Jan 26, 2016
Today is Republic Day, so expect restaurants, bloggers and food websites to publish pictures of tiranga pulaos and tri-colour salads.
However, if we really want to celebrate the spirit of federalism then we should make a serious effort to try out food from other states of India too. The questions remains, is the young Indian diner interested in trying out traditional regional Indian food?
For years, going out to eat ‘Indian’ in India, or in any part of the world, meant eating out at a Punjabi restaurant that served butter chicken and dal makhani and paneer lababdar.
Young Indian diners soon got bored and gravitated towards the emerging slew of restaurants run by Indian chefs and owners, many of whom without any visa stamps on their passports served international food.
2014-15 saw a renewed interest in Indian food among the younger dining audience in the metros with the launch of restaurants such as Farzi Café, The Bombay Canteen, Social, Monkey Bar and SodaBottleOpenerWala. You could add Masala Library to it though the pricing makes it a bit out of reach for youngsters.
The question is, are these known as places to head to for regional Indian food?
The lure of Farzi Café and Masala Library for many lies in their promise of ‘molecular gastronomy’. That’s what the media buzz around them focuses on. That’s probably how their promoters want to distinguish themselves. They have made modern Indian food sexy, and not traditional regional Indian food.
The Bombay Canteen menu takes Indian ingredients and spices, and presents them in new formats not necessarily as dishes we are familiar with. Their chefs like to experiment, and their talent and experience ensure that these normally work out.
Social does present a fair bit of solid, traditional, Bombaiyaa (in the Bombay branches at least) dishes, in cutlery that youngsters find funky and leave some of us, grown-ups, flummoxed. ‘Jail like’ I have heard my friends react to these.
Chef Manu Chandra’s Monkey Bar probably shows the widest range of Indian regional food amongst these restaurants. Question is, are Monkey Bar and the Social considered to be destinations to try out regional Indian food, or are they seen more as cool places to hang out at? Not that that’s a bad thing, if that’s what it takes to make young folks try out regional Indian food.
On the other hand, SodaBottleOpenerWala is seen as a Parsi restaurant. Parsis are a community and I am not sure if Parsi food can be dubbed as ‘regional food’. They do serve some ‘Bombay’ dishes, which in other cities would be food from another region. The Bombay bit gets lost in the overt Parsi branding of the chain though.
This doesn’t mean that regional-themed restaurants haven’t opened at all in recent years. Axomi (Assamese), which opened a couple of years ago in Bangalore is one. As is Gonguura in Mumbai, which launched last year and is the city’s only Andhra restaurant as of now, though it is vegetarian. There are more examples I am sure.
The problem faced by most of these regional restaurants is that they are small owner-driven places. They don’t have the big bucks of the corporate chain owned restaurants, and hence don’t have the means to host blogger meets or fly in food journalists from other cities in order to be written about, and are unable to create the initial buzz required to get people in. As marketing rules go, building awareness is key to any brand launch to get consumers to try it out.
There is one example though of a regional food event going more cosmopolitan. It’s not that of a restaurant though. This is that of the recently-concluded Vesava (Versova) Koli Seafood Festival in Mumbai. The Kolis belong to the fishermen community, and I had gone to the festival a few years ago when a Maharashtrian food blogger-friend told me about it. I visited it and saw that the place was packed. Yet, none of us had really heard of the festival till then. I realised that most of the crowd consisted of Maharashtrians, and there were hardly anyone from other communities around.
Things have changed since then and I would say that social media has played a big role in this. Some of us blogged about it after visiting it, and then more people went there and tweeted and Instagrammed pictures from the festival over the years.
In the last couple of years you would have seen lots of people tweeting about the Koli food festival. Many of whom would be young influencers and most of whom are non-Maharashtrians. The festival now gets the sort of buzz that a popular micro-brewery, for example, would get.
The next thing would be when a Koli restaurant opens in Mumbai.
That would make for a lovely Republic Day present.
Kalyan is a Mumbai-based food blogger and columnist who loves to travel in search of local tastes. He is at his happiest when eating at small, family-run places. His blog Finely Chopped won the Best Food Blog Award in 2013 and 2014 at the Food Bloggers Association of India awards. He is the lead critic for Mumbai at EazyDiner and is a columnist for Femina. He is also the Chief Chowzter for Mumbai, and conducts food walks in the city.
Follow Kalyan on Twitter @finelychopped