1. Going local
The food industry in India looked inwards in 2016, with restaurants opting to cook with local ingredients and experiment with new forms of the old Indian restaurant trick: Fusion cuisine. The Bombay Canteen in Mumbai, which focuses on local produce (their menu includes tendli, the tiny gourd vegetable that most Indian children would baulk at, on their menu) and serves up sundry vegetables and dishes with a fresh spin, won the Times Food Award for best Modern Indian Cuisine.
Some of their more inventive ideas this year included a tea-infused beer served with a savoury and flaky khari biscuit (a tea-time favourite in India) and a sweet, spicy and savoury chaat made using a sorghum varietal, ponkh, that is seasonally available in Maharashtra.
The famous Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra in Mumbai extended to Delhi by setting up a restaurant in Janpath. The restaurant’s menu experiments with molecular gastronomy (now a familiar party trick for adventurous diners), with dishes such as deconstructed samosas, mushroom chai served with dehydrated truffle oil and jalebi caviar.
Jiggs Kalra’s son Zorawar Kalra, whose vision for Indian food is reflected in the Delhi menu, found fame in 2016 not just for his work at Masala Library, but also as the judge who replaced Sanjeev Kapoor on MasterChef India’s 2016 edition. While experimenting with fusion styles and cooking methods, the Indian influence persisted through the show, with dishes like the Indo-Mexican creation of Nagpuri saoji chicken in bhakri tacos.
According to The Bombay Canteen’s chef Thomas Zacharias, the year had a considerable number of home chefs organising pop up dinners, introducing their regional food to a party of four-five people. Zacharias believes Gitika Saikia is one to watch out for: an Assamese home cook who has held many a pop up dinners and events introducing Mumbai foodies to her regional food.
“A few food ventures with focus on a single dish too became popular, like Saransh Goila’s Butter Chicken, a delivery- and takeaway-only operation where an award-winning chef focuses on the one dish alone,” said Zacharias. “I think we are also trying to move away from the whole concept of ‘fine dining’ and towards a more fun and casual dining experience.”
According to Zacharias, the rising fascination with experimenting with local foods and revisiting traditional methods of cooking is here to stay. “I wish we would see more restaurants which focus on regional cuisine, instead of just modern cuisine,” he said. “I think it’s going to happen eventually. If not next year, then maybe in the next five years. It’s a questions of when.”
2. Eats leaves, never meats
In 2016, the surge towards vegetarianism continued, as research for convincingly meaty “meatless” burgers reached a high point in the US. For years now, restaurants in India have introduced a special platter during Navratri, catering to those observing a no meat, garlic and onion diet. In 2016, Domino’s observed Navratri in other ways, as nearly 500 outlets of the pizza chain turned completely vegetarian. For the nine days of the festival, Domino’s pizza crusts were made using water chestnut flour and the sauces were seasoned with rock salt. All pizzas were delivered sans onion and garlic too.
3. Tea-time story
This year, Indians found themselves rolling their eyes at the healthy, organic cousin of the redundantly named chai-tea – the turmeric latte. An NRI version of haldi doodh, a drink traditionally made using fresh turmeric, whole milk and honey, used by Indian mothers and grandmothers as a drink to cure the common cold and flu. The turmeric latte found itself on menus across cafes in the UK and the US in 2016, emerging as the hipster drink of choice. If this weren’t enough, tea can now be bought in spray cans for tea-bag haters.
4. Stranger things
Around the world, 2016 continued with that hallowed tradition of Indian street-food vendors: combining perfectly respectable food choices into a hybrid that ruins two dishes (sichuan dosa, anyone?). For example, the New York-based Bagel Store which was responsible for the mufgel: a bagel mashed together with a muffin. A particular McDonald’s burger now oozes Nutella, and sushi rolls are being served in burrito-sized portions.
5. Food scarcity
Even as going local and consuming superfoods rich in minerals, vitamins and antioxidants was hailed as a healthy practice, the forest-dwelling communities in India witnessed the flipside of the trend – scarcity of their indigenous food.
The superfoods that are a part of many of India’s Adivasi communities’ regular diet, like pihiri, a wild mushroom consumed by the Baiga community in Chhattisgarh, have slowly started gaining the status of cool, hipster food, resulting in the export of these foods to cater to a growing demand among the urban elite. This has left India’s indigenous communities with nutritionally poor choices of polished white rice as dietary substitutes.
6. Food memoirs
Regional cuisine also made its presence felt in the many food memoirs penned in 2016. Books about cultural and community specific cuisines appeared in book shops, reflecting on food traditions of communities across India and recipes to satiate every appetite, no matter how varied.
Shahu Patole, a former journalist, decided to document the history of traditional Dalit food in a book, Anna He Poornabrahma, when he saw that no one else was on the job. In an interview to Scroll.in, he confessed that he himself does not eat this food anymore, but he wanted it documented. “This food practice wasn’t something great that people would consider it a loss if it was forgotten,” said Patole. “No-one really felt the need for it to be preserved or felt sad that it was disappearing. If people are forgetting it, then let them forget it. I just wanted it to be recorded somewhere.”
Food writer Anoothi Vishal’s food memoir, dedicated to her grandmother who defined her palette, is a much more romantic endeavour. Belonging to the Kayastha caste, Vishal, in Mrs LC’s Kitchen, talks about her family and the food they ate on a regular basis, the rich traditions of frying in ghee, tempering foods with asafoetida and slow cooking vegetables like one would meat.
Another writer who used her grandmother as inspiration was Archana Pidathala, who translated traditional Andhra recipes penned by her grandmother in a cook book titled Vanita Vantakalu (1974). Writer Pamela Timms published Korma, Kheer and Kismet, about her experiences as she navigates her way through the lanes of Old Delhi and eats plates of daulat ki chaat, kulfi from Kuremal Kulfi Wala and Ashok’s mutton korma.
7. Food in the news
Food dominated the news cycle too in 2016, with beetles becoming a snack option in Majuli, Assam, and Kerala imposing a fat tax on burgers, pizzas and other junk foods to control childhood obesity.
The story of Majuli, a riverine island in Assam, embracing the protein and carbohydrate rich beetles that were attacking their crops and developing dishes around it is one of the more bizarre things to happen to regional cuisine. According to locals, the beetles, whether cooked with tomato, dry roasted or made into a curry, taste similar to prawns.
While one community was introduced to a new dish, another was told to cut down on feasting to prevent wastage. An edict by the leaders of the Bohra community made it mandatory for Bohra caterers to cut down on the number of dishes served in a particular course and in limited quantities. The community, known for its sumptuous rich, meaty feasts, have been told to be careful planning their celebratory menus or attract punishment.
Another ban, which hit the state of Maharashtra, in 2015, continued to inspire protests and violence in 2016 – the ban on cow slaughter. There were reports of mob violence related to the beef ban from across the state along with several arrests and even deaths.