Their bouquet of offerings covers the essentials for Indian cooking, from Laajawaab Paneer Masala and Masaledar Meat Masala to Zaiqedaar Chicken Masala. Under the mentorship of the master chefs of ITC Hotels, each spice has been blended in the approximations that bring the distinct flavour to the food served at ITC’s famous restaurants.
Nestled in a corner of the large ITC Maurya lobby is a little store, Nutmeg. On the outside, it looks like a little patisserie, the kind that is found all too often in hotels, with its donuts, pastries and breads. But Nutmeg has a little more. Once you stroll in there, you see exactly what that is. I once worked very closely with a chef who had been part of the first team that worked on prepackaged ITC food—remember the stir Dal Bukhara in the cans caused over a-decade-and-a-half ago? He was one of the people behind that innovation. Although canned food and microwave dinners were quite common elsewhere, they were yet to permeate the Indian market. Furthermore, a five-star luxury dining experience bringing its signature dishes to the mass market was viewed with some consternation. Was this “democratisation” required?
Since the launch of ready-to-eat signature dishes like Chettinad Chicken (from the famed Dakshin) and Dal Bukhara, ITC Foods has directed its sights on the Rs 13,000-crore spice market. Their bouquet of offerings covers the essentials for Indian cooking, from Laajawaab Paneer Masala and Masaledar Meat Masala to Zaiqedaar Chicken Masala. Under the mentorship of the master chefs of ITC Hotels, each spice has been blended in the approximations that bring the distinct flavour to the food served at ITC’s famous restaurants. So whether you open a packet and heat the contents (Aashirwad) or use the spices in your own recipes, ITC Foods is determined to bring five-star flavour to the home kitchen and chef at an affordable price. The pricing is competitive as well. For example, the Chettinad Chicken (Dakshin) ready-to-eat meal is priced at only Rs 160, cheaper than a pizza. The spices are priced at Rs 50 and Rs 90, respectively, for a 50 g and 100 g packet. Furthermore, pushing the envelope on the fight against the rampant use of pesticides, the spices have been subjected to 470 tests that adhere to European standards and make them fit for human consumption. It might also be worth mentioning that having dined at both Dakshin and tasted the Aashirwad brand of chettinad chicken, the flavour profile is remarkably similar—and it’s not heavy on the pocket.
When I started out in hospitality, concepts such as local farming and vendor development were starting to get traction with five-star hotel chains. Tired of the run to the airport, import hassles and the general runaround that was involved in accessing premium ingredients for quality food production, the larger hospitality chains had taken to developing local vendors, who could, with the right investment and intervention, deliver the same quality as was being imported. It was a long-term plan and required patience during the necessary transition. At Oberoi Hotels, the delicatessen, which offered premium-quality cold meats and was a favourite of expats and knowledgeable gourmands in the capital, was an early starter on this course, sourcing closely from a local “farm”.
ITC, with its multi-pronged approach to business and deep pockets, has dived into the frozen foods segment with the ITC Master Chef Prawns—a clever strategy that leverages its Master Chef brand with its agri business division. These export-quality prawns that have made their way to over 60 countries around the world, are used in ITC kitchens as well, including at Dum Pukht, Bukhara and others, as the chefs tell me—the old Indian axiom of ‘Halwai kabhi apni mithai nahin khata’ not holding true! However, the high-end prawn business has its limitations as of now in India. Most seafood sale is unpackaged and has been pegged at Rs 7,700 crore. The frozen prawn segment is a mere Rs 300 crore. The challenge ahead for ITC is to create a whole new segment that can cash in on the domestic and international demand for prawns. As with ready-to-eat, spices and frozen meats segments, the ITC Master Chef brand will need to leverage its reputation in cuisine with stringent global standards and affordability to create a new segment for its line of taste. Is it up for it? Going by the taste profile of what it offers, it certainly has what it takes.
Advaita Kala is a writer, most recently of the film Kahaani.
She is also a former hotelier having worked in restaurants in India and abroad