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You don’t need to be vegan to like vegan food

LiveMint logoLiveMint 04-04-2017 Sapna Agarwal

Zomato lists 55 vegan restaurants across India’s top 11 cities. A year ago, it listed seven. And according to the food-tech company with a popular listings and reviews app, the number of restaurants highlighting vegan options on their menu increased about eight-fold to 175 from 22.

The emergence of vegan food (or food that is free of any animal products) also shows the readiness of the Indian consumers to experiment. And so, from a nation where restaurants offered vegetarian, non-vegetarian, and Jain food, we have now become one where restaurants offer vegetarian, non-vegetarian, Jain, vegan and gluten-free options.

The charge of the restaurant brigade in the 1990s and part of the 2000s was led by quick-service outlets (McDonald’s, Domino’s) and casual fine-dining places such as Mainland China. In the second half of the 2000s and the early part of this decade, it was led by gastro-pubs, restaurants offering fusion cuisine, and yoga bars. In recent years, it has been led by what would have once been considered exotic in India–restaurants focusing on organic, vegan, gluten-free, or dairy-free food.

These trends are not new to India. It can be looked at as returning to our roots. Staples like ragi, jowar and bajra, which have gained popularity because of the growing trend of a gluten-free lifestyle, are grown in our backyards and known as the poor man’s cereals. Then there is Ayurveda, a 5,000 year-old system of medicine. An Ayurvedic diet that I followed three years ago recommended avoiding milk, tea, coffee, bread, biscuits and wheat rotis in favour of nachini, jowar rotis and rice khichiri. On Amazon there already are some popular Ayurvedic and vegan cookbooks available .

Sure the packaging of the new restaurants offering organic, vegan, gluten-free, or dairy-free food is contemporary, appealing to a global audience. Moreover it caters to one of India’s fast growing health and lifestyle trends , leading to increased experimentation across consumer segments.

For instance, last October, Sequel Bistro and Juice Bar opened in Mumbai’s Bandra. It sources fresh produce directly from an organic farm in Nashik, a small town about 160km from Mumbai. The other ingredients are also largely organic and sourced from all over the world. The cacao and quinoa are from Peru, the saffron and raw honey from Kashmir and the wild black rice from the Himalayas. Close to 80% of the menu is vegan or gluten-free.

According to owner Vanika Choudhary, restaurants such as Sequel attract an eclectic crowd, who are well-travelled, work out regularly, and are very conscious of what they eat. These people are looking for experiences at home similar to what they have had in London, New York or Dubai. About 30-40% of her customers are regulars; some drop in after their workout or order breakfast to be delivered in their offices.

Not everyone who orders from the vegan menu is vegan, and not everyone who picks a gluten-free option is allergic to gluten. Diners are curious, says Romil Ratra, group director, hospitality, Phoenix Mills Ltd, which operates High Street Phoenix and Phoenix Market City malls. The company has launched restaurants such as 212 All Good where 90% of the menu is gluten-free, dairy-free or vegan.

None of this comes cheap, but if the success of the dining out concepts of the 1990s and 2000s proved anything, it was that young Indians do not feel guilty anymore about splurging on food, and, according to research by National Restaurants Association of India, are eating out far more often than they used to. Some are very particular about what they eat. Others are happy to experiment. Both are playing right into the hands of restaurateurs scrambling to experiment with new concepts and expand in India’s large cities.

Shop Talk will take a weekly look at consumer trends, behaviour and insights.

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