Diwali is here, winter is just beginning and the lockdown has been lifted. You treat yourself with revenge; After all, you deserve it after nearly two years of desperation and a particularly dreary summer.
Indulgence comes in many avatars. It has always been. But being alert even when you indulge in it is suggestive. The tasty and healthy label has long been limited to homemade goodies, which is what tempts us this year when we’re dining out.
Fresh Kada, Gur & Sesame Ladu, Raji Uttapam, Channa Sprout. Focus on healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, and quality protein. Seasonal and local vegetables. This is not your mother feeding you healthy things, but an integral part of menus in leading hotel chains.
Anticipating food trends and customer requirements, chefs have taken to the drawing board during the pandemic to rework menus that balance sin and soul. Local, seasonal, fresh, alternative grains, plant-based foods, healthy fats — trends that were circulating even before the pandemic, have been pressed into service on such a scale that they are ubiquitous now.
Chef Arun Sundaraj, Director of Culinary Operations at Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi says, “People are coming out of the pandemic and many are wondering what I can get that is healthier and what makes me better. They are very aware of what they are eating and are more mindful. Any suggestion of a dish with healthy ingredients like Berries or millet will find it immediately. Even those who want to celebrate do so responsibly.”
Himanshu Taneja, culinary director of Marriott Hotels for South Asia notes: “There is a paradigm shift in what we have observed over the past 20 months. People have understood why health is so important. Even if they are immersed, they know when to hit the brakes. Being at home and eating at The house made them more disciplined in their diets.”
It’s no surprise that the Taj menu of the Qmin delivery app has a comprehensive “Innergise” section that offers vegetarian and healthy options such as detox drinks, millet, seasonal vegetables, fruits, and traditional desserts with unprocessed sugar.
Marriott has a menu of “Mood Diets” as part of its delivery options with ingredients that elevate mood and have a positive effect on both the body and the mind. These include fermented foods, foods rich in omega 3 and 6, seeds, nuts, and dark chocolate. For cocktails, they have a wide selection of non-alcoholic drinks, which do not contain alcohol but mimic the flavor of the original drink.
At Hyatt Andaz in Delhi, organic turmeric from Dehradun and local honey are an integral part of the 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 products are getting a big boost now,” he says. It’s like grandma’s kitchen has become commercialized.
Beyond hotel chains, restaurant brands are also speaking the new language. “Demand for healthy products is increasing as restaurants are getting busier too! Food delivery is very popular, but dining is increasing as people combine shopping with eating out. Lots of plant-based, sugar-free or naturally sweetened desserts are on demand. Customers are starting too. In asking about the source or origin of ingredients and locally sourced products are preferred these days,” shares Rohit Agarwal, Director of Lite Bite Foods, who owns the Punjab Grill and You Mee brands.
Zorawar Kalra, MD at Massive Restaurants, adds, “The pandemic has transformed consumer behavior. People are definitely becoming health conscious and want to know what they are eating. But at the same time, people have missed out. As the holiday season begins, we are seeing an uptick in footfall. People are excited to go out.”
His newest venture in Delhi, Louis Burger, offers indulgence by way of a gold foil burger and premium ingredients while also offering a vegan version.
For those who crave the maximum, indulgence has no better name than chocolate. A luxury chocolatier and confectioner, Mumbai-based Ether Chocolate, which serves pan-Indian products, remains unusually pure. Prateek Bakhtiani, Founder and Head Chef, Aether, says, “We see our product as an indulgence and make no compromises on the merit of this product. While we certainly look forward to trying more nutritional inclusion in the future, our product for now is chocolate as fun, sugar and everything. Thankfully. We have clients who share this approach.”
He plans to take his products to the next level with a smarter, more luxurious approach to the art chocolate industry.
Chef Sundaraj feels mindful eating and the focus will remain on health until the pandemic becomes a distant memory. For now, the indulgence is balanced by a penchant for quality ingredients. He strives to achieve dishes with high nutritional value, including vitamins, minerals, proteins and good carbohydrates.
Chef Vivek Rana, Executive Chef at The Claridges New Delhi, has included seasonal, gluten-free, vegetarian and keto dishes at Pickwick’s. Calorie count accompanies many luxurious vegetable dishes and ingredients.
The five-point formula works with Chef Taneja, which includes good protein, quality fats, complex carbs, more roughage and no processed sugar. “For example, we replace regular mashed potatoes with sweet potato mash. These changes result in a delicious, healthy food dish. People know this and demand it.”
Green, red, yellow, purple
They say all the colors of the rainbow. For a country with a large number of vegetarians doing exactly that, finding a great variety of options is rather difficult. Keep a regular bottle of paneer and mushrooms and some famous Indian preparations, there isn’t much to wow the plant. This is the gap that people like Aftab Seydou and his associates are looking to bridge. Serving Asian cuisine at their new venture Green Mantis in Delhi’s Khan Market, Sidhu is seeing a positive response, to the point where a vegan venue is already underway. In his kitchen at Green Mantis, there is Vietnamese, Malaysian, Chinese, Bhutanese and Thai food that is entirely plant-based. No fish oil or oyster sauce either, which has been replaced by vegetable versions. The opening of an all-vegan place in a northern Indian city, in a place with steep rents, speaks volumes about changing a client.
At the Marriott, Chef Taneja is big on plant proteins, incorporating them into many of his dishes across Asia. “We skip the obvious plant-based proteins like tofu and buy plant-based proteins from other sources, like pea protein, and a certain amount of plant-based protein is part of every menu,” he says. Marriott also has an Eat Well program, as part of which all properties build their own gardens and use fresh produce from there.
There has also been a flood of plant-based alternatives that can be used in both homes and restaurants. One such initiative, Wakao Foods, uses jackfruit as a meat substitute to serve up a range of dishes. Launched in October 2020, the brand is now sourcing pan-India, has ties with major hotel chains and plans to expand into Europe, Asia, Brazil and Canada in just a year. Sairaj Dhond, Founder and CEO says, “When we launched, people started moving towards mock meat or vegetarian meat globally and we predicted that India would soon follow that trend.”