Until not very long ago, Indians tended to modestly accept the traditional wisdom of 'eating to live, not living to eat'. The adage seems to have been rudely turned on its head, almost overnight. Across town classes and regions of India, people are eating out and trying new foods with an enthusiasm that was unimaginable even a decade ago. Youngsters are bragging about their experiences through Facebook posts and food selfies. Being seen as a foodie is now a major signifier of one's personality, communicating one's spirit of adventure, zest for life, or sense of discernment.
The most obvious set of changes are those fuelled by a sensory and hedonistic view of food. Food is, increasingly, entertainment. We see an unprecedented increase in the incidence of dining out, with the industry having grown at over 20 per cent for the past three years, and continuing to do so. Even in towns the size of Bareilly, Patiala, and Rajkot, there is a surge of new restaurants, most of them selling 'fun food' such as burgers, pizzas, shakes, pao-bhaji, and Chinese. Colourful décor, often with gimmicky themes, is used to enhance the experience of entertainment.
On display is an unprecedented new willingness to experiment. Most new restaurants in small towns sell multiple cuisines, ranging from Indian to Chinese and American/Italian fast food. If Indian, the fare tends to typically be stuff not made at home - 'Mumbaia' snacks such as pao bhaji and bhelpuri, North-Indian food in the South and vice-versa. Clearly, the 'thali' is taking on a whole new meaning altogether, with foods from across continents jostling with each other on the same table.
Conversely, in the metros, we are beginning to see uber-specialisation, with restaurants devoted to such unlikely niches as Russian, Portugese, and Greek. Imported fruits and veggies are flooding neighborhood groceries. Street food has adopted new, non-local ideas in an amazingly short span of time. Momos have moved in from being an exotic thing sold in Tibetan 'dhabas' near the Delhi University 15 years ago, to 'thela' fare in Patna. Cheese-laden grilled sandwiches can be had in a 'mela' in Bareilly.
Of course, Indians never quite seem to accept or reject a new influence in toto. They simply like to wrestle any foreign idea to the ground, add a dash of Indian 'tadka', and make it their own. Hence, aloo tikki burgers, noodle dosas, Schezwan chutney, and samosa sandwiches. More and more of these gloriously imaginative hybrids just keep on coming, to keep us guessing.
Back to basics
In sharp contrast to this hedonistic exploration of food, is an equally powerful trend in an opposite direction: of going back to basics, in search of health, authenticity, and traditional wisdom.
A couple of trends may have fuelled this trend. To begin with, environmental degradation is no longer a distant thing, of relevance mainly to the developed world; air pollution is today a middle-class concern, as is the over-use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and the alarming spread of diseases like asthma, diabetes, and cancer. Conversely, there is widespread concern that the quality of food we eat today is degenerating. The deep-fried stuff of yesterday (samosas, kachoris, and the like) were part of our grannies' kitchens, hence, were automatically imbued with a degree of goodness; conversely burgers and pizzas have come in surrounded with the label of 'junk', from day one. Besides, the natural quality of the cereals and veggies we consume is believed to have deteriorated over time.
Today, there is an overt search for healthier products, or less-unhealthy versions of existing products. Some successes that embody this trend are green tea (an over 300 crore category already), brown bread, multigrain 'atta' and roasted snacks. Products, with a sense of 'ayurvedic goodness', are doing wonderfully, with Patanjali being the most visible manifestation of this trend.
These changes, at both the hedonistic and healthy ends of the spectrum, represent an exciting time for packaged food companies in India. Most large players like Amul, Cadbury, Unilever, and Marico have been recording solid double-digit growth for several years.
However, even more impressive has been the performance of smaller companies like Organics India, Gaia, Chings' Secret, and Cremica, offering new choices in emerging areas like roasted snacks, frozen foods, sandwich spreads, and bakery products. Seeing the potential of these emerging niches growing into full-blown categories in the coming years, a large retail player like Future Group is now embarking on a serious FMCG play. It's launched a slew of new brands into its stores like Desi Atta Co (a range of healthy grains and 'upavas attas'), Sangi's Kitchen (a range of gourmet sauces and spreads), Karmiq (healthy foods like nuts, berries, and healthy oils), Veg Affaire (a range of frozen fruits and vegetables), and Nilgiri's dairy products. The company has invested in a massive food park near Bengaluru, and is recruiting top talent along with agencies like O&M and Taproot, to build a portfolio targeting a turnover of 20,000 crore in five years' time.
Things are moving rapidly on other fronts, too. Food parks are coming up all across the country. Several hitherto imported brands, like Ferrero Rocher, ChocoPie, and Tongs Garden, are setting up shop in India. Bankers and marketing men are chucking up good jobs to open offbeat restaurants or quirky takeaways.
Clearly, it's a good time to be a foodie in India!
(The author is head, business strategy and marketing, Future Consumer Enterprises, Future Group)