Looking back at a decade in the world of food

A lot has happened in the last 10 years; from veganism gaining ground to local ingredients becoming the stars. We give you the highlights of this period in food

Updated - December 27, 2019 11:22 am IST

Published - December 26, 2019 05:24 pm IST

Unity in diversity

Food, it is said, is one of the greatest dividers. The opposite though, is also equally true. Nothing unites as well as food. Think about it: food binds, you share life stories over plates of delicious food with friends and strangers alike. It often tends to be the biggest point of conversation too.

This past decade saw people (read amateur cooks and home chefs) opening up their homes to strangers in an attempt to introduce them to their family/community’s culinary heritage, by way of food pop-ups. From Ayandrali Dutta’s traditional Bengali pop-ups in Delhi, Suman Sood’s Himachali dham (food prepared during a wedding) in Delhi and Shruti Yash’s North Indian street food pop-ups in Bengaluru, to the more famous The Bohri Kitchen, that hosts elaborate meals replete with keema samosas and roasted raan in Mumbai and conducts pop-ups in other cities as well.

These home food pop-ups heralded the trend of celebrating micro-cuisines in a country where cooking techniques and flavour profiles vary every 50 kilometres. Restaurants and chefs weren’t far behind when it came to giving micro-cuisines their moment in the sun. Soon collaborations became the buzzword, with chefs calling upon home cooks to share their expertise in regional cuisines in the professional kitchen. From Iti Misra’s soul-satisfying Bengali Bhoj for The Bombay Canteen, to Anoothi Vishal’s Kayasth Khatirdari pop-up in collaboration with Manish Mehrotra, the list of these interesting tie-ups featuring regional cuisines has been winning hearts across the country.

The fact that the culinary world has been looking for inspiration closer home — in a bid to reduce food miles and use locally grown ingredients while exploring uncharted flavours — could be one of the major reasons why hyperlocal cuisines are now being celebrated. Celebrity chefs themselves have been working with hitherto unheard-of ingredients to tickle the fancies of their diners.

For instance, at the JW Marriott Mussoorie, it is not uncommon to find a typically Uttarakhand staple of kandali ka saag (made with stinging nettle and tempered with jakhia) make its way onto your plate. Vivanta by Taj in Guwahati doesn’t shy away from featuring Assamese food in its breakfast buffet or seasonal Assamese thali meals either. Down South, chefs such as Regi Mathew and Mathangi Kumar are known to collaborate with home chefs to put up meals from communities such as Gujarati, Mudaliar and Nagarathar as well.

Out with the faux meat

Mock meats, soya nuggets and Seitan burgers take a bow. Then, exit.

Finally, it’s curtains down for wannabe meats, bound together with soy, salt, flavour enhancers and regret. Over the last decade, as talented chefs experimented with ingredients from all over the world, it became clear that old-fashioned vegetarian meats pale in comparison to the real thing: vegetables.

At trend-setting Noma, Chef René Redzepi first made foraging trendy. For the first half of this decade, inspired by Redzepi, cooks across the world went scuttling into forests and fields, looking for edible mushrooms, herbs and weeds. In 2017, he launched Vild Mad (“Wild Food”), a free mobile app that helps foragers “read a landscape and unlock its culinary potential.” More recently, he announced that Noma will run a vegetarian-only menu from summer to early fall.

He’s not the only one. Noticing customers demanding more inventive fare, as they convert to vegetable-centric diets, fuelled by a need to better their health and that of the planet, restaurants have begin to experiment — with surprising, and delicious results.

At Noma, Redzepi had summer flowers on the menu in 2014. In 2015, the Noma Japan menu featured pumpkin simmered with kelp and salted cherry blossoms. They have made a “celeriac and truffle shawarma”, marinated for hours and slowly cooked into a sweet, golden, caramelised main course.

While mushroom burgers and jackfruit tacos were served in food trucks and markets, restaurants vied with each other, plating up increasingly detailed, complex dishes. The theme: to discover new techniques and ingredients, then use them to present classics in unusual ways.

At Ducks Eatery in New York, they serve an entire smoked watermelon ham that takes four to six days to prepare. In Pittsburgh, Apteka customers can order burnt young sunflower, to be eaten like corn on the cob. In India too, there has been a rise in trendy vegetarian restaurants, proving again that there is more to vegetarian menus than carbs, potatoes and paneer. From popular chain Burma Burma to Mumbai’s chic Kitchen Garden by Suzette, these are all big on organic, vegan, Instagrammable food.

Meanwhile, those chewy soya chunks of the past have been replaced by cleverly engineered burgers by companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Malaysian start-up Phuture Foods began working on a plant-based pork substitute for Asia. Scientists found ways to create kinder, healthier lab-grown meats. In India, Good Dot got popular for its protein-packed vegetarian achari tikka , burji and biryani , which they say have no cholesterol or transfats.

Watch this filter down to home kitchens, already bristling with air fryers for vegetable chips and dehydrators for fruit leathers. The availability of ingredients like liquid smoke, imported mushrooms and high-quality sauces means you can make a steak out of anything now, from cauliflowers to tofu. It helps that chef’s techniques, from fermentation to sous vide, are easily available via social media, and YouTube lessons.

Clearly, it’s going to get easier every year to be vegetarian, flexitarian, pescatarian, vegan or a combination of them all. Finally, you can have your steak, and eat it too.

Of food miles and carbon footprints

If the last decade treated the opening of sustainable restaurants in Spain, Asia and Australia as unique, applause-worthy initiatives, this decade saw the movement go mainstream. And India joined in with gusto.

Today, the onus of sustainability has been taken up not only by celebrity chefs in their eponymous restaurants, but also by bartenders, a rising crop of bean-to-bar chocolatiers, and even supermarkets. In 2016, France became the first nation in the world to penalise supermarkets and grocery stores for throwing away products that were still edible by humans. Needless to say, others followed.

In India, restaurants focussed primarily on sustainability (like the gas-free Arth in Mumbai) are still rare. The shift instead has been that of habits and practices, from bamboo and metal straws (The Whisky Bar in Gurugram took it a step ahead with lemongrass straws) to responsible sourcing of local, seasonal ingredients that reduce the carbon cost of transportation and storage, and lower the need for artificial preservation. In bars, this shift in ingredients was another excuse for creativity (think cocktails served in repurposed condensed milk cans and bourbons infused with mint stems). In restaurants, local ingredients naturally went hand-in-hand with an exploration of regional cuisines — chefs (like London-returned Alfred Prasad of Omya at The Oberoi, Delhi) made a habit out of meeting with farmers and fishermen to understand terroir, crop varieties and sustainable practices, while also getting to sample a whole new world of food in the hinterlands. It was a change that diners seemed to be lapping up.

Zero waste has been a major buzzword — if nose-to-tail cooking has been a part of traditional Indian cuisines, root-to-stem was a new trend picked up not only at restaurants, but also at home chefs’ kitchens and even in cooking classes. Then there were those working far away from the scene of cooking. InSeason Fish managed to educate restaurateurs and consumers around the country through its calendar of which fish varieties to eat or avoid as per coastline and season.

But this was also the decade that saw the rise of home deliveries, with a spurt in delivery apps and cloud kitchens. This has brought with it added concerns about packaging and transport: concerns the industry will hopefully address soon.

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