India and Indian cuisine to truly shine on the global stage

In an interview with India Business and Trade (IBT), Chef Ajay Chopra, Founder of Zion Hospitality, and MasterChef India Season 1 and 2 Host, shares insights about how raising Indian cuisine’s visibility and appeal on the world stage can benefit a number of industries, including as food processing, exports, and farmer incomes.

He talks about the possible avenues of collaboration between the Indian government and industry stakeholders for promoting Indian cuisine internationally. Further, Chef Ajay Chopra discusses challenges that are faced in promoting Indian cuisine and culinary products on a global scale and how we can address them.

Promoting Indian Cuisine by Ajay Chopra

IBT: What important lessons can India take away from the experience of promoting Thai and Italian cuisines on a global scale, which has successfully increased exports and tourism?

Ajay Chopra: When discussing the cuisines of other countries, it’s important to consider the size of the country, as cuisine is often influenced by its scale and identity. China and Russia, both large nations with diverse regions and cuisines, share similarities with India in this regard. While a direct comparison between India and smaller countries like Italy and Thailand may not be entirely fair, these smaller nations have effectively showcased their culinary offerings to the world.

Thailand, known as a popular travel destination, has actively worked on becoming a tourism-friendly place. Italy, on the other hand, is renowned globally for its finesse, craftsmanship, automobiles, leatherwork, fashion, and more. Italy has capitalized on this reputation to promote its cuisine, chefs, and culinary ambassadors extensively.

In India, recent efforts, such as participation in the G-20, mark the beginning of similar endeavours. India should take pride in its rich culinary heritage. For instance, during a G-20 event, I proudly presented “thekua” with “shrikandh,” a lesser-known delicacy beloved by the people of Bihar. It’s essential for us to celebrate what we have and who we are. Our “besan ka laddoo” is, in many ways, superior to any cheesecake, but we often overlook its significance. It’s time to embrace and showcase our culinary treasures.

Furthermore, we need to focus on marketing Indian cuisine more effectively. Fortunately, we are currently at a promising stage where Indian food is gaining worldwide acceptance and demand. The outdated perception of Indian food being limited to just “curry” and being overly spicy and oily is gradually fading away. People are beginning to appreciate the diversity, flavours, and depth of Indian cuisine. However, I believe there is still much-uncharted territory for India in the global culinary scene.

In my opinion, for India and Indian cuisine to truly shine on the global stage, every chef and creator must have faith in their own culinary creations. They should believe in, love, and flavour their food with passion and authenticity.

IBT: How can the Indian government work together with industry stakeholders to create a successful strategy for promoting Indian cuisine on the global stage, and how can culinary experts, such as yourself, contribute to this effort?

Ajay Chopra: I am the ambassador for European Union Food Products in India, and they have signed me for a three-year term. The EU has recognized that if they want Indians to consume their products, they need to take action. They require an Indian voice that can guide how these products can be incorporated into Indian cuisine, which is why they have hired me.

Similarly, there are numerous chefs who have left India and gone abroad. Many of them have become Master Chefs and well-known figures in various countries. India should capitalize on this resource. It should establish direct contact with these chefs through its embassies. For instance, Vikas Khanna is doing an outstanding job in raising the flag of Indian cuisine and India on the global stage. It’s not just one person; there are many such individuals. London is home to numerous Indian chefs, and the same goes for Australia. In fact, there are hotels in Africa and the Middle East where Indian chefs are in charge. If they are recognized and contacted by the embassies, they can be promoted as the culinary ambassadors of their respective countries because they have been residing there for many years. They can start promoting Indian cuisine.

So, the embassies need to take action. Another point is that chefs like us can travel. For example, Bahrain Tourism is reaching out to us to promote their tourism sector because they understand that India is a significant market. Once travel resumes, the next question is, ‘Where can I find my favourite Indian food?’ Indians, when they travel, often seek familiar snacks like khakra and papad. People travel for food experiences. If India explores tourism in a manner similar to other countries, it could significantly boost its cuisine. When people visit India and savour its diverse food, they will return to their countries and seek out those dishes. They might wonder why they can’t find the amazing dish they had in India back in Germany, for example. The reason we now have sushi, pizza, and various international cuisines in India is because of our extensive travel experiences. We’ve been to Japan, had fantastic sushi, and thought, ‘I want this sushi here.’ Japanese chefs came, opened restaurants, and gained fame. This is essentially a cultural exchange.

IBT: Food processing plays a critical role in promoting Indian cuisine globally. What innovations and improvements are essential in this sector to meet international standards and preferences?

Ajay Chopra: If we assess the current market landscape, we can observe a significant and ongoing trend of innovation. This innovation has already occurred and will continue to evolve in the near future. It encompasses a wide range of products, including ready-to-eat spices, gravies, parathas, and dishes. Another notable development is in retort pouch meals, where packaging can be stored at room temperature and then heated to create a gravy or dal.

These innovative products are readily available not only in India but also in international markets. Several companies are actively contributing to this trend. For instance, ITC, Goeld Food, and Sumeru are making remarkable strides in this space. As an example, Sumeru is exporting ID dosa batter, which I spotted in Dubai supermarkets. This allows consumers to prepare dosas in just half an hour, eliminating the need for a 24-hour preparation process. This kind of innovation is transforming the market, making it more convenient and accessible.

In this evolving landscape, food processing plays a pivotal role. Companies are now collaborating with culinary experts like us to infuse more culinary knowledge and innovations into their product lines.

IBT: Given the enormous variety in flavour, texture, and preparation method that exists throughout Indian food, how can it be succinctly defined? Would promoting the diversity of regional cuisines be preferable?

Ajay Chopra: Answering this question is challenging because Indian cuisine cannot be summarized in one line. It is vast and impossible to fully grasp or learn in a single lifetime. The sheer diversity is staggering. Take, for example, dal tadka; I’ve personally encountered 195 variations of it, but there are likely hundreds or even thousands more.

India consists of 29 states and six union territories, some of which have multiple distinct cuisines. For instance, Gujarat has Katiawadi and Kachhi cuisines, adding to the complexity. In total, there are nearly 100 recognized cuisines in India, each influenced by factors like weather, available produce, festivals, and celebrations.

If we were to catalogue all the dishes, it would likely exceed five crore (50 million) dishes, and when you consider the individual preferences of India’s 140 crore (1.4 billion) people, the possibilities are endless. In essence, Indian cuisine is the most diverse, flavorful, deeply rooted, and remarkable in the world. It’s akin to an ocean, where each dive reveals new and unique culinary treasures, unlike any other cuisine.

IBT: Could you give an example of an effective project or collaboration that has already helped to promote Indian food internationally? And what main factors led to this success? 

Ajay Chopra: A recent example illustrates the answer to your question. During the G20 summit, India promoted the Year of Millets, making it the International Year of Millets. Three chefs, including myself, were selected to represent India, showcasing its cuisine and diversity with millets to the First Ladies of the G20 leaders. These leaders represent three-fourths of the world’s power, so presenting this to them was significant. It likely made them realize that India can think innovatively.

For instance, we presented dishes like thekua and shrikandh, which have an international appeal in terms of presentation, resembling a French dish. However, what they were eating was purely indigenous and quintessentially Indian. The flavours are deeply rooted and delightful, but the presentation has an international flair.

In essence, to promote Indian cuisine globally, I suggest that every time a senior Indian leader travels abroad, they should be accompanied by a skilled chef to showcase our food. If food sustainability was discussed at the G20, then the diversity of our cuisine should also be highlighted on such platforms. When world leaders taste what we’re talking about, it goes beyond words; it becomes a flavorful experience, and they will understand what we mean.

IBT: What obstacles do you perceive in the way of promoting Indian food and products around the world? and how might they be handled?

Ajay Chopra: You see, as I mentioned earlier, our vastness is both our strength and our weakness. Let’s not dwell on the strengths of being a large country; those are self-evident. It’s the weaknesses that deserve attention. With such a vast population, an abundance of policies, and more bureaucratic red tape than I care to name, this poses a primary challenge.

Another challenge lies in who will take the initiative. Suppose I decide to open a restaurant in Singapore, serving authentic Indian cuisine. There’s a certain uncertainty about whether people will come and embrace it. But taking risks is how we learn. If we never take the leap, how will we know what’s possible?

However, there’s a crucial factor at play here – promotion. The more platforms and exposure we provide, the better. To illustrate, consider the recent buzz around “thekua” in India. In just the past ten days, it’s been a topic of conversation like never before. This highlights the need for more promotional avenues. When promotion extends beyond chefs and reaches broader channels, that’s when people truly start to take notice. And that’s precisely what we need – for people to take notice.

IBT: Are there any new culinary trends or chances that India may take advantage of to increase the popularity of its food abroad?

Ajay Chopra: Fashion and food are two dynamic realms. In the world of fashion, what you wear today won’t be in vogue in six months or a year. Styles change rapidly, from collar lengths to colours to buttons. We adapt to fashion’s changes swiftly, but the same can’t be said for our approach to food.

Emerging trends suggest that lesser-known regional Indian cuisines will gain more prominence and acceptance. Prominent figures like Chef Manjit Singh Gill, Chef Manisha Basin, Chef Manish Mehrotra, Gagan Anand, Ranveer Brah, Kunal Kapoor, and Vikas Khanna are now voicing India’s culinary diversity beyond the stereotypes of curry and butter chicken.

India offers much more. We prepare dishes from the leaves of Chickpeas which has a good reason—nutritional benefits. Even our breakfasts have a unique story. While much of the world opts for coffee, croissants, or cereals, we take pride in our morning rituals. Our mothers and wives tirelessly create delicious breakfasts, a tradition that deserves recognition.

As a prominent chef, I also encourage fathers to step into the kitchen. It’s not solely a mother’s responsibility. You can explore my book, “The Big Daddy Chef Cookbook,” available on Amazon. It features restaurant-style dishes made easily at home. Grab a copy and start cooking.

IBT: What guidance would you give to aspiring chefs and businesspeople who want to try their hand at exporting Indian cuisine items or culinary expertise?

Ajay Chopra: Our Indian cuisine has always embraced slow and meticulous cooking, which is the very essence of its beauty. This unhurried approach to preparing food is what brings out the rich flavours of Indian dishes. In our fast-paced world, young entrepreneurs, chefs, and venture capitalists are often venturing abroad and rapidly introducing new product lines. Some of these innovations are truly remarkable.

As I mentioned earlier, one such innovation is the ability to microwave idli, not just idli batter, but actual idli that tastes nearly as fresh as if it were just made. You can add sambar, chutney, or ghee to it, and the result is very impressive. These innovations have led to a rethinking of packaging, which is indeed a great step forward. However, there is a concern that the flavour may be somewhat compromised in the quest for speed and convenience.

My advice to all the young entrepreneurs out there is this: Our planet has reached its current state due to the greed of humanity. We are now returning to millets because we’ve long known that extensive wheat cultivation on a large scale would harm the Earth. Despite this knowledge, we continued down that path for years without considering sustainability.

Now, as we near the brink, we are finally recognizing the importance of millets. However, a significant portion of our population still lacks awareness about this shift. The fundamental issue is this: To sustain wheat production and achieve the required yields, we have had to use four to five times more fertilizer. This excessive fertilizer use is not only detrimental to our planet but also harmful to our health. Millets, on the other hand, have a completely different impact.

When millets grow, they enrich the soil with nutrients, reducing the need for excessive fertilizers. Additionally, millets are naturally resistant to pests and infestations due to their toughness, eliminating the need for chemical pesticides. This is why millets have gained prominence in discussions about sustainability. Moreover, millet offers significant health benefits, including the reduction of blood sugar levels.

If we encourage everyone to incorporate millets into their daily diet, the need for sugar medicines could diminish, potentially impacting pharmaceutical companies. Therefore, my message to young entrepreneurs entering the food industry is clear: Take a pledge not to betray food, our planet, or nature. Don’t let greed be your only driving force. Consider whether you are treating food, people, and the Earth justly.

Born in Lucknow, Chef Ajay Chopra, celebrated for his role in MasterChef India and his global restaurant ventures, founded Zion Hospitality, a source of expert guidance. His YouTube channel serves as a creative canvas for sharing delectable Indian recipes, while “The Big Daddy Chef” series is an inspiring ode to home cooking, crafting cherished family moments through the magic of food.

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