Bolder and better – is how today’s international cuisines in India define themselves. From Middle-Eastern and Indonesian to Mexican and South African cuisines, F&B brands in the country are venturing into these uncharted international gastronomic territories to appeal to the discerning Indian palate By Rituparna Chatterjee
Food is our common ground, a universal experience,” – this aphorism of renowned American cookbook author, James Beard, seems to aptly reflect today’s global gastronomic scenario, which is constantly evolving to create a delectable dining experience to appeal to today’s gourmets. In this context, India is not far behind from its global counterpart for its food scene is getting bolder and better with newer entrants in the market. More visibility of chefs, greater accessibility to better ingredients and an increased sense of adventure, are enabling the Indian gourmet to experience newer international cuisines in the country. From the already popular Chinese, Japanese, Italian and French cuisines, Indians are slowly and steadily experimenting with newer cuisines like Middle-Eastern, Modern Japanese, Mexican, South African BBQ, casual Australian, among others. Whereas chefs are seen rivaling each other in inventiveness to delight their customer’s taste buds and attract those looking for new taste sensations. “Cuisines and the F&B concepts in overall have seen a sea change in the last few years. Today guests are looking at a great experience and not just good food. Cuisines like Middle-Eastern, Modern Japanese, Mexican, South African BBQ, casual Australian, will continue to evolve in India, as we Indians are becoming more aware, well travelled and understand the nuances of authentic food and beverage,” opines Ajmal Salim, director, food and beverage, JW Marriott Pune.
Asian food in general has made giant strides across dinner tables in India over the past few years with diners waking up to the exciting world of flavours and spices. While Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese and Malay cuisines have become extremely successful, new and niche cuisines like Issan from Northern Thailand and Modern Japanese are making inroads into the country. “In the near future we will see more restaurants replicating the vibrant street food of South East Asia, while others will experiment with the yet unexplored regional treasures like the food of Northern Thailand (Issan cuisine). The fascination with Korean/Japanese will continue as cultural and regional ties between both the countries strengthen. People have increasingly been experimenting with Modern Japanese be it in terms of vegetarian okonimiyaki (Japanese pancake) or kino tofu in their suimono,” predicts Chef Japvir Singh Vohra, executive sous chef, DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Pune – Chinchwad. However recently, Malaysian, Indonesian, Vietnamese and Burmese cuisines have are been breaking new barriers. The use of interesting ingredients such as cranberries, Vietnamese herbs and premium mushrooms are seen making their way into Indian culinary techniques. Currently a very niche trending cuisine in India is the Nikkei cuisine, which is a blend of Peruvian/South American and Japanese flavours. It is derived from the Japanese migrants who reside in Latin America. “Since the Indian palate has taken well to Japanese cuisine the experiment with a couple of dishes has worked well,” avers Chef Rohan D’Souza, lead chef, Silver Beach Hospitality.
Moving towards the African continent, the South African cuisine has been garnering a lot of interest in India over the past few months. Moreover, there has also been a shift in attention towards the North African cuisine. “Familiarity of ingredients and a wide variety of fast food adds to the acceptability and saleability of these cuisines,” reasons Chef Vohra. Furthermore, the Indian hospitality market is also witnessing an influx of Mexican and Middle Eastern cuisines and African/Jamaican flavours. “As far as shaping the culinary future of India is concerned, the Indian crowd as a whole has been very receptive to Japanese, French, Chinese and Italian cuisines and of course an Indian cannot ignore the ever present American fast food,” mentions Jaideep Das, AVP- operations, KA Hospitality. Though American fast food has gained tremendous popularity in India over the years, there is still a huge segment which needs to be tapped. “We at Chili’s American Grill & Bar, serve authentic Southwest American cuisine with bold flavours that are inspired by the neighbouring Mexican culture and dishes. With so much more than just burgers to offer, the American food in India is still unexplored with a large market to tap,” states Chef Abhijeet Gomare, culinary contact, Chili’s American Grill & Bar, South and West India. However, what is interesting is that different grill concepts like Mexican Baja Grill or Churrasco Grill are slowly blending into the Indian ways of cooking. “The current trend has also shown a lot of people looking at international flavours with a desi twist,” avers Russell Gregory, general manager, Citrus Hotels Pune adding, “We at Citrus have introduced Punchin, a contemporary dhaba serving Punjabi cuisine and the most popular mix of Chinese with desi flavours and this has turned out to be a massive hit.”
Understandably, the affordability of ingredients has a very integral role to play in creating a cuisine’s popularity amongst the masses. A lot has to do with the import regulations we are governed with. Japanese ingredients, for instance, are expensive compared to Korean ingredients due to the stringent trade ties between the two countries. The other aspect is the volume. As a result, the pricing of these international cuisines vary between mid to high and Indians, despite being price-sensitive, are willing to pay a premium to avail the best dining experience. “Indian consumers are open to paying higher prices for these niche ingredients and cuisines for they understand the value involved in the procurement of these items,” reasons Chef Indrajit Saha, executive chef, Sofitel Mumbai BKC Hotel. Certainly price is a factor to reckon with, but it is about selling the idea. Once there is sufficient interest, price becomes a secondary concern.
Reinventing the menu is an important aspect for F&B brands today. To stand out from the clutter, increase footfalls and offer something different to regular guests, it is essential for brands to innovate with their international cuisines. There are several factors that are taken into consideration while revamping menus – changing market trends, guest preferences, availability of ingredients, movement of dishes and costs incurred therein, seasonal requirements, among others. A change in the menu tends to receive positive feedback as guests are inclined to try new dishes from different regions. “With our limited time offering menus introduced quarterly, we encourage guests to try different and some seasonal varieties of American originals. For example, going back to our traditional roots, we had introduced the Original Circa 1975 menu which included 11 dishes from the original menu introduced at Chili’s American Grill & Bar in Texas in 1975,” opines Chef Gomare. New addition menus are launched once a year, while the limited time offering menus every quarter. “While these short time menus include only four or six new dishes, the feedback is taken into consideration and the star dishes from these menus are later incorporated into the regular menu. For instance, the bolder version Nachos and Calamari that were introduced previously as part of a limited time menu are now a permanent part of the regular menu. Besides the feedback on these star dishes, we have also introduced more sharable portions for groups of three or four, more vegetarian selections and healthier options such as dishes with 650 k calories and below for the weight watchers,” adds Chef Gomare.
As for DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Pune – Chinchwad, the menu at its all day dining restaurant, 3 Spices, changes with the season. Being a buffet as well as an a la carte restaurant, it introduces trends every month through theme buffets and promotions. “The a la carte menu is a best seller selection of the most popular dishes from various parts of the world which has been well received by our regulars,” boasts Chef Vohra. At Punchin, Citrus Hotels Pune, the approach is different when it comes to reinventing menus. “We offer crazily innovative dishes on our blackboards on the likes of tandoori momos, chicken makhini noodles, molten chocolate samosas, Chinese pulao, etc,” reveals Gregory. Whereas KA Hospitality does not undergo a full menu change and usually retains its signatures and popular choices. “Most guests immediately notice the change in the menu and the generic feedback received so far has been one of excitement and eagerness to try the new dishes,” opines Das.
Food festivals organised across hotels and restaurants in India have taken the awareness and popularity of these international cuisines one step further. For such festivals enable gourmets to treat their taste buds with exotic international dishes. Moreover, they can also lay their hands on an array of dishes under the same roof. In India, fusion food is in vogue. Whether it is at eating outlets or in-houses, an innovative approach is adopted as far as food is concerned. The food festivals reflect this tradition as well. “The trick we follow at 3 Spices is quite interesting. We do a market research of the food concept we want to introduce and then we do a food promotion based around it. The best sellers from the promotion are featured in the a la carte menu the next time. This way we are always churning up something new for our diners every time,” informs Chef Vohra.
At JW Marriott Pune, the endeavour has been to introduce new and unique cuisines almost every month. Its F&B Promotional Calendar is planned in advance for the next year, this includes getting celebrity chefs/Michelin Star chefs, award winning sommeliers, bartenders. “We did the Culinary & Bar Arts event, a kaleidoscope of food and beverage being presented in the entire portfolio of our food and beverage outlets, including the night clubs and lounges. Cuisines like Turkish, Modern Italian, Singaporean, Balinese, Korean, etc were part of various food promos that we conducted this year,” reveals Salim. Likewise, food festivals have also been an integral part of Sofitel Mumbai BKC Hotel. “Through food festivals, we get an opportunity to initiate training with international chefs and even incorporate some of their signature recipes into our menu. For example, during the Malaysian Food Festival, we took inspiration from the chef who flew down and introduced the ‘Malaysian Curry’ in our room service menu,” opines Chef Saha.
Niche within niche
Observing the potential of going ‘niche within niche’, a few hotels in India are applying this concept to some of their food festivals and are offering a range of region specific cuisines of a particular country. For instance, Sofitel Mumbai BKC Hotel, at its Malaysian Food Festival displayed the cuisines of regions like Sarawak, Sabah, Kuching and Kuala Lumpur. However, there are certain limitations to this concept, reasons Das. “With the emergence of restaurants like Yauatcha and Hakkasan, which specialise in Cantonese cuisine, it is clearly a given that restaurants will opt for niche within niche, but this is limited only to cuisines like Chinese, Italian which have as varied offshoots of cuisine as the Indian cuisine. However, cuisines like French and Japanese don’t have the options to create a niche within a niche.”
Though building a niche within a niche might be an interesting concept, it will take time for maturity to set in for it works well in a high density footfall area where the economics make sense. “I don’t see it becoming a trend immediately. Most high end restaurants dabble with the idea of a region specific menu with a limited period promotion and depending on the response even introduce certain styles of cooking/certain dishes in their regular menu. But, sustaining your operation solely on food from a specific region of China/Thailand or any other country would be challenge in the present scenario. The Indian diner prefers variety which would be somewhat limited with region specific dining options,” justifies Chef Vohra. Reiterating the same, Salim states, “Though this can’t be ruled out for international cuisines (for Indian regional cuisines, we have a significant presence of region specific restaurants in various cities), but I would say – at this stage this does not look like a very popular direction.”