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There's a food revolution on, and you're probably missing it

Payal Puri | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:28 IST

Food is the new sex. It's the new wine. It's the new travel. It's the new insert-whatever-was-formerly-cool here.

Whether you cook it, order it, go out for it, travel for it, or grow your own. Whether you're still eating beef, off red meat, a pescetarian, vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, paleo, organic.

This hasn't happened overnight - it's taken a few years for food to go from primarily functional to fully fashionable. Except the obsession is no longer just about what we're eating - it's about the how, when and where.

That means grocery-delivery apps, meal aggregators, restaurants-in-the-cloud, home chefs, pop-ups, and a pantheon of ingenious ideas around food. Never before has the kitchen been so sexy.

Those in the business know this - one of the most heavily-funded sectors in Indian startups is food. It's estimated to be a $50 billion business - and growing at an incredible 16-20% every year.

The question is: has your gourmet life caught up? If your food habits still look exactly as they used to - takeaways from the neighbourhood dhaba, movie nights with Domino's pizza, going out to eat at the new 'it' restaurant in the city - you're living in the last decade.

Because circa 2015, how we eat has changed.

The office lunch or takeaway dinner has changed

Carry lunch from home? Have a cook who makes a fresh, fabulous dinner daily? You lucky thing.

But what if you don't? If you're part of the urban grind, work lunches or takeaway dinners have probably been limited to standard-issue tiffin services, the dhaba down the road or the closest McDonald's.

Not for the last year though.

Now, depending on what you want - a quick meal, a healthy meal, a different cuisine every day, or comfort food, there's a food delivery service for you, and it's not a neighbourhood restaurant.

If your workday lunches are limited to tiffin services or takeaways, you're living in the last decade

Take Eatonomist, which describes itself as a gourmet meal planner.

The menu certainly reads like one - think watermelon and caramelised onion salad in balsamic vinaigrette, or a fish tagine with couscous - but with four clicks of the app, you can pick one of two calorie counts (300 or 500), one of multiple cuisines, and one of multiple delivery slots to ensure lunch is ready when you are.

There are over 80 dishes on the menu and if you like to plan ahead, you can fire up the site on Sunday, go through the week's menu, and order for the week if you like.

Then there's those who, like us, are permanently guilty about eating 'outside' food and looking for a way to make lunch - the most disposable meal of the workday - healthier. That's where startups like RawKing step in.

RawKing's weekly salad + raw pressed juice combos can be ordered a week at a time for less than Rs 200 a day - cheaper than a gym membership by far - and take away the 'don't have time to eat right' excuse.

Then there's HolaChef, a restaurant-in-the-cloud that brings together a great roster of pro chefs, menu options that change daily depending on what's inspiring the chef, as well as different cuisines - all so you don't have to eat the same meal twice. On the same day you could choose between chicken and leek lasagna, aloo sabzi with bedmi puris and a Thai green curry rice bowl made by an ex Taj chef, all for under Rs 300.

Don't want restaurant-style food? Biteclub does the exact same thing HolaChef sets out to do - but with an incredible roster of home chefs to do the cooking, which means it's mom-style food without having to call her.

You can order meals from a host of home-chefs at the press of a button. Think of it as a mom for every cuisine

Each chef cooks the meals and cuisine she's most comfortable with - but with the site acting like an aggregator, think of it as a mom-for-every-cuisine.

Ditto for Cyberchef, who use the skills of hundreds of talented home cooks to be - sorry, but there's no other way to describe it - an Uber for home-food.

And then there's the 'specialists', the one-trick ponies who never need a second trick because they make one dish that sings. Rathhin Mathur of Hmmmutton in Gurgaon started out as one such - though he's since expanded his repertoire to a handful of new dishes.

His signature mutton dish, Hmmmutton, combines a unique mix of Kashmiri, Indonesian, Kerala and Malay influences and is available only on order by sms or his Facebook page. It started as a part-time project but so successful was the experiment he quit his full-time job to do this fulltime.

There's literally hundreds others like him around the country, turning their one-dish genius into a profitable business, from bakers to biryani-makers.

The cook-your-own dinner has changed

We love home food - we just don't like all the shopping, prepping, chopping, ingredient-hunting and spice-collecting that seems to go into it.

That's why we can't understand what took the ready-to-cook meal delivery so long.

It's incredibly simple but incredibly useful.

Pick a dish off an extensive menu and startups like Chefkraft, Cookfresh, Innerchef and The Gourmetbox will send you everything you need to make the meal, portioned and prepped - along with the recipe - so you can cook it to order.

There's no manic hunting for ingredients, no skulking around your refrigerator in guilt as another expensive avocado rots, and no what-should-I-cook-tonight angst. And with prices in the early hundreds for meals-for-two, it's as budget friendly as it is conscience-friendly.

Of course the proof of the concept is in the eating - but with some credible names behind most of these ventures, there's little to worry about.

Chefkraft, for instance, has been set up by Le Cordon Bleu trained Xerxes B and it shows in some of the dishes on offer: you can order a grilled fig salad with caramelised onions and blue cheese, or a spicy Balinese chicken with jasmine rice and Asian greens, or Irani keema with pao if you're looking for local.

Then there's Innerchef, which counts among its founders Bal Di Ghent, who runs Gurgaon's popular Di Ghent cafe. Many of the dishes on InnerChef's menu are served at the cafe, and prepped to taste exactly the way they do at the restaurant. That means you could have a toasted Panini in freshly baked ciabatta with roasted sundried tomato paste and mascarpone on your dinner table in 15 minutes.

Offering a twist on the ready-to-cook front is GourmetBox, that turns food into the perfect gift - we're not complaining. Think a Breakfast Specials hamper for lazy Sundays, the Gourmet Picnic for 2 hamper or the Date Night Fondue hamper when you want to feel fancy without leaving the couch.

Healthy eating has changed

There's a host of salad and cold-press juice startups, of course, from Antidote, Frsh and Salad Days to JustPressed and RawPressery. But healthy eating isn't limited to greens and liquids and the world of online food startups knows that.

One of the healthiest meal habits to have, you've been long told, is not skip breakfast - and now, there's an app for that.

Bangalore, for instance, has Brekkie, which is cheap and cheerful - daily breakfast is Rs 80, Saturdays get something more special at Rs 120. You're not just going to get an idli or vada on your platter, either - expect a stack of mini veggie utthapams one day, a basil tomato sandwich another, and weekend treats such as mango pancakes with chunky mango yogurt.

Other parts of the country are getting their own versions: Mumbai-based Caloriecare offers menus by mealtimes but also by meal types - you can pick fibre-rich or high-protein as requirements, as well as portions, which come in small, medium and large.

Want meals that fit into a particular calorie count or nutritional need? Caloriesmart is a nutritionist-developed meal platform that offers 300, 500 or 700 calorie gourmet meals, either as one-offs or on a subscription model. Expect meals that look nothing like the health-food you've pushed off your plate for years - these are three or four course meals and dessert is not off the plate.

Ditto for Delhi-based Tarani's Low Calorie Kitchen, a nutritionist-based meal service that has been dishing out meal plans based on specific needs for years: calorie-controlled, diabetic-friendly, weight management or healthy heart.

Snacking, too, has changed

It's arguably the most difficult of all meals to eat healthy, but creative cooks have come to the rescue. From Bangalore-based Snackosaur to NibbleBox - both of whom deliver nationally - come subscription services to tackle your snack needs.

You can choose from an interesting mix of nibbles, from roasted edamame to wasabi peas, granola bars and, in the case of NibbleBox, a delicious range of trail mixes that include seasonal dried fruit and make the perfect yogurt topping. Order a weekly or fortnightly subscription and a box with your snack selection will arrive at the door.

And then there's Lunchbox, a Chennai-based startup that has tackled a whole new category: the dreaded school lunchbox. These home-made lunch boxes for kids (and adults) ensure working couples with a time crunch can send their children off to school with a fresh homemade meal. Deliveries start at 6.30 am and include three meal categories: South Indian, North Indian and International.

This isn't all that's changed; expect part two of this piece to give you a peek into the new reality of eating out, as well as entertaining at home. And in the meanwhile, call one of these startups to get a taste of the food revolution right at your doorstep.

First published: 2 August 2015, 4:16 IST
Payal Puri @payalpuri

In a 19-year career Payal has been, among other things, editor of Cosmopolitan India, executive editor of a travel and design magazine, and worked briefly in lifestyle TV. Prior to joining Catch as Editor-at-Large, she was executive director of THiNK, a cutting-edge ideas event in Goa. She has a borderline manic enthusiasm for red wine, all things digital, Goa and chewing her nails, in no particular order. At Catch she oversees all things fun, features and lifestyle, including the site's internal Slack channels, which she runs like a personal fiefdom.