The new main course: Our plates in 2023 will look a whole lot greener | The Financial Express

The new main course: Our plates in 2023 will look a whole lot greener

Prime retail destination Khan Market in the heart of the national capital has a pure vegetarian pan-Asian restaurant.

lifestyle. lifestyle news
The trend of local and seasonal ingredients has been gaining ground for about a decade now.

Prime retail destination Khan Market in the heart of the national capital has a pure vegetarian pan-Asian restaurant. Tier-II cities in India have dedicated vegan and gluten free restaurants. Plant-based meat alternative brands are mushrooming faster than, well, mushrooms. KFC, a brand with chicken in its name, has special teams to develop plant-based foods globally. Others like McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Nestle are following the same path. Vegetarianism the world over has grown by around 300% in a decade. The global plant-based food market by the end of the decade will be five times than what it was in 2020. Beverage contests have special awards for vegan drinks. Even dating sites today have veganism and sustainability as criteria for finding a suitable mate.

If going green is the need of the hour, many are preferring to begin from their plates—whether for their own health, or for the health of the planet.

People sitting at dining table and eating

The vegetarian movement began from the West. Traditional meat-eating countries woke up first to the ill effects of a meat-based diet, only to discover the benefits of vegetarianism as a consequence. The vegan movement was largely driven by climate activists, who put forth alarming data involving the meat industry and advocated a switch to plant-based food. As a result, today, we have mock meats, mock fish, plant butters, plant milks, plant cheese, egg replacers, and more.

In India, traditional diets are high on seasonal vegetarian produce and lentils, but not insulated from global food trends, with the largest impact on restaurants and the processed food industry.

Also read: Coronavirus: Check country-wise restrictions on travellers

As Himanshu Taneja, culinary director, south Asia, Marriott International, says, “Our menus across all Marriott properties are 50% vegetarian, and 30% vegan.” This, he says, is in keeping with current times, and a result of both customer demand and the brand’s own push for sustainability. In 2023, he says Marriott will include plant-based stations in all of its buffets. Director of culinary operations at Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi, Arun Sundararaj feels the vegan tribe is just increasing, adding, “Veganism gels with sustainability and other popular trends of low calorie and low protein diets, so it will remain popular.”

Fresh raw greens, unprocessed vegetables and grains over light grey marble kitchen countertop, wtite plate in center, top view, copy space. Healthy, clean eating, vegan, detox, dieting food concept

When a completely vegetarian restaurant opens in a north Indian city, that too at a location with the steepest rentals, it speaks volumes about a changed customer. Offering pan-Asian cuisine at Green Mantis in Delhi’s Khan Market, Sahil Garg with his two partners is seeing such a positive response after a year of opening that they now plan to open up in Mumbai and Jaipur to begin with, besides looking at another outlet in Gurugram. “Vegetarianism is a bigger rage now than when we opened a year back. We have a lot of foreigners also coming in, and repeat customers are aplenty,” says Garg.

The changed palate is not restricted to metros. Chandigarh has two restaurants outside of five-star hotels that offer gluten-free food without contamination, one of them a dedicated gluten-free place. Goa has a completely vegetarian and gluten-free bakehouse and cafe in Fontainhas. Pune has several restaurants that offer a variety of vegan and gluten-free food. Jaipur has vegetarian and gluten-free cloud kitchens that deliver fresh food and bakery to your location.

Says chef Shivani, a Le Cordon Bleu London graduate who runs Gourmestan, a vegetarian and gluten-free boulangerie, patisserie and fromagerie that has cloud kitchens in Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Chennai and Gurugram, besides a cafe in Goa, “My idea was that people should eat fresh, healthy and to their heart’s content without worrying about any harmful effects food could have.” Cooking with millets, her bakehouse uses no preservatives, emulsifiers or refined sugar, focusing on flavour and quality at the expense of shelf life. Currently based in Dubai, she is looking to expand in Indian cities and the Gulf market with her brand. Next on her menu: vegan ice creams.

A global taste

Cooking in Brussels, Yves Mattagne, owner and chef of two-Michelin star restaurant La Villa Lorraine, speaks for the industry on what is a global trend: “Veganism is big and everyone is demanding vegan food. So is vegetarianism. A lot of meat eaters are turning veg and demanding plant-based options. Alternatives are much in demand.”

Chef Gary Mehigan, former judge of Masterchef Australia, in Delhi for the Rendezvous series by IHCL, adds that restaurants the world over can no longer be excused for serving bland vegetarian or vegan food as plant-based dining is big. In this aspect, he says, “The world could learn a lot from India, which has several plant-based options high on flavour.”

“The new wave of veganism can be attributed in part to a growing awareness of the perceived wrongs in dairy farming in particular, both its role in contributing to climate change and its questionable ethics. New political awareness has prompted many to go beyond vegetarianism and reject animal products completely,” says Sujoy Gupta, executive chef at St James’ Court, a Taj hotel, London.

In California, food influencer and restaurant owner Nikhil Merchant points out that while veganism might be niche yet rampant, vegetarianism is picking up steam in leaps and bounds. “California is blessed with great produce and also has access to seasonal imports from bordering countries. Restaurant menus are increasingly catering to all sorts of diets with special emphasis on locally sourced produce which includes a host of vegetables and plant-based foods, grains and nuts—targeting the meat eaters to also enjoy the wide bouquet of vegetarian offerings. If you look at aisles in grocery stores, too, one can find many seasonal vegetables which are promoted for special prices and quality, appealing to the customer to make that purchase.” He points how not only are menus of restaurants offering plant-based and alternative foods, but also chains and fast food restaurants. “Panda Express, a popular Asian fast food chain in California, recently introduced a plant-based version of their highly popular orange chicken and also replaced rice with quinoa in their fried rice. When large volume food outlets start using ancient grains and plant-based alternatives, you know these are in big demand. It’s a trend not only here to stay, but also change the way people eat and order food.”

At the Taj Exotica, The Palm, Dubai, executive chef Sonu Koithara agrees that demand for vegetarianism is high even in a place like Dubai. “People are socially conscious and planet-loving. So, demand for vegetarian and vegan food is only going to increase.” He adds how he is now offering plant-based meat and fish flavours in his menus, with 10-15% of the menu devoted to plant-based alternatives.

Sustainable or not

Even as the market for plant-based products is booming—the Indian industry currently valued around Rs 350 crore is expected to grow at over 45% CAGR till 2030, as per Deloitte India, with more than 50 startups already active in the space—the essential question is: will the interest in plant-based alternatives sustain after the initial novelty wears off? As chef Taneja of Marriott points out: “Most plant-based alternatives in India still have to catch up to global standards. The taste and quality need to be far better. Moreover, veganism in India is still more of a fashion than a conscious effort to save the planet. Dairy and its derivatives like milk and ghee are intrinsic to the Indian lifestyle, finding place in rituals and practices like ayurveda. It will take decades to change these habits for more sustainable ones, but a beginning has surely been made.”

Chef Koithara of Taj Dubai feels veganism as a hype is amplified by vendors and manufacturers. Advocating a turn toward more natural plant-based foods, he says, “How long will people maintain an interest in processed meat alternatives remains to be seen, as most of them don’t really taste as good as natural ingredients. People also need to realise that these factory-made alternatives are not as healthy as natural produce.”

The real alternatives

Plant-based meat alternatives might be less polluting than meat, but there exist sources of protein that need no land or water to grow. The answer of future foods might lie in ingredients like seaweed. Already an intrinsic part of several cuisines like South Korean and Japanese, seaweed has been used as food for centuries. Popular seaweed kelp is a part of nouveau cuisine in many restaurants the world over, finding use in sushi and even burgers. Seaweeds are also perceived to be superfoods due to their high nutrition content, besides being a sustainable food source. Extensive study, however, needs to be done on seaweed’s allergenicity and potential for toxins like heavy metals.

More than that, ingredients like seaweed need a push from the industry in branding and marketing to make them as popular as plant-based alternatives flooding the market right now. But whatever direction our diets take, the path is definitely a green one, with natural ingredients that are high on sustainability likely to be the main course.


Fresh and flavourful

The trend of local and seasonal ingredients has been gaining ground for about a decade now. This implies not just a demand for fresh food, but also a reduced carbon footprint. Chefs the world over are making a conscious effort to include fresh produce that is sourced locally, even growing some of the ingredients themselves. As Gary Mehigan says, “Lots of fresh and seasonal food, keeping it local, lots of spice and umami will continue to become more regular staples in all our weekly meal repertoire. There is a time and place for every cuisine, but fresh, seasonal and local is key. People are also loving getting back to making flavour king, rather than fancy gels and smears and foams. There is always the need for chefs to push boundaries, and it is important to develop new trends, but flavour always has to be the hero.”

Allergen diktat

Food allergies have always been around, but people are much more mindful of them now, thanks mainly to better medical and health awareness. The eight main food allergens have been identified as milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybean. Today, every fine-dining establishment has a detailed list of allergens next to every dish and it is far easier to eat out with food allergies than it was earlier. This has also led to menus that are more encompassing of diners with allergies. At all five-star hotels, staff are rigorously trained to cook with allergies in mind, with separate cooking stations, sanitised kitchens and separate equipment. As chef Sujoy Gupta of St James’ Court, London, says, “Chefs are more ingredient-led than they used to be. The amount of ingredients that can be used is so vast now that making good food out of the safe ones is not a problem. You just need to make a knowledgeable choice and be aware of the alternatives.” Chef Sundararaj explains how at all Taj hotels, regular audits take place to test chefs on allergen awareness and all processes from vendors to sourcing to storage and cooking are followed to give diners food safe for them. Yves Mattagne of La Villa Lorraine in Brussels, in Delhi for a Rendezvous by Taj Hotels, however, admits that food allergies are changing the way chefs cook, and how kitchens operate.

Health first

The pandemic changed the way we live, and the effects will continue for some years at least. “Ingredient-based food that is high on flavour is popular. As people eat out more than before, we as custodians of food need to consciously cut calories in our menus and put out food that is more healthy and fresh,” says Arun Sundararaj of Taj Hotels. This philosophy drives people like Shivani of Gourmestan who shuns refined products and preservatives and wants people to eat “without tension”. At Marriott, chef Taneja is seeing a shift away from heavy sauces and gravies toward lighter dishes and cuisines like Nikkei that are high on flavour and freshness.

Also read: Check-in-systems to be modified for travellers from China, 5 other countries; Check details

Share more, waste less

Buffets might be still popular in India given the value-conscious customer, but globally, buffets are on their way out. This has been accelerated after the pandemic as both the industry and customers are far more conscious of food wastage and the pressure it puts on the planet. Chef Mehigan puts it quite rightly when he says, “I think the end of buffets has a lot to do with Covid, and also food costs. The wastage on a buffet for a restaurant or hotel can be high, and difficult to manage, so it’s a bit of both.” He adds how post-pandemic, shared plates are increasingly popular as it’s a great way to get people talking and engaging. Chef Koithara in Dubai adds how live stations are getting popular, as it ensures that food is not only fresh but also customised. “People want to taste more but eat less,” points out chef Sundararaj. Chef Taneja of Marriott adds that they are trying to do away with buffets, and at Marriott resorts, lunch buffets have been done away with altogether to minimise food waste.

Get live Share Market updates and latest India News and business news on Financial Express. Download Financial Express App for latest business news.

First published on: 01-01-2023 at 01:00 IST