A culinary perestroika is under way in the city and in many parts of Kerala. It is evident in the mushrooming of restaurants and fast food joints offering continental foods. It is seen on our dining tables, where now an au gratin at times comes alongside aviyal! The surprise is that given the number of Malayalis who travel and live abroad, the food glasnost has taken rather long to set in. That we are rooted to tradition may be the main cause. But that's not the point here.
Under one roof
The opening of Gourmet House, a specialty food store in Thevara, where almost all kinds of imported food products are available under one roof, is a sign. Hotel consultant and menu planner, Kuruvilla Samuel says that there were hardly any takers for a continental menu that he had charted out in '93 for Avenue Regent. Now the scene is completely changed. It is far easier for him to plan menus as almost 80 per cent of the ingredients are available in the city. Wine and western foods are the in things, he says attributing the change to exposure to foreign cuisine that Malayalis have witnessed over the last decade or so. “We are seeing the fruition of that on our plates,” he infers.
C. M. Verghese, proprietor of Gourmet House has been a keen market watcher. Twelve years ago when he put up a shelf of imported products in a newly opened supermarket in the city, he recalls the response, it was pathetic. He remembers standing on the sidelines of the store and watching customers look quizzically at the imported bottles of sauces, jams, meats and cheese. “Many would read the labels and the price and put it back on the shelf.”
But things have changed. The last five years have really been brisk in this business and one clear pointer is the awareness among customers. Verghese says that earlier foreign cheese was just Kraft, the trademark blue box, but now we have customers asking for Brie, Camembert, Edam, Mascarpone, Cheddar and even Blue cheese, all by name. If that is something to go by in cheese then chocolates, pastas, tea, coffee, grains, meat and almost all food products are seeing this kind of informed queries.
“Kids are most aware. They come with their parents asking for chocolates by names, also for popcorns, pop-tarts, sweets, jams, chips of all the brands,” says Verghese.
P.T. Antony, the other big player in this arena and proprietor of Choice Speciality Food Products Private Ltd, agrees completely. He had chucked up a government job to start this business in 1986, much to the chagrin of his parents. Today he is satisfied at the turn of things. “Of course those were trying times. Earlier prices of these food items were very high and that was the reason for the low sales. When competition started in importing and subsequently prices came down, retail increased.” He says he remembers selling Italian herbs at Rs.1,200 for a kilo, which is now, quarter the price. The same goes for Thai curry paste, “a very popular product”, which was earlier retailed at Rs.700 for a kilo, and is now available at Rs.200.
Demand for variety
People are brand conscious now. There is greater increase in demand and people want variety. He says that food liberalisation is huge and he is all set to inaugurate his specialty food store, Gourmet Grace on NH Bypass Road next month.
Philips of ‘Philips Tradin Co', which retails cheese (cooking cheese) and has been in this line for over a decade, recalls the days when he began selling cheese in the city. “Previously we were running around and teaching people what cheese is.”
Today he retails besides Kodai dairy products, Nilgiris Dairy products and Dairy Craft, various other cheeses like Edam, Emmental, Gouda, Feta, and Parmesan etc. He has expanded his business to parts of Kerala and Goa too.
Price has become less of a factor now, believes C.M. Verghese. People are ready to pay for brands linked with quality. As example, he says that in the ‘mayo' line, customers ask for top of the line brand, Hellmann.
Even though the numbers are few he says he has a regular clientele for items like Diet, Zero Coke, Schweppes and even caviar!
Sebastian, an F& B professional and currently consultant on menus at restaurant, Nova Cuisine, is delighted at the present foodscape. He says he can go ahead and plan food festivals without thinking too much about sourcing of ingredients.
Not stopping at packaged food products and going a step ahead Gourmet House will soon be offering specialty meat cuts like tenderloin, lamb rack, undercuts, T bone steak and pork spare ribs.
Gourmet Grace will have on offer London Dairy Ice creams and lamb from Down Under. With manna literally available here Kochi is set to be a food paradise soon. If ‘hungry kya' then bon appetite!