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How did mayonnaise become such a rage?

It may be a generational thing but mayonnaise formed no part of my growing years.

We never made it at home (did anyone in India, I wonder) and we never bought bottles of the ready-made stuff from the grey market (food imports were banned in those days).

 

Frankly, I don’t think I even knew what mayonnaise was till I was 10 and noticed that the school’s rock band was called The Mayonnaise. I assumed, reasonably enough, that the band was named after the school and was surprised when an obviously more sophisticated classmate told me that the name was actually a pun. (“It is like the salad sauce and Mayo College mixed together, yaar!”)

 

   Newly aware that such a salad sauce existed, I began looking out for it. I found it when we travelled abroad. The French dipped their chips (as in French Fries) in mayonnaise (they still don’t know how to make good tomato ketchup); the English made a puddle of mayonnaise around hard-boiled eggs and served the dish as an appetiser: Egg Mayonnaise. But in India, the only places I ever saw it were five star hotel buffets and the homes of rich vegetarian relatives, where a Russian Salad (disgusting vegetables mixed with mayonnaise) would be considered a great ‘Continental’ delicacy along with “Baked Dish” (disgusting vegetables cooked with white sauce).

 

   So, imagine my surprise now that I see that mayonnaise has become one of the most popular and fastest-growing sauces in India! Later generations were obviously more exposed to mayonnaise than I was. And such is Indian ingenuity that this French sauce, popularised by American food companies, is mainly supplied to the Indian market by two domestic food companies (Cremica and Veeba) whose sales far exceed those of foreign multinationals who have tried to flog their bottled mayonnaise in India. What’s more, the Indian market has developed to the extent that Veeba, for instance, manufactures and markets over 50 different kinds of mayonnaise. (Yups. Fifty!)

 

   But we are getting ahead of ourselves. First of all, what is mayonnaise?

 

   There are two answers to this question. One, given by ordinary consumers, is that it is a creamy, light yellow sauce that you put on salad or use as a sandwich spread. The second, given by foodie types, is that it is a miracle of nature: an emulsion of two substances – oil and water – which do not normally go together.

 

   Though there are numerous recipes for mayonnaise, the principle is the same. You put egg yolks in a bowl with some seasoning. Then you keep adding oil in little driblets and stirring till you have a thick pale yellow sauce. At the very end, you add a little acid (vinegar, white wine etc.). And that’s pretty much about it.

 

   The ‘miracle of nature’ stuff has to do with the emulsion (the opposite of a solution). In recent years, molecular chefs and food scientists have created a little industry out of explaining why a mayonnaise emulsion is stable. It’s because the egg yolks contain protein which helps emulsify (and stabilise) the water from the egg (about 50 per cent of yolk is water) with the oil.

 

   All of this is of little interest to us except for one vital scientific fact: the chief contributions of the egg to mayonnaise are water and protein (which is 15 per cent of the yolk).

 

   Suppose you were to add water and some other (non-egg) protein to oil. Could you still make something like a mayonnaise?

 

   Yes, you could. Some early mayonnaise recipes call for meat protein rather than egg. But could you do it with a vegetarian protein?

 

   The answer to this question is worth thousands of crores because, if you can use vegetarian proteins, then you can create an eggless mayonnaise. And once you have an eggless, totally vegetarian product, you have the keys to the Indian market.

 

   In the mid-1990s, Indian companies called Cremica and Fun Food (since sold to a multinational) experimented with making mayonnaise with milk protein. When they succeeded, they had created a mayonnaise that all Indian restaurants could serve without fear of offending vegetarian sensibilities.

 

   But why, I hear you ask, would Indians want to eat mayonnaise anyway? It is hardly a vital part of the Indian diet.

 

   Ah, but the Indian diet is changing faster than we realise.

 

 "As with much of the food industry’s success stories, the answer is that Indians took a Western product and re-invented it." 

   In the 1990s, the global fast food companies arrived in India. If you have eaten a fast food hamburger you will know that it has three basic tastes: maida from the bun, a hint of meat from the slender patty and lots of moist, saucy flavour.

 

   When people eat a fast food sandwich, they respond most clearly to the wet, sloppy, saucy flavour between the meat (oraloo patty) and the bun. So, the trick is to get the sauces right because they are the key to the flavour profile. (Try eating a fast food burger without the sauce. It tastes of cardboard.)

 

   The first fast food sandwiches in the Indian market used mayonnaise and ketchup for their flavouring. For ketchup, Cremica became a clear favourite: Cremica Ketchup beats Heinz in blind tastings and is much cheaper.

 

   But mayonnaise was a problem. Fast food companies had already discovered that they did not know how to appeal to vegetarians, a market segment they had rarely encountered elsewhere in the world. They did not want to put vegetarians off even more by using an egg-based sauce like mayonnaise even though it was crucial to the taste of their sandwiches.

 

   Eggless mayonnaise was God’s gift to McDonald’s, KFC and the rest. KFC began using Indian eggless mayonnaise for its coleslaw. McDonald’s used it for its burgers. All the other giants duly followed suit.

 

   In the process, they introduced a new generation of Indians to mayonnaise. Says Akshay Bector of Cremica, “there would not have been a mayonnaise boom without eggless mayonnaise. Indian companies managed what no multinational had done: popularising a stable eggless mayo.”

 

   Plus, mayonnaise had an added advantage. It is a terrific carrier of flavour and texture. Tartar Sauce is basically mayonnaise with chopped gherkins, onions, etc. Aioli, the great garlic sauce of Southern Europe, is essentially a garlic mayonnaise. In the West, chefs have long added flavours to mayonnaise (mustard, tarragon etc.) recognising that it is a perfect vehicle for conveying flavours.

 

   If you break down the cost of a fast food sandwich, you will see that the filling (especially if it is non-vegetarian) is the largest single component. Next comes the bread. The sauce is the cheapest.

 

   And yet, it is the sauce that conveys the flavours that people remember. So flavouring the mayonnaise offered restaurants and food companies the perfect opportunity to add new tastes at minimal cost.

 

   The owners of Fun Food sold out and started Veeba, building their new empire on eggless mayonnaise. Cremica also dominated the eggless mayonnaise segment. Both companies created a huge new market that had not existed till the start of this century.

 

   At first they sold their flavoured mayonnaise to the trade. But in recent years they have entered the retail market, selling mayonnaise directly to consumers, making millions in the process.

 

   Who buys bottled mayonnaise and why do they do it? I asked Viraj Bahl of Veeba about his customers. Viraj reckoned that one reason for the mayonnaise boom was the sandwich explosion. As a consequence of various factors – the influence of the fast food menus, the availability of better bread and fillings etc. – more and more Indians are making sandwiches at home. Kids don’t necessarily go to school any longer with dabbas full of sabzi and rotis. Their parents pack sandwiches for them.

 

   The parents themselves find it easier to make a sandwich to take to the office rather than get up early to cook an Indian meal for their own lunchboxes.

 

   Many of these people don’t necessarily like Western-style sandwiches. They want a hit of spice and masala. Flavoured mayonnaise provides that. Also, why bother with butter which you have to take out of the fridge, wait till it melts to a softer texture and then spread on your sandwich? It is easier to open a bottle of Cremica, Veeba or Dr. Oetker (who bought Fun Food) mayonnaise and slather it on your bread.

 

   Plus, the mayonnaise flavours offer more variety than plain old butter. Many are masaledar and appeal to the Indian palate. There is even a makhni sauce mayonnaise!

 

   So how did mayonnaise, largely unknown in India during my childhood, become such a rage?

 

   As with much of the food industry’s success stories, the answer is that Indians took a Western product and re-invented it. We threw out the egg, created a purely vegetarian version and filled it with the chatpata flavours of our own cuisines.

 

   Indians like global cuisine. But we always like it on our own terms.

 

 

Posted On: 20 Jan 2018 06:00 PM
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