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Magic Mushroom

Three things have struck me in the last week.

The first is that while the delivery segment is growing, so is the home-cooking segment. All of us have frequently written obituaries of this segment, making the usual points: nobody has the time to cook any longer; in most households, all the adults work all day, etc.


But I suspect that the lockdown has changed all that. Now that so many of us continue to work from home, we quite look forward to dinner as the high spot of our days. And whereas, once upon a time, we would just go to a restaurant or phone a delivery service, we now treat cooking as a fun part of the whole stay-at-home experience.


   This led me to another conclusion. Almost by definition, delivery is cheaper than going to a restaurant. But home cooking is the cheapest option of all. Even if you forsake the roti-two sabzis-dal routine of our daily lives and splash out on expensive ingredients, you will still spend much less money than you would have on ordering in or eating out.


   My third conclusion: another consequence of the lockdown has been that import supply chains are now disrupted. If you were used to buying fancy ingredients that came from abroad, then you have had to re-adjust and adapt. For the most part, this has meant looking for Indian options.


   For Indian producers, this has come as a boon. I know lots of specialist producers who used to rely on orders from restaurants. When restaurants closed down in the first part of this pandemic, they lost their business as the orders dried up.


   But many (most, perhaps) have now moved from the B2B segment to selling directly to consumers. They have found, to their surprise, that not only is there a vast home market for their goods, people are willing to pay more than they were earlier because – as we have seen – cooking at home with top Indian ingredients is still cheaper than eating food cooked somewhere else.


   Each week, I am surprised by a) how great this boom is. It goes all the way from wine (why drink third-rate, overpriced imported wine when something like Sette is much better value?) to bakery ingredients (I wrote about Frescotti some weeks ago) to meat (all the way from Artisan Meats to MeisterWurst).


   And b) it still surprises me how high the quality of Indian products is. I am guessing that these suppliers were always out there. They just did not connect with consumers and we didn’t know they were there.


   "So yes, the lockdown is a terrible time for the food business. But there is one small consolation. We are cooking more at home and we are using the finest, purely Indian, fresh ingredients."

   We have been cooking at my home for several months without any imported ingredients (except cheese perhaps) and honestly, we have never eaten better.


   In the case of vegetables, the sudden availability of domestic ingredients has come as a pleasant surprise. We don’t always realise this but fruit and vegetables at sabzi-wallahs are often imported. Till now, local vegetables have faced all kinds of hurdles because of supply chain problems that afflict poor farmers.


   Let’s take the example of strawberries. When was the last time you tasted a really sweet Indian strawberry? The problem is that fruit in India is often harvested too early because of the gap between the time the farmer picks it and its appearance in the shops. So, strawberries are often picked before the sugars have developed.


   I was talking to Achintya Anand, a former chef who now runs Krishi Cress, an urban farm in Chattarpur on the outskirts of Delhi, about how difficult it is to get flavourful tomatoes and other vegetables in Delhi. Anand used to supply high-end restaurants till the lockdown hit and he switched to selling directly to consumers. (It is He works with small farmers near Delhi and has been struck by how dependent they are on a system of middlemen that prevents them from supplying the best quality.


   Among the many things that Anand is passionate about is mushrooms. I am a mushroom fanatic so I got him to send me some and the quality was excellent: fresher and far better than anything I have seen on sale in Mumbai or Delhi.


  Sumit Sharan started off supplying mushrooms to Perch in Delhi but developed a large client base among top restaurants till the lockdown hit. His company Shroomery (you can order from Instagram then went directly to consumers and he has been staggered by the response.


   I tried his Portobello mushrooms and they were delicious, full of umami mushroom flavour. He also sources shiitake and morels from small farmers all over India and manages to keep quality high and prices lower than they would be in the shops. Between Krishi Cress and Shroomery we have been cooking up mushroom feasts at home for the last few days. I took Shroomery’s oyster mushrooms and cooked them with Goan sausage (masalas and sausages by Crescentia Fernandes who I have written about here). I took Krishi Cress’s Portobello and King Oyster (which, despite the name, is quite different from normal oyster mushrooms) and made a risotto. My wife cooked whole (huge) Portobello mushrooms with bacon. I am starting on the fresh shiitake tonight and thinking of suitable Oriental recipes for them. And there are still three packets of mushrooms in the fridge.


   All of this is immensely exciting for someone like me who is used to buying mushrooms abroad, bringing them home and then consuming them quickly before they go off. Now, there is no pressure. I know I can buy small quantities and just re-order at will.


   If you are ordering mushrooms, then remember that oyster mushrooms can be chopped and used in a sabzi, button mushrooms are the ones restaurants use for such dishes as Dhingri Muttar, shiitake are the black mushrooms that Chinese restaurants use (though they prefer dried, not fresh) and Portobello are those giant mushrooms that seem to have escaped from Alice in Wonderland.


   So yes, the lockdown is a terrible time for the food business. But there is one small consolation. We are cooking more at home and we are using the finest, purely Indian, fresh ingredients.



Posted On: 17 Oct 2020 11:30 AM
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