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Born to Be a Grocer

“Talk Salad, Eat Samosa”

If a chef comes, can talk of food be far behind? A little while back, I was at a tony little dinner after an art show in Mumbai. One of the guests was celebrity chef Sanjeev Kapoor. It was hard not to hear the food related conversation that people were having with him, about the easy availability of Japanese seaweed and their recipe for couscous salad and the great quality of herbs at organic food stores. Sanjeev listened with an absorbed look of concentration, and then whispered to me with amusement, ‘sab salad aur dressing ki baat kartey hain, par samosa chutney khaate hain” (everyone here talks of salad and dressings but loves their samosa chutney)!

Master Chef Sanjeev Kapoor of course didn’t mean what he said literally. Burmese khowsuey, Japanese tempuras, Lebanese baba ganoush are regular offerings at parties in upmarket homes. Five years ago one would have had to do a Wikipedia search to find out what Quinoa and Amaranth meant. Today, any health food fan knows what they are. Sushi kits are hot sellers at exclusive food stores like Foodhall and Nature’s Basket. Yes, global food is truly growing and becoming interesting in India. It is an important marker, a badge of sophistication for people who are climbing up the well-being ladder. You “need to know” how to say ‘guacamole’ without an accent and “need to have” avocados and asparagus in your refrigerator, if you want to signal arrival to yourself, and others around you.

And yet, Indians want their samosas and parathas while also seeking modernity, sophistication, premiumisation of what they eat and offer. From that point of view, the Indian palate wrapped up in modernity is a recipe for magic, a much bigger magic. There are many more consumers for an exotic samosa than there are for guacamole, and that is going to remain the case for the foreseeable future. Most local canny vendors of food have already understood this. The other day, I went to buy dhokla from a popular snack shop in the neighbourhood. “Sir, which dhokla?” was the question tossed at me by the counter girl, who then offered me a taste of the amazing range… cheese dhokla, sandwich dhokla, tiranga, schezwan, crisp and of course, the original khaman dhokla. The most popular varieties were cheese and tiranga! All the fancy new variants were priced 30 percent above the good old khaman; nobody cared about the price.

At a recent banquet, I was served traditional Konkani sol kadi in shot glasses. The starters included pav bhaji in martini glasses with a slice of crusty flatbread.

Martini Pavbhaji

These days, I get to enjoy a far wider and more interesting variety of panipuri’s in all weddings, from different parts of the country, than I have ever done in my life. Indian street food has been ‘discovered’ by society all over again, albeit with a more sophisticated twist.

A huge discovery is that traditional Indian food still continues to be the biggest draw at all events. If I was looking for a much bigger phenomenon of sophistication of food, and a real mega food business opportunity in India, I should be taking the ‘but, eat samosa’ hint from Sanjeev Kapoor. Whenever anyone has cracked this magic, a marketing explosion has followed. Nestle’s Maggi was all about making noodles ‘desi’, while Lays’ Kurkure was all about making the Indian bhujia more sophisticated and ‘western’. Small entrepreneurs and shopkeepers are also climbing this bandwagon. Indian manufacturers like Haldiram’s, with their Bisleri water panipuris at their retail outlets and bhelpuri combo packs in modern packaging, have figured which way the wind is blowing.

In simpler, less sophisticated times recipe innovation and transmission happened through the conventional powerful channel of granny to mum and aunts to our kitchens. Today this process is too gradual for the rapidly exploding and impatient expectations of the Internet age consumer. The new recipe and knowledge transmission channels are TV shows, YouTube and Web pages. And the new grannies are celebrity chefs, Google ‘uncle’ and Wiki ‘aunty’. And the consumers are lapping it all up. I love it when I see “Six interesting things to do with leftover rice”, from Sanjeev Kapoor. That’s six grannies together! I clap when I’m offered the choice of branded Bombay Bhel or masala dosa rolls, neatly modified and packaged, on flights. They have to still improve their recipes, but I’m waiting; not settling for a bland lettuce and mayo sandwich!

The fact is, people want to celebrate their evolving purchasing power and tastes through exotic food, while remaining close to what they have grown up liking. To do this, they need to be helped. As in most consumer products, in this also, it needs the expertise of master chefs, food specialists, large brands and their product teams to bring in sophistication and bold experimentation. I believe the next level of magic will happen when Maggi aunty, Knorr chachi and Heinz uncle join in the ‘samosa sophistication’ opportunity. There are some signs. For instance, Pillsbury has just acquired local brand Parampara. It’s a small but emphatic start. A huge branded business opportunity is waiting in the wings. The customer is ready; but I hope the next ‘Masala Maggi’ makers are listening?

 

 

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We're already on the bandwagon buddy! Check us out at facebook.com/mumbaiyamasti. Would love to hear from you on the areas of improvement. We've doing fusion food with an Indian twist. Imagine Paneer Hariyali Noodles or Chicken Tikka Noodles. Waiting to hear from you.
I am actually curious.. Is this pseudo westernism also observed in other countries with growing disposable incomes or is this an India specific phenomenon... Also this kind of fusion food experimentation seems more like a north and west kind of pehnomenon. Does one really such such experimentation down south? Say in Chennai or Hyderabad? Enjoyed reading... The pav bhaji looked yum....oh and maybe you forgot the "vodka puchkas" :)
All of us need simple 'markers' that say, we are better off than others. For the bahu's at home, that marker, till a few years back, was spoken English. Now, it is complicated foods that ma in law cant even pronounce names of! Gujarati and Punjabi homes have always been just a bit faster on experimentation, in most aspects of life. But our kitchen and fridge audits indicate the change is across the country. And yes, vodka puchka shots are a rage in Delhi and beyond, I gather...
Yes the fusion of Indian food with food from other parts of the world is a great thing. But an even greater trend which has been touched in this article is the fusion of various types of Indian food. Given the wide variety of Indian food the variety which one can get within the Indian cuisine is mind blowing. I still remember the Chicken cheese dosa at Shankar Road 30 years ago. It was a neat blend of the punjabi butter chicken masala in a typical south Indian dosa! This trend existed but a much hidden by product of information explosion through TV and Internet is the fusion of Indian food.
Agree with you, Vikas. Modernity of ideas and forms of desi food is a vast opportunity. Most MNC's make a mistake when they hypothesise that modernising Indian consumer will 'move on' from desi food. My argument is that shift is a smaller opportunity than the examples my posts talks of. We need many Sanjeev Kapoors, Rajdhani's, Haldiram's, Masterchef shows, etc, to get the bandwagon rolling. Eventually this phenomenon and consumer choice will explode when master brand makers from global powerhouses join the procession, in my view..
Very well observed & narrated.
Thanks Deepa. Follow or keep an eye on this place. The next post in the making will look at a unique shopping behaviour in India, that is counter intuitive to a typical western mindset....

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“Six interesting things to do with leftover rice”, from Sanjeev Kapoor. And what did he do with the leftover rice? Will it be on YouTube. dying to know..
V., You might like this. Damodar probably has more up his sleeve, so this is to keep you sated until then. :)
@khanakhazana
Dear V, Keep an eye on FoodFood and Sanjeev Kapoor's Khazana channel for more than six ideas for What to do with leftover rice. For today, try Rice parantha with lots of chopped onion mixed with leftover rice and used as stuffing. Have fun. Sanjeev Kapoor
wowie! Thanks folks. Sanjeev Kapoor, my mom loves you :-)
V, as Peter mentioned, I was planning to keep the mystery for another post. But 'the' masterchef himself has decided to lend you a hand. I envy you..... :). Enjoy!
Rachit Supertramp Vats
You've hit the nail on the head. I believe any brand (big or small) that doesnt feel shy of saying 'main haan desi' will find it easier to rewrite the rules in the retail/fmcg, foods space in India. Its already happening.
Rachit, in my view, brand success is not parochial. So desi, videshi, is secondary. As a grocer, I love my MNC brands also. You need many smart marketers to make a market grow. Ownership nahi, connect smart hona chahiye. Kurkure is 'up there' on my smart connect ladder....
Very true.so totally agree.the evolution of the palate has actually started major trends.the vodka shots with golgappa that we all have on holi are just so popular.
And Sonia, what fun if someone gives us Kolkatta jhal mudi in a proper cup and spoon, with a sachet of mustard oil to pour fresh in it!! And that, in Greater Kailash or Gurgaon, in Delhi....Maggi aunty, or Heinz chacha?!
True. This might be the reason of mammoth information (Internet) and increased mobility of the Indian population. Now the frame of reference has changed, it is the consensus of the global population and not few around us as earlier. We need to tailor everything we see now, to have more choices. The reluctance and sticking to our foods may be because of our brought up, that has never encouraged experimentation. but the inertia would be dissolve in a while. Good Capture.
Vinay, lets face it. Experimenting with food and wanting choice comes from having discretionary income and the confidence that goes with overall well being. 'Apni daal roti mey khush' is a useful middle class trait in the era of 2% GDP growth. People want choices; being able to spot those well, is what my post is about....
I found myself nodding my head to the above article. But at the end of the day i still love my samosas parathas paanipuris untampered and original tasting .
Bombay panipuri, Dilli golgappa, Kol puchka, benaras chat or sainik farm vodka panipuri?! All of them are authentic :). One of the hot selling items at the Sarovodaya store in Dadar, Mumbai, is 'Sindhi panipuri kit'. The rainbow of food choices is itself a charming facet of the modern Indian marketplace....
 
 
Damodar Mall
‘Born to be a grocer’ has a different meaning for me. After the traditional career track of IIT, IIM and Hindustan Unilever, I was going to be a grocer, much to my family’s disbelief. Selling ‘daal-chawal’ as a chosen vocation for the educated son was not their idea of smart choices. I wasn’t alone. I walked down the path with R K Damani of D Mart and Kishore Biyani of Big Bazaar, both avid customer observers and business creators by betting on the Indian consumer. Customer observation and insight hunting is now an instinct with me, after over a decade of consistent aisle running in all parts of the world.

To my wife’s delight I love visiting stores, but much to her chagrin, I equally love chasing women customers to see what they are buying!

Food, brands and retail, my vocation, catches everyone’s fancy. I’ve stirred up some recent excitement for myself shaping food stores for different ends of the market spectrum including upmarket Foodhall and now Fresh produce led neighbourhood store RelianceFresh, etc.

I’m excited by various cuisines, languages and recently, learning to play music. But through all my adventures, one thing has stood by me always, a good cup of masala chai! Meet me @SupermarketWala
 
 
 
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June 20, 2013 11:21 am by Hitesh Bhatia
We're already on the bandwagon buddy! Check us out at facebook.com/mumbaiyamasti. Would love to hear from you on the areas of improvement. We've doing fusion food with an Indian twist. Imagine Paneer Hariyali Noodles or Chicken Tikka Noodles. Waiting to hear from you.
July 22, 2012 17:02 pm by @damodarmall
All of us need simple 'markers' that say, we are better off than others. For the bahu's at home, that marker, till a few years back, was spoken English. Now, it is complicated foods that ma in law cant even pronounce names of! Gujarati and Punjabi homes have always been just a bit faster on exper...
July 22, 2012 15:44 pm by Mudaromundo
I am actually curious.. Is this pseudo westernism also observed in other countries with growing disposable incomes or is this an India specific phenomenon... Also this kind of fusion food experimentation seems more like a north and west kind of pehnomenon. Does one really such such experimentation ...
July 11, 2012 10:40 am by @damodarmall
Agree with you, Vikas. Modernity of ideas and forms of desi food is a vast opportunity. Most MNC's make a mistake when they hypothesise that modernising Indian consumer will 'move on' from desi food. My argument is that shift is a smaller opportunity than the examples my posts talks of. We need m...
July 10, 2012 15:16 pm by Vikas Mehta
Yes the fusion of Indian food with food from other parts of the world is a great thing. But an even greater trend which has been touched in this article is the fusion of various types of Indian food. Given the wide variety of Indian food the variety which one can get within the Indian cuisine is min...