India has a rich diversity in its culture, and one part of that is the wide variety of foods. While in the era of globalisation, we are cherishing global foods, how much we have been able to make our own foods global? What could be possibly the five perfect Indian foods that have the right ingredients to go global?
In my travels across the world, the cuisines that I can term truly global are Chinese, Italian, French and American. They are available in all forms and shapes, from food carts to fast-food outlets, takeaways, roadside sit-outs to sit-down fine dining. Hot dogs, burgers, chowmein, pizzas and croissants are everywhere you look. Even in India they have become as well accepted as our local cuisine so much so that ‘paneer chowmein’ and ‘aloo tikki burger’ are preparations we boast of to the rest of the world. Leave aside food, we have adopted beverages from outside standing shoulder-to-shoulder with tea, coffee and ‘nimbu pani’.
In the 75th year of our independent identity, I ask myself a simple question whether there is any truly globalised Indian food item. Except for Darjeeling tea, I can think of none. Even that was made global by the British as they carried it to all parts of their colonial empire. And the chicken tikka masala was created by Indians in the UK and its popularity is confined there.
Quite frankly, over the last 75 years, we have made any conscious attempt to take certain Indian food items global. We do have Indian fine-dining restaurants [most of which are called ‘Taj Mahal’] catering only to the well-heeled. The Saravana Bhawans are very few. The Haldiram and Bikanerwala products are found only in the ‘Indian section’ in stores consumed mostly by the diaspora. The tinned rasgullas are best avoided. In short, most of the Indian food found across the world is consumed by us Indians. We have never made a serious attempt at taking Indian food across the world.
This is the best occasion to make a serious attempt at the same. We do have the India Tea Board that has done a terrific job of nurturing Indian tea of all varieties across the world. I am reminded of when it was once headed by Shri Jagdish Khattar [of Maruti Suzuki fame] and Ian Botham was a brand ambassador!
A similar initiative must be undertaken by every Indian embassy / high commission to actively promote Indian food for the man and women on the street. There are two activities that are most feasible –  start a chain of “Taste of India” food carts in each city that has an official representation and  organise the Indian Food Festival twice a year coinciding with our Republic and Independence Days.
Choose a few food and beverage items that best represent the rich diversity of India and make them available through the Taste of India chain. The six criteria which can be applied for deciding on the specific food items are:
- Dry in nature – no messing around allowing longer shelf life and ease of transportation
- On-the-go – easy to consume while walking and by just holding in one hand
- Variety – the food item has variants and iterations that cater to a wider palate
- Customisable – can be taken home and made part of local cuisine
- Symbolic of India – diverse and nuanced
- Healthy – the healthier the better for today’s generation
Keeping the above in mind, I can think of five food items that best represent all that is the land that is India.
This is the classic any time snack. Brought into India by seafarers from Oman, the samosa can certainly compete with other fast food while cutting out the ‘junk’. The varieties of samosa consumed within India offer a terrific product range due to the type of fillings. It is also very easy to make on the spot as we have the samosa flour ‘leaves’ and the filling as separate components. The cooking medium can be tailored to what works best in the specific place. And it can vary from being lightly fried to being deep-fried.
Another terrific snack that can come in various sizes and with accompanying ‘chutneys’ which can use local condiments and raw material. For those who prefer something healthier than samosa, it is the baked idli. The sambar can be offered too for those who wish to sit and eat. The World Idli Day on 30th March should be celebrated through idli festivals.
This is a truly unique food item that is totally underexposed to the western world. Coming to southern India through trade with Malaya and Sumatra, the paan reached north India much later brought in by traders from Burma and Cambodia. The variety of betel leaves and fillings makes it one of the best stimulants the world has known, from ‘saada’ to ‘sweet’. Our embassies can organise stand-alone “paan festivals” that can drive the locals crazy and spoilt for choice. The ease of making one encourages them to make paans at home too, ensuring a bit of India after each meal of theirs.
The ultimate appetiser and snack. Papad or ‘papadam’ finds its mention in the oldest Sanskrit texts implying that our ancestors surely believed in the snack and accompaniment being integral to wholesome meals. Every part of the country has its own variety of papad in terms of ingredients to shapes, from chickpeas, green gram and rice to potato and jackfruit and, from small and circular to conical. It has one of the widest of applications from the first course of a meal to a ‘masala’ version that goes with your evening drink. And it can be baked or fried as the end consumer wishes. Easy to carry in raw form, the papad has huge potential as a universal snack.
This is the Bengali’s contribution to the ‘famous five’ list here. While there are older references to the sweet in Bengali literature, the modern Sandesh, made of cottage cheese [called ‘chhana’ in Bengali] and sugar, finds its inspiration from the Portuguese who settled in Bandelalongside the river Hooghly in the 1550s. It is possibly one of the world’s most evolved desserts given its range, variations and subtleties in taste and aroma, right from the basic ‘sandeshmakha’ [simply kneaded type] to the ‘jol bhora’ [hard outer with liquid palm juice inside]. An array of sandesh displayed in a Bengali sweet shop completely disorients the brain on which to try and which to give a miss!
And what about the beverage? Beyond the obvious Darjeeling tea, there are two I can think of that are easy to make maintaining the highest standards of hygiene. To build an appetite you could offer a ‘jaljeera’ or as a finisher, you could suggest a ‘shikanji’.
The ‘jal-jeera’ gets the taste buds excited. The cumin [jeera] acts as a digestive along with the rock salt while the mint has a cooling effect. All in all, a perfect way to attack the samosas and sandesh!
The ‘shikanji’ or ‘shikanjvi’ is not a simple lemonade as many think. It is uniquely Indian as ingredients like cumin, saffron and ginger are crucial to providing the punchy taste of this lemon-based drink. Works very well to counter the spice in the samosa or papad.
I did think of the awesome ‘buttermilk’ or ‘chaas’ but then preparing it is a bit of a hassle and then many might not take it easily to yogurt products.
All this writing has got my juices working overtime. Hope someone in the Ministry of External Affairs reads this and gets into action. This just might be India’s biggest diplomatic coup, from the Great Wall to the Golden Gate!
Also Read: Breakfast tours! My experiences
(Avik Chattopadhyay is co-creator of Expereal India. Also, he is the former head of marketing, product planning, and PR at Volkswagen India. He was associated with Maruti Suzuki, Apollo Tyres, and Groupe PSA as well.)
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