BEFORE THE PANDEMIC, the hardest decision 30-somethings Tanvi and Samartha Das made all day was what they would eat for dinner. IT professionals, they love their maccher jhol and chicken tikka masala but should you ask them to whip up a curry, they would flail about in their spotless white kitchen in Nerul, Mumbai. An elderly Odia cook made breakfast and lunch, and they ate out most nights, with the exception of takeouts during football season. When the country went into lockdown in March 2020, the duo survived on khichdi, fried eggs and Maggi for a week before they fell into another pattern—Swiggying every meal. Between the limited options in the neighbourhood and concerns about safety and hygiene, it wasn’t long before they fell sick, and not just with worry. “My gut was trashed and it forced us to ask ourselves, how hard could it be to put a tasty, healthy meal on the table? Who knew that all it took was pre-prepped cuts of meat, some Instagram inspiration and ready-to-cook curry bases that did not taste like something out of a packet?” says Tanvi. The couple now wears the turmeric stains and the scratches on the countertop as badges of honour. They fire up the stove every day, and often cook out of a packet—from Amritsari mutton to mustard prawns and paneer jhalfrezi—adding their own tadkas and heresies such as a spoon of bacon jam, fried garlic, and even Szechuan sauce as an incidental pleasure. “Cooking can be a calming ritual when you take away the eyeballing and reduce the time and effort to a fraction of what a regular recipe calls for,” Tanvi says. In other words, a dish that takes more than 20 minutes to put together is a specious argument for everyday cooking. “We hope to level up. I have just started reading Krish Ashok’s Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking to understand the basic chemistry of cooking and we are midway through the Netflix documentary series based on Samin Nosrat’s amazing book Salt Fat Acid Heat. It’s like the gates to foodie paradise have suddenly opened for us.”
While the pandemic has ensured that millennials who drew a blank in the kitchen are today decidedly less harrowed by bad food, some of the credit for this seismic shift must go to homegrown brands that have made Instagrammable dishes accessible to them in easy-to-cook packs. If recipes are open-source toolkits for creative cooking, then a semi-cooked biryani kit that takes 15 minutes to assemble is like an app that eliminates free speculation and delivers quick results each time. According to online grocer Bigbasket, the ready-to-cook category has grown to three times what it was in 2019-2020. Bigbasket’s own three-year-old inhouse label, HappyChef, is equally an attempt to demystify gourmet food for home chefs and a nudge to get the uninitiated to make fresh food without fuss. “From cake mixes and Asian and pasta sauces and marinades to meal kits for making popular restaurant foods like Thai curry, paneer butter masala and stir fries at home, we have seen tremendous traction for HappyChef,” says Seshu Kumar Tirumala, national head, buying and merchandising, Bigbasket. Millennials, he says, tend to look for variety while being conscious of the ingredients, how the product fares on the health scale and how long it takes to cook.
“Millennials read labels. They know E621 is industry speak for MSG. Direct-to-consumer food brands now have to be clean-label to earn their acceptance,” says Sidhanth Madan, the 31-year-old cofounder of Masterchow, a label of mostly Asian preservative and GMO-free sauces and kits that spun off a chain of restaurants in Delhi. These restaurants had to be shut down during the lockdown (one branch of Wok Me survives as a cloud kitchen in Greater Kailash). “Some of our customers even ask about our carbon footprint,” Madan says. Madan and his partner Vidur Kataria, 30, have been able to plug into food and culture trends from social media and OTT platforms to deliver hits like the Kinky Korean and the Tokyo Drift sauces, and a savoury bean jam. Being close to the customer has meant answering SOS calls at 11PM on making sticky rice and launching products such as a ramen kit inspired by how people cook with their products. “What has worked for us is that we stay true to the original flavour while using fresh, local ingredients. We launched last June and sold only in Delhi through our website until December. Since we went pan-India, our orders have shot up to 4,500 a month, over half of them on Amazon. We are growing at over 20 per cent month-on-month, and we are setting up a 7,000-sqft unit with a capacity of 90,000 bottles a month,” Madan says.
While Masterchow targets the young cook between 21 and 35, there is a good chance their family’s first tryst with clean, preservative-free packaged food was an iD Fresh Food idli batter or Malabar parota. Among the first movers in the organised batter market, the Bengaluru-based company, which now finds itself in the midst of a fake communally charged controversy about its ingredients, is a category creator with annual revenues of Rs 400 crore. “Our narrative of prioritising healthy, fresh, traditional food cooked at home has been adopted by a lot of brands, and this goes to show that serving the values you believe in need not impact your topline,” says Rahul Gandhi, CMO, iD Fresh Food. Gandhi estimates the organised Indian ready-to-cook market to be between Rs 1,500-2,000 crore. “The batter business alone is Rs 4,000 crore but most of it remains unorganised.” iD’s India business grew 50 per cent last year, partly thanks to pandemic tailwinds and millennial-led ecommerce. With its Malabar parota and packaged instant filter coffee decoction emerging as hot products among millennials, there are other “fun” launches in the works, Gandhi says. “Millennials are experimentative and drawn to fun recipes we have on the website. They make dhoklas out of idli batter, use our decoction to make cold brews, and pair our parota with everyday gravies they can whip up easily. Whether we are adding convenience to a housewife’s life or helping young people eat healthy, the last touch is important to us. We want you to serve homemade meals. We don’t want to take that credit away from you. So, while we may do a ready-to-eat chutney if there is demand for it, we will continue to focus on a range of products that allow you to add your own signature.”
In an Indian kitchen there is pride even in assembly, and ready-to-cook easily trumps ready-to-eat, argues Siddharth Ramasubramanian, who is trying to make vegan super bean protein cubes a versatile staple in the Indian kitchen. Bengaluru-based Hello Tempayy ferments soybeans into a nutritionally rich plant-based protein that comes in four variants, including unflavoured, Indian masala and Asian-inspired options. “Consumers have made it their own pretty quickly, cooking up everything from stir fries and kathi rolls to puliodarai, Bolognese, pav bhaji and paratha,” says Ramasubramanian. “The same person will often pick the plain tempayy to marinate for an hour for a weekend lunch and a pre-flavoured pack to quickly toss together with rice for a weeknight stir fry.” The idea is to not hold them hostage to preconceived tastes, he says. “Our Sriracha tempayy is mild enough that you can spice it up a little more, for instance. We want to give customers that play. And we are clear that we should not sacrifice the simplicity of what food is, so everything mentioned in the recipe on our packs should be available at a grocery store.” There are plans for more flavours and a wider distribution network.
he best cooking aids allow you to do as little and as much as you want with them. “The one thing that people of all ages are looking for is to put interesting food on the table, day after day,” says Rinka Banerjee, cofounder, Tasty Tales, a Bengaluru-based naturally preserved packaged curry pastes startup. With packaged food emerging as a safer alternative to food deliveries at the height of the pandemic, the stigma associated with ready-to-cook has all but vanished, says Banerjee, who also runs a food and nutrition consultancy. Tasty Tales has seen an exponential hike in revenues in the past year, especially with protein-agnostic products like the Chettinad Chukka and the Mangalorean Ghee Roast. “We did launch a Bengali kheer, but we will continue to focus on centre-of-plate products that allow room for creative expression while not compromising on convenience.”
To a generation less obsessed with its predecessors’ affected authenticity and narrow boundaries of taste, peerless cooking chops and knife skills do not matter as much as the idea of a home-finished meal with sensibility and substance. “You could say we are in a twisted golden age of home cooking,” says Arjun Rastogi of Naagin, India’s own two-year-old hot sauce brand that sold 1.5 lakh bottles this year. While a lot of young people already prefer a squirt of Naagin over a spot of achaar on their dal rice, the sauces—they have three variants, the Original, the Kanthari, and the Bhoot, showcasing unique Indian chillies—are more than a condiment du jour, Rastogi says; they are also becoming go-to flavour-adds with clean ingredients for those who “don’t know what to do with the masala dabba anymore”. “We have seen more marinades, stir fries and noodle and rice dishes than we would have thought possible, and there is yet a lot of room to grow as young people increasingly move out and start living on their own.”
The pandemic was also a time when the world took to baking to gain a sense of control over the uncertainties surrounding them. “While seasoned bakers took to baking as therapy, there were people who wanted to try baking but didn’t even own measuring cups. I wanted to give them premixes to make patisserie-style cakes at home,” says Pooja Dhingra, a pastry chef who runs the Mumbai-based bakery chain Le15. Launched last September, Le15’s cake mixes take all of two minutes to bake in a microwave and clearly spell out the ingredients. Some come with moulds and a glaze to pour on top. What’s not to like about convenience packaged with a secret sauce to level up the final dish?
“The secret to good Indian food is good spices, and how many of us actually care about the quality and the freshness of the spices we buy?” argues Elton Fernandes, 33. Co-founder of the Pune-based curry paste and ready tadka brand EL the Cook, Fernandes sources spices from all over India to make vindaloo, Thai and massaman curry pastes, but his USP is his tadka for curd rice, rogan josh, dal and khichdi. “A paste is easy but you can only use the best spices for a tadka–the curry leaf stems cannot go into it, nor can a blackened bayleaf. To do this at scale was challenging, and it has found favour among older people as well as millennials. We are looking at scaling up exports because wherever there are Indians, they need their fresh spices, and what better way of preserving them than in a natural oil-based tadka they can simply top their dish with?”
While horeca (hotel, restaurant and café) may bring volumes initially, direct-to-consumer (D2C) is the way to go for indie food brands that want to create a category within ready-to-cook, says Sairaj Dhond, founder, Wakao Foods. The Goa-based startup, which supplies to Hilton hotels and other food and hospitality establishments, wants to be synonymous with raw jack meat. “We have taken a superfood that grows in our backyards and eliminated the hard work of processing it by turning it into easy-to-cook portions that you can buy in various forms depending on your skill level in the kitchen. Our burger patty is very popular with young people, and it is mildly spiced, allowing you to play with it. In fact, our butterjack, which mimics butter chicken, is great toasted and filled in a sandwich,” says Dhond, who trained as a criminal lawyer. In just eight months, Wakao is clocking between one and two tonnes in sales in a month, with the share of D2C currently at 40 per cent of the business. The products are retort-packaged and not frozen, and come with recipes and instruction cards.
Back in 1989, when a Bengaluru-based poultry company launched a range of value-added frozen products like nuggets and patties, cold chain infrastructure was practically non-existent. Relaunched as a completely-cooked-and-blast-frozen range of packaged food in 2005, Nandu’s once again found the market was not ready for its products. “The Indian consumer was not yet comfortable with cutting open a frozen pack, heating it and calling it food,” says Narendra K Pasuparthy, the 48-year-old CEO and founder of Nandu’s. In 2016, when he once again re-launched the brand, a generational shift had taken place and young people were seeking out ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat frozen foods. Besides fresh cuts of chicken, the brand launched value-added foods including cold cuts, sausages and patties in 2017—a category that has been growing at 15-17 per cent year-on-year. “Our biryani has been well received because we took a complex product and made it easy while having the consumer participate in it. The gravy with the protein is semi-cooked and blast-frozen, and is packaged in a kit with salan and rice that you have to cook and assemble.” The thoroughly modern path of the home cook is paved with a hundred conveniences to set them up for success, at once gastronomic and Instagrammable.