“Now let me tell you about the last item to complete the meal,” Surabhi patted her friend Leena on her arm. “Guacamole. You serve it on the side with your tacos. Salsa dip, sour cream and guacamole, bass!”
“Guaca…what’s that?” stammered Leena.
“Guaca..mole. It’s a fine puree of avocados, spring onions and tomatoes, like our kachoomar. Just put these together and your fine Mexican dinner will be a hit! And here’s my little secret mnemonic to get the pronunciation right. Kauwa bole, guacamole,” she chuckled.
Guacamole, couscous, khao suey, tahini...these days well-to-do Indian women are helping each other wade through and manage the new vocabulary around their kitchens in their desi diction. Increasingly, knowing complex new cuisine is the new marker of being a smart, educated, modern homemaker.
In the Seventies, the upper middle class woman was distinguished for her ability to speak in English. By the nineties the marker switched to travelling abroad. But now almost every upper middle class woman speaks to her kids in English and has been on holidays overseas. So, global, complex cuisine seems to have become the new indicator of sophistication.
Food adventure has been mainstream for a while, now. Frequent outings to restaurants, culinary television shows like Masterchef, cooking from books and internet recipes have been increasing. When you want to feel you are better off, you need behaviour and consumption markers to let yourself know it. What will you happily pay more for?
A better quality fresh cucumber or a lush green zucchini? Nice normal capsicum or colourful bell peppers? The obvious answers slowly push us to more complex, exotic food ingredients and recipes.
As our kitchens churn out stuff that grannies didn’t teach moms, and as dads dabble in the kitchen, experimentation with food will keep growing in Indian homes. Women want to recreate novel recipes in their kitchen, perhaps with a healthier tinge compared to restaurants.
An early pioneer in this concept was the brand ‘Kitchen King’, in the north. Kitchen King was a mix of spices that made curries sexy and easy. Before blended spice brands entered Indian kitchens, making curries was a tedious and time consuming task, best done by ardent homemakers. It is no coincidence that the rise of Everest, MDH, Badshah and such brands coincided with the phenomenon of women entering formal employment in the mid seventies.
Today there are a host of regional manufacturers of masalas, mixes and ready-to-cook products for the desi foodie. Every region of India has its Eastern, Cookme or Rambandhu success stories. But the woman who uses Kraft Hummus with organic pita will fight shy of making thalipith using a local Maharashtrian brand that nobody has heard of. She needs the reassurance of a sophisticated producer with the pedigree of a large company, including the bells and whistles of branding and a proper mythology backing her culinary adventures. Deeper product features, magic ingredients backed by culinary research, new forms of powders, pastes and liquids need to come in to feed the hunger for culinary sophistication in desi kitchens. Nestle’s condensed milk, Milkmaid, is one such example of a unique form that has now entered mainstream Indian cooking, and there are many recipes that ask for ‘one can of Milkmaid’ to be found in use.
Indian regional cuisine is rich, complex and exotic. It also suits our tastes. But to the better educated, better travelled and better off homemakers, it has to be presented in a far more modern and convenient form. There has to be as much delight in rustling up a Lucknowi biryani as there is in making a quiche Lorraine using one packet of Kraft low fat cheese.
Large food companies now need to join the party! Whether a Knorr, Maggi, Kraft or McCormick will learn to play big at this next level or the desi Everest, MTR, MDH or Smith n Jones, is a story that’ll unfold in the coming years.
— The writer is director, food strategy, Future Group