The zero-minute recipe

Ready-to-eat food has become the flavour of the times. The mind-boggling variety dished out in tetra-packs and sachets is more than passable, almost gourmet stuff. This zero-jhamela fare has made life easier for those pressed for time, says Pushpesh Pant

RECALL Aamir Khan slithering and swaying seductively in a reptilian courtship dance hissing ‘Aati kya Khandala?’ Well, we think if the question had been popped a wee bit differently, ‘Khaati kya zero jhamela?’ the assent would have followed earlier.

Zero jhamela food being ‘ready to eat’ (RTE) repast — marketing jargon for pre-processed, attractively packaged convenience foods with long (un-refrigerated) shelf life. No, we are not talking about two-minute noodles thriving a whisker away from junk food territory but world famous exotica like daal Bukhara and Hyderabadi biryani, Kolhapuri mutton and Govan fish curry. Yes, there is much more to life than ‘heat and eat’ TV dinner brand atrocities.

Not long ago we were left speechless by a fine meal rustled up at a very short notice by the standby cook at the NHPC guest house at Tawaghat on the Indo-Nepal border—back of the beyond in Uttaranchala. We were given a choice of piping hot soup, then were treated to Hyderabadi and Awadhi delicacies followed by delectable Bengali sweets. The next morning light fluffy idlis accompanied by podi and sambar were a perfect start for the day. As we stepped out, the good man asked modestly, ‘ Will pasta be alright for lunch?’ Needless to add, a very passable meal was dished out at the appointed time. The man in the kitchen was no master chef but certainly knew how to utilise the plentiful resources of RTE a.k.a. zero jhamela meals. With such mouth-watering temptations at home, who needs to go to Khandala?

Elitist fare

Processed and packaged food were a luxury in colonial times—luncheon meat, sardines in oil, butter and cheese, baked beans, condensed milk, jam and preserves — ‘a taste of England’ for the homesick sahibs in India. Only big stores stocked stuff like Huntley and Palmer biscuits in tins, Kraft’s cheese and Polson’s butter and ‘out of season’ delights.

Wartime issue of rations in tins had popularised some of these items and brought out-of-season delicacies like pineapple slices within the reach of the well-healed town-dwelling Indians. Still, there were lurking apprehensions about ‘tin poisoning’ and the quality after the long storage. Peas and mushrooms in cans (preserved in brine) were considered inferior to fresh produce.

Only desperate situations—like mountaineers on a perilous mission or soldiers on the battlefront—justified the use of such items of food. Kissan, Dippy’s, Morton’s all carved out small niches in a very small market. There were other regional players elsewhere. Most concentrated on bottling sherbets and squashes, sauces, jams and pickles. Tins were, in brief, for phirang goodies—biscuits, chocolates and toffees. They were for special occasions—valued gift items. Parle had an attractive Gluco tin—a square box with colourful painting of a milkmaid decorating it—and JB Mangharam won a loyal following thanks to its reproductions of calendar kitsch on the tin covers recalling the paintings of Mulgaonkar and Singhal.

Till the end of 1950s, very few Indian ‘dishes’ were processed and packaged. When one was a student in Nainital in 1959 only GG Company sold dalmoth and petha in cans, and Aligarh Dairy Farm was the pioneer in the North for selling tinned sausages. When Ajanta Dairy made available pasteurised cream in conveniently sized tins, it created quite a sensation. Then there was the odd tin of rosogullas manufactured by, if memory serves us right, KC Das.

All this changed, and fast, in the 1960s. The border dispute with China gave an impetus to research for nutritious food for the jawans deployed on desolate icy desserts in the trans-Himalayan region. The Central Food Technology Research Institute was set up in Mysore and work on new processing and packaging technology—tetra-pack bricks, pouches, plastic bottles not requiring cold chain—was accelerated. Still, the consumer resistance persisted. Prices remained high; most Indians tried these products only for their novelty. Not every household owned a tin opener in those early days and anyone who could perform this feat without spillage and commotion was considered a sophisticated man of the world!

Serving middle class

Another decade passed before the tidal wave of RTE hit the Indian food scene. Fall in prices, coinciding with emerging lifestyles, made it irresistible. Bulky tins gave way to slim and stylish, sealed foil-draped pouches and packets. Best of all, these did not require a cold chain for transportation or deep freezer for storage.

This was the time when hundreds of thousands of Indians went abroad to seek a better future and homesickness assumed pandemic proportions. There was a common prescription for its prevention and cure: RTE, processed Indian. Makhani paneer and sarson ka saag bought off the shelves saved many marriages if not lives. The Green Revolution ushered in the age of plenty at least for the middle classes. Growing urbanisation, breakdown of large joint families into nuclear families and an increase in number of working wives made convenience foods less jhamela (way short of the musical ‘zero jhamela’). Maggie ‘two minute’ noodles and their clones made an appropriately timed appearance coinciding with the proliferation of TV in India. Please note that even then Indian recipes were not considered the ‘right stuff’ for RTE menus. The only exceptions were the gulab jamun mix and kheer.

What a long way we have come since that Stone Age!

The labour pains were unusually prolonged but finally the Indian ishtyle RTE bonny baby has been ‘delivered’. The battle for shelf space in departmental stores and delis in the air con malls as well as in the roadside kiosk was won almost single-handedly by Haldiram. The MNC upstart that tried to muscle in the desi Bikaneri bhujiya territory was given a right royal drubbing. In the process, its own production, packaging and marketing was dramatically upgraded. Mechanisation, sterilisation and innovation became buzz words in the domain of the mithai and chaat.

Others followed in a stampede—Bikanerwala, Bikano, Kaleva and the rest. Today the market at home and abroad for these RTE sweets and savouries is a multi-billion dollar business. Haldiram and others have started diversifying, integrating and/or franchising. Indian fast food and takeaway outlets present a mirror or spitting image of McDonald’s and follow the assembly line production processes. We salute Haldiram for vanquishing consumer resistance to packaged snacks and preparing the ground for RTE ‘full meals’—to borrow a phrase from South Indian eateries.

At the top end of the market are the signature dishes from the legendary restaurants in the ITC Hotels/ Welcome Group-Maurya stable: Bukhara and Dum Pukht and Dakshin. Major Rehman, the head honcho there, is not the trendy foodie; he is the trend-setting gourmet belonging as much to corporate boardrooms as a man of leisure from the Nizam’s domain. To him is due the credit of restoring national pride in matters gastronomic and mass marketing timeless culinary classics in a very user-friendly form. Be it dal bukhara or mirchi ka salan, Hyderabadi biryani, chicken chettinad, dum-pukht or badam halwa from Awadh, all these can now be enjoyed at home at a fraction of the cost of one serving in the restaurants. These are suitably portioned for not only the homesick NRI but also the DINKies and single yuppies.

No less significant is the contribution of MTR personified in Sadanand Maiyya, a mechanical engineer by training, some time Ranji Trophy player for Karnataka, coffee planter and, of course, owner of the most famous tiffin room in the land. His product range is mind-boggling—from idli, dosai, vadai mixes, upama, sambar and rasam to rajma, saag paneer, navratan korma, Andhra pulav, bisi bele, assorted halwas, kheer, sevian and what have you. The only thing missing seems to be from the eastern region—the Bengal repertoire—hopefully, not for long. What Maiyya has done for national integration via taste is fantastic.

One recalls with great warmth how he did not stand on ceremony nor let ego come in the way of forging a creative partnership with Jiggs to offer the best of vegetarian in the land. Earlier, Jiggs had been invited by the Punjab Food Corp for similar collaboration but predictably the deal petered out.

If you are a diehard carnivore don’t lose heart; the Parampara brand has launched a plethora of recipe specific mixes that just have to be emptied in the pan with fish, fowl or lamb to obtain Kolhapuri, Govan or Kerala specialties. If you are reluctant to exert even this little bit—there are dozens of ‘heat and eat’ sachets, packets. Nor is the choice limited to Indian and what goes by the name of continental in this subcontinent. Exotica like Thai curry pastes of all hues, pizza bases, toppings and sauces, nachos, tacos, pita and other fancy breads are readily available even in small towns—at least south and west of Kanpur.

Tins are pass`E9; tetra-packs and vacuum-sealed plastic foils are in. Just remember, once opened, they must be refrigerated. Heating can be done in a micro or by putting the foil in boiling water for a few minutes. Zero jhamela is no longer a dream but reality.

For all palates

There are some purists—their numbers are steadily dwindling though— who insist that RTE can never replace the painstakingly prepared homemade fare but this is nitpicking. Traditional home style cooking, bespoke tailoring and custom-made furniture belong to a separate class: they are in fact quite a different genre. Their measure is aesthetic not utilitarian. RTE is akin to a lovingly crafted replica or a reproduction of what brings a work of art within the reach of discerning but not necessarily affluent persons: certainly not to be scoffed at. RTE does make life easy and much more pleasant for pressed-for-time Indians—particularly for those who suffer form a jaded palate or are constrained to live single.

One of our favourite pranks once in a while is to let these purists gorge on homemade food and then when they are making ecstatic appreciative noises, disclose that they have in fact been treated to RTE bete noires! It is amazing how original and creative you can be when you don’t have to slog in the kitchen for hours kneading and rolling, cleaning, chopping, grinding dry and wet, stir/shallow and deep frying till this or that changes colour or fat separates and rises to surface! Then you can devote imagination and energy to garnishes and presentation flourishes. If packaged spices and pastes ginger-garlic et al are kosher then tell us what is wrong with quality-controlled (by reputed brand names) RTE?

It is not only the big boys who are gung ho about this development. The butcher and the friendly neighbourhood butcher and baker too have started putting their money where our mouth is. (Pardon mixing the metaphors). Their chilled shelves are laden with marinated tikkas, seenkhs, tangari and shami, etc. Naan and kulcha are as abundant as pizza bases, multi-grain breads. Biryani is frequently procured from some local bawarchi who delivers the dough-sealed handi at the doorstep a la pizzas and burgers. There was a time when only the dessert was bought for the party, nowadays, increasingly, only the salad and the boiled rice are made at home. We are not complaining; as far as RTE is concerned, it is BYC (best is yet to come)!