There is no business like the food business

I went to the food blogger’s dinner at Mumbai last night. This was sponsored by the wine division of the folks at UB. Hosted at Olive at Mahalaxmi.

The chief wine maker of UB was there and held forth on wines to a table of Mumbai’s food bloggers through the evening. I reached late after I had my breath knocked out by the heartless Mumbai traffic while navigating meetings earlier in the evening.

I was seated at a little table beside the main table. Caught up with a couple of old friends, Rushina and Jyotika. Wouldn't have made it but for the earnest urgings from both of them.  Met some new folks – couple of charming ladies from the agency that organized the evening and a Chino German animator who was marooned in India after the film she came to make got delayed. I missed out on the wine lecture though. Well, as they say bad boys have all the fun.

We tasted wines. Without the commentary to go with it. I must admit that I am a bit of a Bacchanalian philistine. Wines give me headaches. But some of the stuff did smell good. I made the appropriate motions of occasionally stuffing my nose into the glasses of wine. Hopefully, looked enough of a ‘connoisseur’ to not make the sponsors question the organizers for inviting me.

The food had its moments. Three courses. Managed to find a few shreds of smoked salmon in the smoked salmon salad. The lights were rather dim and some of the pinkish bits turned out to be tomatoes. Which, dear vegetarians, cannot be a substitute for smoked salmon. I selected the brie phillo puff for the next course. By a fluke of nature I got the grilled tiger prawns instead. Which was great as the prawns were huge and yet wickedly juicy. Wouldn’t have wanted to be one of the vegetarians around though when this happened to me. I chose chicken skewers with pilaf for the mains. The highlight of the chicken plate was the toasted pine (?) nuts which came on the side. Added a nice texture to the rice and meat. Had a bit from the beef that Irene from Germany went for. It was rather tough. Jyotika’s choice of lamb was more succulent…Moroccan and therefore fairly Indian in taste. I quite liked the rather strong cheesecake which was there for dessert. Overpowered the crème brulee that followed. Couldn’t taste the latter. Guess the conversations were the high point of the dinner.

These are interesting times for food in India and everyone wants a piece of it. So you have about three exclusive food channels being launched now. Every news channel has at least one food related programme going for them. You have recipe shows on TV, with pre Doordashan days production qualities, which are surprisingly good cures for insomnia. And restaurant reviews where every restaurant is the best in the world and where every dish is the meal of a lifetime.

Talking of TV, Master Chef Australia 2 was aired on Star World here and it caught the imagination of many. It suddenly had people who normally do not cook rush into the kitchen to make coriander enrobed pomfret or Crème Anglais. It democratized food and went beyond foodies, food bloggers, food snobs and critics. Suddenly food was cool. Till Star Plus blundered in with Master Chef India.

The food business in India draws inspiration from the West. If you have salivated over the French Laundry Cookbook and been enthralled by the prose in the Les Halles Cookbook then you have a restaurant cookbook in India too. The Mainland China Cookbook. If the Les Halles and French Laundry books are labours of love and passion then this is its antiseptic opposite. The same publishers have now done a book around NDTV's Rocky and Mayur's 'Highway on my Plate'. This is a Lonely Planet like restaurant directory which thankfully has a touch of colour. I read the chapters on Andhra, Arunachal and Assam last night and went to bed with colourful images of yak blood sausages, rohu cooked straight from the pond, pigeon curries, duck curries and meals eaten at tribal huts. There is still hope.

Following in the tradition of movie and auto awards you now have foodie awards. There was one from a newspaper group recently where a majority of awards went to restaurants of five and seven star hotels. Seemed more like a ‘Fine Dining’ award list. The remaining scraps went to stand alone restaurants which are normally in the news. The unsung, non PR savvy restaurants which just focus on serving simple and honest food went unnoticed. Then there was another award from the Internet portal of an American news channel. They said that the 'best’ place to enjoy street food at Mumbai was apparently Punjab Sweets at Bandra. I am sure that local vada pao and bhel lovers would have a point of view about the mineral water sanitized North Indian chaats trumping the Mumbai street food charts. The best biriyani here too was from a five star. So what are my choices for the 'best' restaurants at Mumbai? I won’t be vain enough for that. But here is a list of my ‘favourites’.

Food bloggers are everyone's meat. There are web sites and even mainstream newspapers and magazine lifting photographs and content from blogs without acknowledging the source. And you have startups and even established sites and newspapers and magazines asking bloggers to write for free...dangling carrots of visibility. 

The carnival continues. Restaurants and food marketers have discovered food bloggers. Offers to send yogurts and olive oils flood are mailed in. As do invites to "come and try the food at our restaurant". . And offers to host food blogger meets. “Would be nice if you and your food blogger friends drop in”.

Well, as the cliché goes, ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch and all that jazz. Why waste money on mass media, it is all about media efficiency. So would bloggers go the journo and junket way? Or would they remain an independent voice?

Only time will tell.