Diwali is here, winter is just setting in and the lockdowns have lifted. You are treating yourself with a vengeance; after all you deserve it after almost two years of despair and a particularly dismal summer.
Indulgence comes in many avatars; always has been. But being mindful even as you indulge is a revelation. Long restricted to homemade goodies, the delicious-and-healthy tag is what’s enticing this year as we eat out.
Fresh made kadha, gur and til ke laddoo, ragi uttapam, sprouted chana. A focus on healthy fats, complex carbs, quality of protein. Seasonal and local vegetables. This is not your mother feeding you healthy stuff, but an integral part of menus in leading hotel chains.
Anticipating food trends and customer demands, chefs took to the drawing board during the pandemic to recraft menus that balanced sin and soul. Local, seasonal, fresh, alternate grains, plant-based food, healthy fats—trends that were picking up even before the pandemic, have been pressed into service on such a scale, they are ubiquitous now.
Says chef Arun Sundararaj, director of culinary operations at Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi, “People are emerging from the pandemic and many are asking what can I get that is heathier and what makes me better. They are very aware of what to eat and a lot more conscious. And any suggestion for a dish with healthy ingredients like berries or millets finds favour immediately. Even those who want to party are doing it with responsibility.”
Himanshu Taneja, culinary director of Marriott Hotels for south Asia, observes: “There is a paradigm shift in what we have observed in the past 20 months. People have understood why health is important. Even if they are indulging, they know when to apply the brakes. Being at home and eating home food has made them more disciplined in their diets.”
No surprise that the Taj menu for their delivery app Qmin has an exhaustive ‘Innergise’ section that offers vegetarian and healthy options like detox drinks, millets, seasonal vegetables, fruit and traditional desserts with unprocessed sugar.
Marriott has a ‘Mood Diets’ menu as part of its delivery options with ingredients that uplift mood and have a positive effect on both body and mind. These include fermented foods, omega 3 and 6 rich foods, seeds, nuts and dark chocolate. For cocktails, they have a wide range of zero proof drinks, which have no alcohol but mimic the flavour of the original drink.
At Hyatt’s Andaz Hotel in Delhi, organic turmeric from Dehradun and local honey is an integral part of food, says head chef Akshay Bhardwaj. A new addition this season is mulethi badam ki kheer that helps clear sinuses during winter.
“Our focus has always been on local and artisanal products and these are getting a big push now,” he says. It’s like grandma’s kitchen gone commercial.
Away from hotel chains, restaurant brands are also speaking the new language. “Healthier products are more in demand as restaurants are getting busier too! Food delivery is popular, but dine-in is picking up as people combine shopping with eating out. Veganism, sugar-free or desserts naturally sweetened are much sought after. Customers have also started asking about the source or the origin of the ingredients and locally sourced products are being preferred these days,” shares Rohit Aggarwal, director of Lite Bite Foods, which owns Punjab Grill and You Mee brands.
Adds Zorawar Kalra, MD of Massive Restaurants, “The pandemic has brought a shift in the behaviour of the consumer. People have definitely become health conscious and they want to know what they eat. But at the same time, people have missed going out. As the festive season has kicked in, we are seeing an increase in footfalls. People are excited to go out.”
His new venture in Delhi, Louis Burger, offers indulgence by the way of gold foil burgers and premium ingredients while also offering a vegan version.
For those taking to maximalism, indulgence has no better name than chocolate. Offering premium chocolate and desserts, Ether Chocolate based in Mumbai, which delivers pan-India, remains unapologetically purist. Says Prateek Bakhtiani, founder and head chef, Ether, “We see our product as an indulgence and don’t make concessions to its meritocracy. Whilst we are certainly looking to experiment with more dietary inclusivity in the future, for now our product is chocolate as an indulgence, sugar and all. Fortunately, we have a clientele that shares this approach.”
He plans to take his products a notch higher with a more cerebral, luxury approach to artistic chocolaterie.
Chef Sundararaj feels conscious eating and a focus on health will stay till the pandemic becomes distant memory. For now, indulgence is being balanced with a tilt toward high quality ingredients. He strives to achieve dishes with a high nutritional profile, including vitamins, minerals, protein and good carbs.
Chef Vivek Rana, executive chef at The Claridges New Delhi, has included seasonal, gluten-free, vegan and keto-based dishes at Pickwick restaurant. Calorie counts accompany many dishes and luxury vegetarian ingredients are in.
A five-point formula works for chef Taneja, which includes good protein, quality of fat, complex carbs, more roughage and eliminating processed sugar. “For instance, we replace regular potato mash with sweet potato mash. These changes lead to tasty as well as a healthy plate of food. People know this and demand it,” he says.
Green, red, yellow and purple
Eat the colours of a rainbow, they say. For a country with a large population of vegetarians doing exactly that, finding a large variety of options is rather difficult. Save the usual paneer and mushroom and some popular Indian preparations, there’s little to wow the plant eater. This is the gap people like Aftab Sidhu and his partners are looking to fill. Offering Asian cuisine at their new venture Green Mantis in Delhi’s Khan Market, Sidhu is seeing a positive response, so much so that a vegan place is already in the works. In his kitchen at Green Mantis is Vietnamese, Malaysian, Chinese, Bhutanese, Thai food that’s completely plant based. No fish oil or oyster sauce too, which have been replaced with veg versions. That a completely veg place opens in a north-Indian city, in a place with the steepest rentals, speaks volumes about a changed customer.
At Marriott, chef Taneja is big on plant proteins, incorporating it in several of his dishes across Asia. “We are going beyond obvious plant proteins like tofu and procuring plant protein from other sources, like pea protein, and a certain amount of plant protein is a part of every menu,” he says. Marriott also has an Eat Well programme, as part of which all properties are building their own gardens and using fresh produce from there.
There has also been a deluge of plant-based alternatives that can be used both in homes and restaurants. One such initiative, Wakao Foods, uses jackfruit as a meat alternative to offer a range of dishes. Started in October 2020, the brand now supplies pan-India, has tie-ups with major hotel chains and plans to expand to Europe, Asia, Brazil and Canada in just a year. Says Sairaj Dhond, founder and CEO, “When we launched, people were starting to move towards mock meats or plant-based meats globally and we speculated that India will soon follow the trend.”