These years saw the power of the Internet like never before, whether it was the pressure of social media for the picture-perfect dish or the advent of food delivery companies and more recently, cloud kitchens. And restaurants learned to work their way around allergies ranging from lactose and nuts to gluten and seafood, while people experimented with diets ranging from Paleo to Atkin and from Dukan to Keto. The world yo-yoed from condemning butter and all fats to praising them, from detesting the egg to celebrating it and from five small meals a day to intermittent fasting. There were no certainties and it became difficult, if not impossible, to stay on trend. Back home in India, if I was to name the single largest food trend in last two decades, I would say it has been the coming of age of the ‘zealous vegetarian’.
While India is no stranger to vegetarian food, we have always loved our milk and dairy. But over the last few decades, increasingly, young people have moved to not just a vegetarian but a vegan diet. This impacted the way we started to eat at home and out. Two things happened simultaneously: traditional vegetarians started eating out more and traditional meat-eaters turned vegetarian or vegan. This two-pronged shift towards more plant-based food has been growing in India since the turn of the century. Increased awareness, a greater focus on health and fitness, the morality and ethics associated with a vegetarian diet and more spending power, encouraged the young Indian to try foods, fads, and diets that were thus far considered too aspirational and westernised.
The ‘new vegetarians’ who are often influenced by social media, their peer group, their nutritionist, their fitness instructor, or their spiritual advisor, began making a religion of vegetarianism and a cult of veganism. Rise in prosperity and greater international exposure resulted in what I call ‘a sense of entitlement’. For instance, while 15 or 20 years ago, a restaurant like Peshawri in Mumbai or Bukhara in Delhi, which specialise in meat cooked in a tandoor, would be frequented by mainly meat-eating guests, today, have 40-45 per cent vegetarian guests each day. To play around a bit with Mallory’s famous reply when asked “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?”, “Because it’s there”, I ask, “Why would vegetarians go to Peshawri?? The answer, “Because they can.” In the last 20 years, beef was banned around the country. Bacon became a bad word. Mutton was denounced. Pork was for, well, pigs. And even the humble egg was blamed for all the high cholesterol in the country.
Many areas, especially in Mumbai, became purely and proudly vegetarian to an extent that it became impossible for a meat eater to buy a flat in those areas and restaurants in those localities that had non-vegetarian food on their menu were forced (sometimes aggressively) to down their shutters. Bombay became Mumbai in 1995 and in my head, that’s when all these changes began. This move towards a more vegetarian society was echoed strongly on the other side of the globe when, in 2019, an American company that produced plant-based meat substitutes, listed on the NASDAQ and saw its share price surge by a massive 163 per cent above its IPO price, making it the best performing first-day IPO in nearly two decades. The company I am referring to, is of course Beyond Meat (BYND), and the current valuation of the company is a staggering Riyaaz Amlani’s Smokehouse Café’s in Delhi and then in Mumbai, Manish Mehrotra’s award winning Indian Accent, The Bombay Canteen and a whole host of others.
Eating out became less formal, more fun and was no longer restricted to special occasions. Young, aspirational India who had so far been starved of options that reflected their reality took to these new standalones like moths to a flame. We couldn’t get enough of these restaurants and we couldn’t go out enough. Gone was the dependence on five-star dining rooms. No more dark and dreary Mughlai restaurants. And banish the memories of Chicken a la Kiev. Food became light, bright, healthy and even playful. Eating out is now a celebration of life. There are now more options at every possible price point and new restaurants open all over the country every single day. With food becoming a multi-billiondollar business, the next decade will see restaurants owned or backed by large international conglomerates, private equity players or VCs and not by trailblazing chef-entrepreneurs like Akerkar and Dalmia. The focus will primarily be healthier and more vegetarian options. Gut health and the provenance of produce will drive menus. Restaurants serving hyper-regional food will have their time in the sun. And the aim will be for each restaurant to be replicated as a chain around the country and eventually abroad.
As far as food trends go, the next 10 years will see a crystallisation of all we have seen in the last twenty years with one small addition – In the West (definitely not in India) CBD or cannabidiol will find its way into edibles and one CBD product will make its way to the next big billiondollar IPO. Besides that, the writing is on the wall in beetroot juice – ‘vegetarians will rule the world’ (or at least the food and restaurant world). Organic and free range will no longer be enough, people will care about carbon footprint, seed variety and origin. Plant-based meat substitutes will continue to be the big money spinners. Sober socialising will lead to the rise of new and inventive mocktails. And meat-eating, alcohol-consuming people like me, will be the new dinosaurs.