Mushroom Risotto. Classic Shepherd’s Pie. Beef and Cheese Ravioli. Papa Renellas. Aglio Olio. Red Bean Quesadilla. These are a few options you could choose from at a homemade dinner cooked up by 13-year-old Shay Fernandes of Mumbai. A hardcore MasterChef fan, Fernandes was devastated when the Indian version of the show for children, Junior MasterChef Swaad Ke Ustaad, set the upper age limit for contestants as 12. “If only I had been a year younger,” Fernandes had fretted, remembers her cousin Janessa, 26, who lends a helping hand during the teenager’s culinary experiments.
The Fernandes cousins credit their taste for good food to their Goan lineage. “As a family, we all have great fun bonding over food–be it watching food shows or going out to dine,” says Janessa, who refers to celebrity chefs Nigella Lawson, Anthony Bourdain, Jamie Oliver and Ritu Dalmia by their first names, as if she has known them for long. But it is definitely not just vindaloo and sorpotel at home. “We experiment a lot and try out a few of the recipes we watch on TV, although they may never come out perfectly,” she says. “After all, Nigella herself asks each one to be their own guinea pig!”
Kay Kelly D’lyma, who hadn’t touched a ladle or knife till she was 22, can’t seem to agree more. It all started with one episode of MasterChef that her sister–a fan–forced her to watch. In no time D’lyma, who now has a one-year-old food blog called The Treat Truck, discovered that the process of cooking was as rewarding and enjoyable as eating.
Food-related TV programmes are spawning what has been referred to as “cooking cult” in the country, of which many youngsters like Fernandes and D’lyma belong to. With shows like MasterChef Australia (estimated 3 million viewers), Chak Le India (5.5 million viewers) and Khana Khazana (3.5 million viewers) topping the list, the middle-class Indian’s awareness about exotic cuisines of the world is widening. Nigella Lawson, Gordon Ramsay, Anthony Bourdain, Jamie Oliver and Donna Hay have become household names and Bavarian fillings, yuzus (Japanese lemon), French lavender, Valrhona chocolate and financiers (a type of French cake) have become every day dishes and ingredients used in the Indian kitchen.
What the west refers to as the “MasterChef effect” is happening in our country, too, where these shows are revolutionising the whole food industry, especially homecooking. The fact that we have three of our very own 24×7 channels dedicated to only food–Food Food, Zee Khana Khazana and Food First–is testimony to this. As journalist and food writer Vir Sanghvi puts it, “A food revolution is here. And TV is the medium of revolt.”
Many like Roxanne Bamboat, of thetinytaster.com, see this trend as a positive one. “It has changed the way we look at food and has helped in expanding our food vocabulary,” says Bamboat. “There is more acceptance for global cuisine as people are more aware and are ready to try anything and everything.” Chef Mitesh Rangras, of Bandra eatery Lemongrass, echoes her sentiment, but is quick to add that it is too soon to call it a revolution. “It is undoubtedly a positive change that every home can now boast of a rising home chef who is comfortable with at least a basic pasta or pizza–a far cry from even a few years ago,” he says. “But I feel this phenomenon is now restricted to the metros as most of these shows are in English. Thanks to channels like Food Food, with shows in Hindi, tier-2 cities are now being slowly exposed to cuisine from all over the world. I would call it more of an evolution.”
A look at the contestants of MasterChef India would give you an idea of the demographic that is taking to this trend. The oldest participant in the latest season of the show was in his early 40s. Zubin D’Souza, executive chef, Waterstones Hotel and Club, attributes this to the fairly rigid food habits of the older generation of Indians. “They do not like to deviate much from tried and tested Indian fare,” says D’Souza. Even ones who are ready to experiment with world cuisine prefer to retain that Indian touch in their food. The reason why we still get chikken tikka pizzas and aloo tikki subs at our restaurants. “Restaurants that serve Thai food normally stick to the curries and in Japanese food, only the diluted version survives,” he says. “Even Chinese cuisine, which is the most popular food in the world gets diluted, when it crosses our borders.”
However, this scene is steadily witnessing a change. Indians are no longer placing their bets solely on dine-outs, but getting their hands dirty trying to master different techniques and styles of cooking. There has been a sudden rise in the number of home bakers, hands-on cooking classes and cook along sessions with celebrity chefs. A simple meal at an Indian home can now have as many as ten courses. Celebrity Chef Rakhee Vaswani, founder of Palate Culinary Studio, says that Indians have always been very hospitable and love to entertain and impress our friends and family with food. “We find an increasing demand for our Sushi, Teppanyaki, Morrocan and French cooking classes for the same reason,” says Vaswani. “We have students as young as 12 years who can now make a whole Lebanese Mezze with the pita bread from scratch.”
It is quite heartening to see children, irrespective of their gender, aspiring to take up cooking as a profession. They are receiving all the required support from their new-age parents, who see it as an added feather to their child’s muti-talented hat. However, Rangras sees the increasing numbers of mini-chefs an outcome of necessity than interests. “Nowadays, with both parents working and a rising independent nature and upbringing, most children know how to do basic stuff at home and fend for themselves,” he says. “Parents, too, consider it a vital educational skill that needs to be acquired to make the child self sufficient, doubling up as a good hobby as well.” Agrees D’Souza who says that cooking is “a life skill like swimming, sewing and driving”.
A major problem these budding chefs face are sourcing the right ingredients. Most recipes shown on international and even Indian shows use highly expensive ingredients that may not be easily available in smaller cities or towns. Many of us cannot afford to import cheese or herbs to garnish our main course. Subroto Goswami, executive chef , The Lalit Mumbai, however, feels that it is just a matter of time. As tastes evolve and demand for them increases, prices will be eventually pushed down, he says. “What people do now is replace these expensive ingredients with cheaper ones that are locally available. But this doesn’t assure the same exotic taste promised by the original recipe,” he says. “Stores like Godrej Nature’s Basket, Food Hall, Trikaya and Gourmet Westside, which are doing well in metros, must expand their reach to smaller towns.”
For lucky ones like Bamboat, who reside in a posh Mumbai
suburb, the local bhajiwala (vegetable vendor) is the last stop. “They are all so enterprising that they keep everything from asparagus to kale to Chinese cabbage and even watercress or microgreens,” she says. “They might be a bit expensive but they aren’t unavailable.” Bamboat also lauds the efforts of food magazines like BBC Good Food that provide glossaries of the stores where you can pick up ingredients from.
Despite this trend that is fast catching up, very few of whom we spoke to for this story mentioned Indian food shows they watch. Most, including chefs, were quite impressed by international shows on TLC and Fox Traveller like Nigellisima, No Reservations, The Mind Of A Chef, Top Chef Masters and Barefoot Contessa, but felt that Indian shows have a lot of catching up to do. The only Indian shows that found a mention were those hosted by Ritu Dalmia on NDTV Good Times and Twist of Fate hosted by Vinit Bhatia.
It is not too hard to see why, if you have had a sneak peek at at least one episode of the Indian version of Junior MasterChef. The judges, Vikas Khanna, Kunal Kapoor and Chef Jolly, nudged 6-year-olds and 10-year-olds to narrate their ‘dukh-bhari-daastans’ of how their parents are street food vendors or how they are child labourers for the sole purpose of soaring TRPs. “Indian shows try to make up for their lack of good production skills and programming formats with loads of drama,” feels Vaswani. Bamboat has two diktats for show producers in the country: “Please stop Indianising everything. And stop adding paneer to everything!”
All said, Chinese (and Indian Chinese at that) remains the hot favourite among Indians. The Indian taste buds are adjusting to French, Italian and Japanese food, too. But the revolution will come a full circle only when other lesser known cuisines, like Peruvian and Korean, can sustain themselves. Cities like Delhi and Mumbai might have embarked on their journeys, but are still far from being a food hub like New York, where a standalone Brazilian restaurant have regular patrons. We have just started licking off the icing on the cake and it will take a while before we can dig our teeth to the real deal.