When Sonia Gandhi’s critics said ‘Congress party ka ek hi raasta, bolo Italian, khao pasta’, little did they know that they were forecasting the preferences of the Indian palate. The National Restaurant Association of India (NRAI) released a report on 23 April—based on a survey conducted over a span of two years in 784 Indian cities—stating that 80-100 per cent respondents (in the six different age groups surveyed) listed Italian as their foreign cuisine of choice. Chinese food ranks second, preferred by 60-80 per cent in the same age groups.
“I think a population generally imbibes a foreign cuisine in three stages. There is the introduction, the fusion and then finally the drive towards authentic forms of the cuisine,” says Sameer Thakur, director of the Institute of Hotel Management at PCTE (Punjab College of Technical Education) Group of Institutes in Ludhiana.
This has been seen before with Chinese cuisine in India. According to journalist and food writer Vir Sanghvi, two forms of Chinese cuisine exist in India today. Authentic Chinese cuisine and what he calls the ‘Sino-Ludhianvi’ cuisine, India’s version of Chinese food. This came into existence in the 1970s, he says, with the opening of the restaurant Golden Dragon at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai.
Before this, he adds, Indians were generally used to third generation Chinese immigrants’ version of American-Chinese cuisine (think chop suey). Now, with increasing fine dining options, the desire for authentic Chinese is on the rise.
With Italian, the case is slightly different. Much has been said about the similarities between Indian and Italian cuisine, from carbohydrates (wheat/rice-pasta/rice) as the staple food to the highly flavoured sauces they prefer. It was in the 1990s that Italian cuisine invaded Indian restaurants in a big way. “I was with La Piazza (Regency Hotel, Delhi) at the time. It opened in 1995,” says Shailender Sobti, director of food & beverages at The Atrium, Faridabad. “The response was mindboggling. Within a few months, the restaurant was earning revenues of Rs 2-3 lakh per day.” Shiv Kumar Mehan, area director of Sarovar Hotels and Resorts, hotel chain, adds, “[Italian food] is a trendsetter that’s in sync with the emerging wine culture.As long as fine dining and lounges exist in India, so will Italian.” Like the spaghetti meatball monster, it’s forever.