For the longest possible time, Indians strictly ate their main meals at home and even the celebratory feasts were extensions of the domestic kitchen. Till exposure, affluence and nuclear setups accelerated the eating-out habit, which strongly influenced how our tables were filled. The pandemic has temporarily shattered the restaurant business unless largely home delivery but it has certainly enthused the creativity of the home chefs, who are poised to do a lot more than just brisk business.
But first, we must start with the historical nuances that shaped the way we eat, especially in the big cities. My first-hand exploration of Calcutta, true for other cities, confirms that the concept of restaurant dining was reasonably alien till the 1960s, except Western exposed mentally-elitist families. Which also meant that the Indian eateries were actually places for staple dining, be it the Muslim hotels, the Hindu bhojanalayas or the Udupi outposts. They catered to regular folks who did not have access to a home kitchen, being bachelors or immigrants and needed their daily nutrition in a familiar and cost-effective environment. During my college days, I remember the iconic Shiraz Hotel on Park Street attracting a breakfast traffic of labourers setting out for their daily toils and the street-based curry-rice joints in Esplanade were clearly catering to the office goers demanding the unabated routine, a menu that existed even in the HTA office in Bondel Road. What did emerge was the evening snack culture, be it the cutlets of North Calcutta, the vada pav of Central Bombay or the sundry delights of Madras. In fact, traditionalists stepped out to eat these snacky goodies as relief from home routines, but the ‘away’ main meals would only be celebratory or religious.
In the 1970s and even ’80s, a dinner invitation would invariably mean a home cooked meal, with the skills, or lack of them, of the homemaker and her staff up for scathing scrutiny. Just as we evaluate restaurants with a Michelin gaze, we used to compare the various aunts and cousins for their prowess and looked forward to the encore of stalwarts. The skill sets too were very deep and ethnic, perhaps a style of cooking fish peculiar to Mymensingh district or a pulao whose secret sauce was stealthily handed over by a member of the Jorasanko clan. Most remarkably, the menus in weddings were honestly no different from exceptional home fare, escalated in volume and perhaps oiliness to cater to a festive palate. Most truthfully, the home was the inspiration for dining culture and the traditional establishments, as mentioned, catered more to routine necessities and not indulgences, except the evening snacks.
Post the 1980s, our behaviours changed and we seemed to be attracted increasingly to the fare of the outside world, variety being an incorrigible offshoot of disposable income. At the topmost end, chains like ITC and Taj opened newer vistas, whether the kitchens of Avadh or hitherto unfamiliar regions of mainland China. At a more middle-income level, the recipe culture gingerly commenced, aided by magazines, newspapers and radio shows. The cumulative stimuli at both ends led to a culinary wanderlust, initially fuelled by five star establishments and entrepreneurial housewives, and soon delivered in volume by a plethora of stand-alone or chain restaurants that emerged out of nowhere. Equally seamlessly, our appetite for wedding feats also changed and from the mid-1980s, the demand for Mexican chicken, fish mayonnaise and roasted cauliflower appeared in non-veg menus while this transition was even more remarkable in the Marwari wedding ensembles, orchestrated by characters like Munna Maharaj. From Lebanese to Mongolian, nothing was exempt and by now the role of the home recipe as the stimulant of food culture was truly null and void.
A quick rewind to January 2020 will reconfirm the amplification of this scenario — India truly a voracious eating out market whose influences emerged from the world outside and not the kitchens within. The culture defined by experimental originality at one level and familiar global staples at another end, which in tandem with Masterchef and various TV shows led to observational reverse engineering. But then in one fell sweep, Covid changed all of that and now the home chefs are clearly in favour, as the daily dining table becomes the physical space for indulgences as well. Most remarkably, this has led to a resurgence of authentic traditional recipes as regional cuisines in their finest glory are back in our consideration set, now that the glamour of experiences is no longer relevant. People are evaluating food for taste and flavours and it is clearly no surprise that these real crafts-folks are gaining immense appreciation. In every city, this is a prevailing pattern and most often, the carefully guarded recipes over time are being exposed to delighted tongues.
In my view, the most significant shift will be the comeback of quality, prevailing over packaging, ambience and projection. Quality in terms of discernment, authenticity and imagination overwhelming the need for standardisation, which is the operational reality of the mass production business. In a short time, this shift in consumer behaviour is clearly visible as the lure of home chefs cannot be matched by the corporatised ex-favourites and while safety may be a temporary alibi, the real story is clearly taste. If the home chef network can be aggregated sensibly, this will lead to a seismic shift in the entire industry, with the SMEs overshadowing the large businesses and employment for professionals remerging in private kitchens. Erudite establishments are already making such collaborations a part of business strategy, which is certain to pay dividends.
As an indulgent gastronomer, I totally adore the overdue prominence of irrefutable quality and actionable tradition. It augurs well for the continuity of civilisation and can certainly lead to great business on brand new terms.
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