A Moveable Feast

The Tastemaker’s Trend

Shylashri Shankar is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
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Food novelty, like fashion, is a fickle creature



MANY OF US remember cassata ice cream, an all-time favourite of mine in my childhood. It was served in clubs and restaurants all over India. Not anymore. Another perennial favourite was the sizzler—meat, carrots, paneer, potatoes and onions, which used to show up, smoking and caramelising away on a wooden plate. These items are still available in some clubs, but have long since disappeared from the menus of trendy restaurants. Instead, as one friend pointed out with disgust, we find gastro-pubs serving food on dry ice and drinks in sediment encrusted mason jars. Novelty, like fashion, is a fickle creature; a chameleon that changes its colour to suit a background. For food, the background is a society’s culture. Food fashion often begins with the rich—consumption of tea by the 17th century British aristocracy, caviar by the rich today—and percolates down to the masses, while the wealthy move on to the next novelty.

Why does a dish become trendy? It is like asking what makes a film a hit, or what the ingredients of a bestselling novel are. Jodie Archer and Matthew L Jockers offer us some insights into a successful novel in The Bestseller Code. Using a computer model, they discovered patterns inherent to books that are most likely to succeed. Focus on marriage, relationships, mothers, children, guns and schools. Avoid sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. No subjecting your readers to seduction. Bodies can be described only in pain and in a crime scene. Whether you agree with them or not, this is what the number-crunching has turned up.

In The Tastemakers, David Sax explores the world of food trends—where they come from, how they grow, and where they end up. He identifies four trends—the cultural (cupcake craze after the TV show), agricultural (growers develop a food product and persuade chefs to use it), chef trend, and health trend (superfoods, gluten-free, etcetera). The popularity of these trends depends a great deal on coverage by the professional and social media.

For decades, French cuisine had a strong influence on the idea of novelty in the West. But no longer. As Benedict Beauge points out, the continuous circulation of ideas across geographies, aided by the internet, has generated an autonomy for chefs and a global cooking field. Today, it is the chefs who decide and impose their fantasies on us, and social media promptly carries the fantasy to all corners of the globe. The fantasy becomes obsolete very quickly, and is replaced by a new one. We see this phenomenon occur in the grand opening of a new restaurant, followed within months by a rapid but quiet closure, and the opening of another new restaurant. Restaurateurs frantically hunt for ways to attract the glitterati by advertising their celebrity chefs, celebrity owners, different techniques of cooking (for example, molecular gastronomy) and so on.

Let’s see if we can identify the characteristics of a trendy dish. First, it has to have foreign and familiar elements. Foreign, because that gives it cachet, and familiar, because psychologically, we want to believe that we won’t be poisoned. Porridge served in a 12-seat shop named Grød in Copenhagen is a hipster treat in Denmark. It charges $8 to $12 for a mash of oats, spelt or barley with milk and sometimes fruit compote mixed in. This is part of my breakfast every day, as I am sure it is of many who pay that amount to eat at Grød. Yet, it has become a roaring success, so much so that the owner has opened two more outlets. In an interview to Entrepreneur, Grød’s founder Lasse Andersen says Grød’s menu demonstrates the breadth of such comfort foods from around the world. “Every culture has a version of porridge… Porridge isn’t only the Northern European idea of oats. It’s rice in Asia and Italy, quinoa in South America, grits in North America.” Anderson’s dish works because its repertoire combines the familiar and the foreign.

Second, tap into nostalgia. Farzi cafe and SodaBottleOpenerWala in New Delhi, Gurgaon and elsewhere have repackaged jam jars and tiffin boxes as trendy ways to serve drinks and food. Not everyone is a fan, but its popularity reflects the nostalgia one has for the less-bacteria infested days of one’s childhood, when one could eat golgappas and bhelpuri from street vendors and wash it down with a drink of fizzy lemon soda from a bottle with the marble roller top. Trendy cafes in New Delhi have tapped into this nostalgia, hanging bicycles from the ceiling and painting their walls with garish signs copied from the back of a Tata truck plying the highways of Punjab.

Trendy is equal to healthy these days, rather than the excess of the 20th century. In our personal lives, the overarching trend, say industry observers, is vegan, gluten-free and clean eating

Third, the dish has to be easily replicable. As Sax says, ‘The trends that last are easily replicable—not too technical or expensive. They fit in, in different ways. It’s not just something that’s one specific dish, eaten one way. It’s something that can work for desserts, for cocktails, for a main course; for high-end and for low-end. Think about the extra-virgin olive oil trend of the 90s. That’s no longer trendy; no one’s really bragging about using extra-virgin olive oil anymore. It’s just the default oil. We absorb it and move on.’

Fourth, it has to have a blue-collar element. The world may have turned its back on communism, but the proletariat continues to be a symbol of the hip and the avant-garde. ‘Elevated’ toast has taken off in New York, San Francisco and Portland. It is basically a slice of bread, toasted in a wood oven, on which you spread artisan jam or fruit compote or cheese, or serve on it an organic fried egg and organic bacon. But make sure you charge white-collar prices—say, about $12. Like the porridge craze in Denmark, you will find a veritable melee outside your cafe. Though, I am not so sure that this will work in India. Which brings me to the next point.

Choose your hipster dish in a context-specific way. Sushi, which was the rage in the 1990s in New York and London, but will be viewed with deep suspicion in places like Delhi where mothers drum into their children’s skulls: do not eat fish in months that do not have an ‘r’ in them. Also, bland dishes or delicately spiced dishes will not take off in countries where the norm is spicy food.

TRENDY IS EQUAL to healthy these days, rather than the excess of the 20th century. In our personal lives, the overarching trend, say industry observers, is vegan, gluten-free and clean eating. One of my friends has switched to this for health reasons but I don’t plan to unless I discover that I belong to the gluten-intolerant category. Only 2 per cent of the world is gluten intolerant but about 20 per cent of the world buys gluten free products, demonstrating how seductive health trends can be. Studies show that fermented foods and beverages are very popular in India. Dosa, dhokla and idli are staple favourites among the older lot. If one were to take the concept of fermentation as the key feature and create a restaurant that served variations on this theme, it could be a raging success.

Here are some global trends (not the blink-and-you-miss kind) prophesied by top-rated chefs for 2017. More focus on foods that help with detoxification, weight loss and relaxation; cellular agriculture, in which companies engineer tissue to create meat and dairy products without an actual animal (a natural progression fuelled by the vegan trend); retailers and restaurants will start catering to lower-income consumers who want high-quality food that is as nutritious as it is delicious; more fermented foods (improves gut health because it is high in fibre, vitamin B,C and K, and probiotics, more sustainable ‘happy’ meats and veggies, stories on a plate, more emphasis on humble ingredients like bread and butter and offal, and an end to waste. And some local trends include home chefs, gastro-pubs (fine dining with cheap alcohol), a return to classical styles of cooking with updated technology (cast iron equipment, charcoal and firewood for ovens).

How do we know if the above predictions are indeed spot-on? If events can be predictable only if they occur in a non- random manner, allowing the brain to identify the probabilistic regularity of links between different events, then how can one predict the success of a fashion whose main quality is uniqueness and randomness? Cupcakes took off in a big way in the US after the TV series, Sex and the City. Nobody predicted it. Perhaps predictions can work only in relation to attitudes that are being slowly transformed by the food industry. Most of the 2017 predictions are about changes in the way we perceive ‘eating out’— don’t waste, eat right, no excess, bring back humble ingredients and street food. There is a connection between these changes and the ongoing global recession. Perhaps it is easier to predict food trends during times of recession (when attitudinal changes are forced to take place) as compared to times of affluence (when we revel in unpredictability and excess).