India‘s Gourmet Story – Just a flash in the pan?

“What wouldn’t we give for
That extra bit more
That’s all we live for
Why should we be fated to do
Nothing but rude food
Magical food,
Wonderful food,
Heavenly food,
Beautiful food,
Food, Glooorrriiiooouuusss Fooooood!”

– “Oliver!” by Lionel Bart


Friday evening diners at Masala Library, one of Mumbai’s premier restaurants, don’t have to wait in line. Instead, they have to have booked their table at least a month in advance. The situation is similar across the country’s finest restaurants and reflects broader shifts in our lifestyle, and eating habits.

The word ‘gourmet’ is derived from the French term for a wine broker. The eighteenth-century Dictionnaire de Trévoux declared that a ‘good’ gourmet must have “le goût friend” – a refined palate. In the time since, the term has come to encompass not just European cuisine (and, in particular, Classical French cuisine), but any dish prepared with an authentic recipe or a novel food with high-quality ingredients. Moreover, it now also covers not only the dish and its ingredients, but also the preparation process – traditional methods and the new ones like Molecular Gastronomy and Sous Vide cooking, made popular by Chefs such as Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal.

However, the term ‘gourmet food’ is yet to be widely associated with Indian foods produced in the country, (there are some Michelin Star Restaurants serving Indian or India-inspired cuisine overseas) and thus this article speaks only of gourmet food that is international in its recipe or ingredients.

It is largely in the last ten years that gourmet food has emerged as an attractive category for consumers and businesses in India. The expected twenty percent compounded annual growth rates will make it a nearly three billion dollar industry by 2016. Once available only in speciality restaurants, gourmet food is now also available in cafés, casual eateries, and retail stores. Retailers have particularly prospered in the last five years, evidenced by their surge in numbers, and online retail stores have also entered the fold. The success of Nature’s Basket forced Godrej to spin it off into a different company.

A key driver for growth is increasing health and nutrition awareness. The early 2000s saw doctors recommend olive oil as a heart-friendly alternative to traditional cooking oils, and once olive oil got into the kitchen, other ingredients that were traditional to foods based on Mediterranean cuisine followed. Pasta, pizza, and noodles became staples in many homes. Stringent international certifications have also helped speed up the acceptance process. There is also a growing appeal for imported organic products. Pseudocereals such as quinoa and amaranth, for instance, command a high price from their consumers today. While quinoa comes from Peru, amaranth was once a part of the staple diet of the poorer sections of Indian society.

At the same time, speciality restaurant chefs brought in from across the globe began experimenting with ingredients to produce a broad range of traditional as well as novel foods – starting with the ubiquitous pizza and pasta and moving to a higher level by using different varieties of flour, herbs, and cheese. Popular TV cooking shows and increasing overseas travel encouraged India’s rising expatriate population and young professionals to develop a capacity to experiment, challenging food suppliers and chefs constantly. Rising incomes and a burgeoning, aspirational middle class also drove increased consumption. The higher income groups moved from consuming traditional Indian food (and the Indian version of Chinese food) to experimenting with Italian, Mexican, Japanese, Thai and other cuisines. Specialised products such as Porcini mushrooms, exclusive Belgian chocolate, artisanal bread and rare Swiss truffles have now become standard demands. The imported, gourmet cheese market in India is growing at a compounded annual rate of thirty percent per annum.

Credit must also be given to the first few enthusiastic importers who placed food once thought of as ‘exotic’ on the shelves based more on gut feel than any market survey. Retailers such as Godrej Nature’s Basket, FoodHall widened the market and brought gourmet delights within the reach of consumers in most metro cities. E-commerce giant Amazon’s recent decision to stock gourmet food products will serve even more consumers, offering wider reach, easier shopping, and better prices.

Relaxation of FDI norms will attract even more investors and brands. Major players such as Metro, Carrefour and Bharti-Walmart have already laid the groundwork for a strong presence. Existing retailers will look to consolidate stores in existing markets and seek new, untapped markets.

Unfortunately, this trend of internationalisation of food in India has almost come to a halt in the last two years, due to changing legislation and currency fluctuations. Archaic food safety laws, enforced by the Food Standards and Safety Authority of India (FSSAI) have negatively impacted the availability of products in the market. Hundreds of importers have suffered, and thousands of crores of fine foods have been rejected for the flimsiest of reasons – none of which make the food unsafe. It is no longer feasible to import many products that had been imported for many years. Renowned brands such as Lindt Chocolates have stopped supply. Introduction of new products carries a prohibitive cost and thus the market is stagnating.


Imports of Olive oil in Metric Tons reduced by 10 percent in 2012-13

Procurement of imported food is also greatly affected by fluctuations in currency. 2012-13 saw the rupee rapidly depreciate, and this caused a significant increase in total costs to the consumer. Total food imports declined at the rate of 11.5 per cent year-on-year.

One of the possible upsides to curtailed imports is an increased focus on the delicacies India has to offer. Once the quality and authenticity of special Indian-origin foods are established, they will surely make their mark on the global gourmet scene.

Demand and supply have constantly challenged each other in the context of the Indian gourmet food industry. While long-term fundamentals of a large, young population with increasing disposable income remain, until the FSSAI modernises their standards and aligns them with international norms, food imports will continue to suffer, and consumers will be denied their choice.


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Anmol is a second year student at IIM Ahmedabad. A Dr. Homi Bhabha Young Scientist Gold Medalist, he won the national Young Innovator’s Choice Competition – Industry Defined Problem event. He holds a Degree in Food Engineering from the Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai, and completed his summer internship with Rabobank International.