The twin impact of the pandemic and heightened awareness of climate change in the past couple of years has led to several new and renewed food trends. It remains to be seen how many of these will become enduring trends, and how many are just fads that will wither away.
Here are a few trends or fads I have been noticing over the last couple of years.
Plant/Nuts-Based ‘Milk’. If at all they can be called milk. More and more brands of almond milk, cashew milk, oat milk, and suchlike are showing up. The dairy industry stalwarts like Amul take exception to these whitish extracts from seeds and nuts being called milk at all. I agree. We need a word to describe these insipid extracts of seeds and nuts. Any word other than milk. Because milk is sacred in India – it has emotions attached to it. Squeezing an almond and extracting a white fluid from it does serious disservice to the nation’s fascination with real milk. Not to mention the abomination that new-age cafés charge a premium for these fake milks.
Cloud Kitchens or Ghost Kitchens. The exponential rise in working from home, and hence ordering food to be delivered at home, has led to an explosion in the number of cloud kitchens. These are back-end kitchens without a front-end restaurant attached to them. The food is cooked and sent straight to delivery, without any on-premise service. This trend takes away the investment needed in running a physical restaurant, in a time when fewer customers are eating out. Cloud kitchens can hence operate from low-real-estate-cost warehouses, and do not need prime customer-facing locations. Restaurateurs are able to survive even after closing down their dine-in eateries; customers get affordable food. All very practical and all very sensible. But, where is the charm? Are we really getting to a future where we will eat food made in a faceless warehouse by nameless chefs? Dystopian.
Breads Are Going Sour. In the days of the first lockdown, when people were stuck at home with too much time on their hands, several Instagram-fueled weird food trends emerged. Remember dalgona coffee, anyone? Thankfully, such oddities died a natural death. But the culture lived on – I mean the culture of the sourdough starter kind. Several people took to nursing starters, and baking sourdough breads of variable authenticity. Bakers caught on to this new interest in breads that were a few notches above the household staple, the ubiquitous white sliced. Now, every city in the country has artisanal bakers churning out impressive sourdoughs, boules, and baguettes. If the pandemic has a silver lining, it is this; a country that is growing out of the British-era definition of bread as the bleached white not-a-grain-in-sight sliced bread.
Plant-Based and Cell-Based Meats. The pandemic-induced interest in wellness, and concern for the future of the planet, has renewed calls for cutting down on meat production and consumption. There is a move towards so-called smart protein. The ‘fake’ meat industry had been crawling along for years but has now taken off. This includes not only plant-based meat lookalikes, but also real meat grown in the lab from animal cells, without the wasteful process of growing full animals and then slaughtering them. This is one trend that looks like it is here to stay. The world needs to be weaned off the current environmentally-unsustainable industrial meat production.
FoodTech. There was FinTech and EdTech and many such industries where digital technology had found ways to disrupt the old ways of doing things. Now it is the turn of FoodTech. From delivery apps, to restaurant reservation apps, to QR-code-based menus, to app-based ordering at restaurants, to even back-end apps for restaurants to manage vendors, supply chain, restaurant revenue management, footfall calculators, and more. With the need to reduce staff, in times of reduced restaurant revenue, and the need for low-contact service due to the pandemic, the FoodTech market is rife with innovation. I will miss the comforting look of tattered haldi-stained paper menus at eateries, and the chats with the waiters as they recommend today’s special. Ordering from an app sounds so antiseptic, but I guess this is the way to go.
Nutraceuticals. Good, honest, balanced home food has all the nutrients one needs. But, the food industry keeps chipping away at ghar ka khana by pushing all kinds of ‘solutions’ at us – solutions in search of a problem. In the last few years, this trend has acquired another of those abominable portmanteau names: nutraceuticals. These are extracts from food, but spun into strange unappetising formats like pills, capsules, powders, bars, and potions. Dubious medical and curative properties are attributed to these. Food is food and medicine is medicine (and never the twain shall meet). Twisting good old-fashioned food to make it look like medicine is nothing but a throwback to the tricks of the snake oil salesman. This is one trend that I hope turns out to be an ephemeral fad. Eat honest food mindfully and eschew these magic potions.
Back To Basics. The heightened concerns for the environment and for wellness has, as we saw above, led to high-tech solutions or tricks – like plant-based meats and nutraceuticals. At the same time, the same concerns have also led to low-tech solutions – going back to our roots. India used to be home to hundreds of varieties of millets and other locally-grown grains. Naturally gluten-free, naturally nutritious. We had to go halfway around the world chasing magic grains like quinoa, before we realised that the most nutritious grains had been around in our own backyard, literally, for thousands of years. Our own homegrown superfood: millets. Jowar, bajra, ragi, barnyard millet, and many more. Over the past century, the organised agriculture system had made wheat and rice the dominant grains, and had pushed millets into near oblivion. The renewed environmental concerns about large-scale farming, and the wellness trend, mean that millets are fashionable again. A trend that is here to stay, hopefully.
These are just a few of the several trends that are changing the shape of food and food business. Which of these trends do you think will last? Which do you think should last? Any other trends that you have noticed? Do share your views in the comments.
This Professor Cooks. And talks about food ideas, food science, food culture, food hacks, and food history. Watch this space for some food, and a lot more food for thought.
Ravi Miglani is a home cook and consumer insights professional. Following a corporate career spanning eight countries and three decades, he is now a professor at Ahmedabad University (when he is not cooking).