasterChef, Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen. While ordering steaks, the average Indian foodie now knows his ‘rare’ from ‘medium rare’ and ‘medium rare’ from ‘well done’. Home cooks can tell how long it will take for the gelatin to ‘bloom’ for use in ice-creams, puddings and jellies. That ‘blind baking’ pie and tart shells gives better results is a common knowledge and ‘pan searing’ meat for that lovely caramelised crust is not an alien concept.
From Continental and Chinese, the experimental Indian foodie has long graduated to other international cuisines. The weekend fares on the dining table, hence, range from Japanese sushi, Mediterranean falafel and hummus and Peruvian peri peri chicken for entrée, the Moroccan chicken tagine, Mexican tacos and Thai khao soi for main course, and Italian panna cotta or English trifle for dessert.
Chef Kapoor says food-based shows are making world foods come into high demand in India. “These days people are growing international herbs and spices in their kitchen gardens and proudly using them in their food. Similarly, a lot of international ingredients, which were available in scarcity earlier, are now available in abundance and at affordable prices.”
At Zansaar.com, an online store selling gourmet food products and ingredients, the world food gallery is a big hit. The website claims they have people ordering items from outside the six metros too.
“The most sold item is apple cider vinegar, besides baking mixes and products classified as organic,” says Jidesh Haridas, head-marketing, Zansaar.com.
And it is not only gourmet ingredients that are finding a market in India. From pasta machine to deep frier, several new kitchen equipment too are entering Indian households in a big way.
“Today’s Indian kitchen has definitely moved far beyond the humble mixie,” says Haridas.
Waffle makers, breadmakers, countertop barbecue grills are some of the items that get sold most at Zansaar. “This has been our fastest growing category. We are doubling volumes every month. We bring in a range of products that are of the highest quality to cater to the demand led by the growth in gourmet cooking,” adds Haridas.
Plating is another aspect that is becoming an important part of cooking. The good-old coriander has given way to other fancy and international ingredients as a garnish, says Kapoor. “At one of my shows, I presented the humble pav bhaji in a martini glass, which instantly added an extra oomph to the whole dish,” he says.
For enthusiasts like Minocha, food groups on social media too are of big help.
As Sid Khullar, founder and editor of food blog Chef at Large, puts it: “Indians are naturally curious about different world cuisines, given our penchant to learn and absorb from other cultures. This curiosity, when aided by groups (on social media) such as Chef at Large where answers to doubts can be easily found, substitutes for unavailable ingredients quickly discovered and tried and tested recipes are contributed by peers, gives rise to the confidence home cooks need… Finally, manufacturers and retail outlets support the rise of this curiosity and confidence with readily available products — from the ready-to-eat to the building blocks of molecular gastronomy.”