When I began perusing the shelves of India’s supermarkets and retail food stores to research for this book, I discovered that there had been a significant increase in the variety of chocolates available in India: imported international brands spilling from the counters of food stores alongside a growing selection of Indian-made chocolates, from commercial to boutique brands; dedicated chocolate shops selling hand-made chocolates and hot chocolate drinks, and chocolate cakes and desserts were prominent in bakeries and on restaurant menus.

What I was seeing was the evidence that India is now one of the world’s fastest growing markets for chocolate confectionery products. The growing consumption of chocolate in India straddles the intertwined stories of food retail and how health claims around foods are shaping the buying and eating habits of Indians.

The first Indian chocolate bar I ate was a 5 Star Fruit & Nut. It had a waxy texture and turned into a clay-like paste in the mouth instead of gently melting, was sharply sweet and only vaguely tasted of cocoa. I tried other locally manufactured chocolate confections and found them similar; the best of the lot was Nutties, although these are more substantively nuts and caramel enrobed with a thin coating of chocolate. Some imported chocolates were available in upmarket grocery stores, but they were expensive, and exposure to the hot, humid Indian climate tended to decline the quality of these.

The fact of this was an irrelevance for me anyway: with so many indigenous Indian confections to enjoy, there was no point in eating inferior chocolate, and it was hardly a nutritional emergency to go without it. In fact, the situation made it easy for me to bring novel gifts for friends in India: I brought them good chocolate.

Chocolate is made from cocoa derived from the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree, a tropical plant that grows in hot and humid conditions, such as those in Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu, yet when it is processed into chocolate products, these same conditions are anathema to it. 35 The cocoa butter in chocolate melts at 37ºC, just below body temperature, causing it to soften quickly when you put it in your mouth and release the flavour components we recognize as chocolate. The difficulty in the predominantly hot Indian climate is that chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa butter had a tendency to melt, or “bloom” such that its components separated, sitting on a store shelf. The waxy texture of Indian chocolate I found unpleasant was due to the replacement of much of the cocoa butter with vegetable fats such as coconut or palm kernel oil, which remain solid in warm temperatures.

Commercial chocolate confectionery produced for the Indian market also had to appeal to and be accessible to local consumers, meeting their preference for saccharine-saturated confections, and as sugar is cheaper than cocoa butter, making it the predominant ingredient made it sit well with the Indian purse as well.

November 2018. I am in The Oriental Fruits Mart in Delhi’s Connaught Place, a landmark family-run grocery store operating here since 1935. Author and Delhi chronicler Mayank Austen Soofi notes the place has “changed little in its fit-out since [it opened], the refrigerator is a 1941 model”, a fragment of heritage in this “furiously evolving colonial-era district”. Despite these antique qualities, The Oriental Fruits Mart has always been a harbinger of change when it comes to its stock. When I was living in Delhi in 2000, it was one of the few places where you could get good ground coffee before this beverage became the raison d’etre of a café “lifestyle”, and Soofi credits Oriental as having introduced avocados into Delhi. It had been some years since I had been in the store, and it was a little different – proprietor Mohinder Bal was older, and while there was barely any fresh fruit on offer anymore, there was a very large selection of good chocolate: a portent that this confection was on its way to being more widely consumed in India, subsequently proven true by some unanticipated encounters with this product.

December 2019. R and I travelled to the Araku Valley in Andhra Pradesh as I wanted to explore the coffee industry there, and to that end, we visited the local coffee museum. We followed the path set along a series of dioramas and educative panels telling the story of the development of the coffee industry in the region, which at its end channelled us into a large merchandise shop, filled not with coffee products and paraphernalia as one might expect, but with chocolates, a huge array of these, all produced from local cocoa. I was taken by surprise as I had no idea that Araku had a chocolate industry and that the quality of the chocolate was good.

We bought up a large selection of these confections for our own consumption and for gifts – the large packet of Araku coffee chocolates I gave my household in Australia were eaten up immediately as they were found to be delicious. There was a small corner of the store selling local coffee, but it was chocolate our fellow visitors were buying as eagerly as we were. Making some inquiries into the matter, we learned that cultivating cocoa has become an additional source of income for local farmers who grow it beneath the tall forest trees alongside their coffee crop.

If I have anything resembling a travel “bucket list”, it is focused on places related to food. One of these had been the Amul dairy complex in Anand, Gujarat. I had been wanting to visit the headquarters of this iconic Indian brand for many years, finally making it in December 2019.

Prior to this, I had tried contacting the company several times to see if I could organise a visit. No one at Amul responded to my inquiries so I decided to just show up there. After a little wrangling at the security gate, I was welcomed in and shown around the huge dairy production complex by public relations officer Richard Christian. As part of my tour, we took in a display of the extensive range of food products the company currently manufactures, including many different varieties of chocolate. Amul has been making chocolate for decades: In a nostalgic piece about childhood and Indian confectionery, Anurag Varma writes, “If you had one of these [an Amul chocolate bar] . . . you were considered the cool kid with a rich dad”, a comment indicating that it was not a common treat, the range of bars was also small.

When I remarked on the considerable expansion of the Amul chocolate selection. Christian nodded, “Yes, the demand for chocolate in India has grown dramatically, we [Amul] have recently opened a dedicated chocolate factory nearby”, which he said I was welcome to visit. When we wound up our dairy tour, I headed off down the highway to do exactly that, arriving at a building set in manicured grounds, with a Gone with the Wind-style columned portico leading into a spacious, shining marble-lined lobby, where two smiling staff sat behind a long reception desk to welcome visitors. It seemed more like the entrance to a fancy hotel than a chocolate production unit. Within minutes of arriving, I was taken, along with a family group, on a guided tour of the complex.

The factory had been specifically designed to accommodate visitors. We circumnavigated a corridor set around its perimeter, peering through thick glass windows at various stages of the chocolate-production process. In truth, most of this happens inside vast industrial machinery, so you can’t see much of it, but I still found it fascinating. Before completing the tour, the guide directed our attention to a display of Amul chocolates, ranging from sweet mass-market confections to high cocoa content single-origin bars made from beans sourced from Africa, South America, and India – representing the world’s chocolate-producing regions – including a 90 per cent cocoa bitter chocolate. The fact that Amul had built this industrial complex to produce this range of affordable chocolates was a clear indication of more widespread consumption of it amongst Indians now than just wealthy kids having access to it.

As our guide waved his hand across the product display, he confidently pronounced that Indians had “learnt from television” that “Indian mithai [sweets] are bad” and that “chocolate is much better”, further claiming that its consumption would “fix knee problems”. The family group vigorously nodded their heads in agreement. I did not say anything then, but I will say something here about chocolate myths a bit further on. As we departed, a large tour group filed in to take their turn through the factory.

Excerpted with permission from Eating the Present, Tasting the Future: Exploring India Through her Changing Food, Charmaine O’Brien, Penguin India.