India and France have a linked culinary history that goes back centuries if not millennia. Over time, ingredients, flavours, colours, textures, smells and presentations have evolved and become refined and enormously diversified in the cuisines of both the countries. Both cuisines are over-indulgent when it comes to ingredients, and people in both cultures share an amazing amount of love and passion for their food. It is no surprise that the French culture is much appreciated in India. Even though India is not new to French cuisine, what we are now witnessing is a gradual acceptance and appreciation of French food by Indian diners.
A new wave of casual French and French-inspired restaurants has swept over our country. Chefs and investors are now ready to experiment because of the growing market that made way for some of the finest and new restaurant concepts coming into India in a big way. Today, we see so many French dishes featuring on breakfast, lunch and even on the dinner menus of popular local and chain restaurants. Creme Brûlée, for example, a well-known dessert made of rich custard topped with caramelised sugar, has many Indian adaptations, such as the Indian-style Creme Brûlée infused with saffron that is present on menus not exclusively French. Salads, soups and basic French main courses—like duck- and meat-based dishes loosely based on classic French recipes—are also being adapted in India. Not just this, with so many bistros (modelled on traditional French restaurants serving food in a modest setting) coming up by the day, one does not have to go to a fancy restaurant to enjoy a Coq au Vin or Croque Monsieur anymore, when you can have it in these Indian bistros offering traditional French dishes any day, all day.
The one French creation that Indians have whole-heartedly embraced is pâtisserie. France is undoubtedly the ultimate home of the finest desserts. Makin these is both a science (a balance of different tastes and textures) and an art. Indian culture glorifies both science and art and that is why the French approach to pastry-making is received well here. It is also noteworthy that the convenience of not having to travel to France in order to enjoy the delectable culinary experience also plays a significant role in making French cuisine a roaring success in India. There is a sense of pride displayed by residents of Indian metro cities in knowing that high-end, authentic French establishments are blossoming across their cities.
French gastronomy has subtly come to influence Indian cuisine. Now, dishes here are prepared using local ingredients but with French techniques. So you see French-influenced dishes modified and altered to suit the Indian palate. Many Indian chefs, too, have started working with basic French methods—using sauces, broths, reductions, compotes—while presenting their dishes in a chic way.
This in turn is a reflection of the influence French cuisine has had in India. Chefs are breaking stereotypes by preparing vegetarian dishes with a French twist—dishes that are visually appealing, gastronomically inventive and yet loyal to the traditional luxuriousness and precision of French cuisine. Many even offer elaborate salads comprising vegetables popular in France, such as celeriac, turnips, sun chokes, rhubarb and parsnips in a French dressing and in a presentation typical of French kitchens. Some are even experimenting and pairing French preparations with exotic teas for health benefits.
It all comes down to the fact that Indian diners today are more open to experimenting with foreign cuisines and ingredients. There has been a steep rise in the demand for the French breads we sell at L›Opéra, as well as for other such products over the last five years.
In fact, when we arrived in India over 10 years ago, we noticed a serious lack of authentic French breads and pâtisseries. It was a window of opportunity to create a brand that could cater to people’s ever-growing urge for authentic French food and so, we persevered and succeeded in executing the concept to make L’Opéra the foremost pâtisserie, boulangerie and even launched our Salon de Thé (Tea Room) outlets that allow customers to enjoy French specialties in a bigger setting.
Other international cuisines have also found favour with Indian diners. Over the last few years, many restaurants serving both Japanese ramen and Mexican tacos have opened their doors to satisfy the increasingly curious palate of those Indians who eat out two or three nights a week. For crepes, quiches, baguettes and croissants, it is mostly French entrepreneurs who have created restaurants, kiosks, even food trucks, to spread the flavours of their country to these shores. As ardent lovers of French food, these entrepreneurs bring new experiences to the cities they reside in, with Parisian-style terraces, light-as-air croissants and jewel-like macarons.
That Indians are embracing French traditions and living is clear from the fact that there is a burgeoning interest in brie cheese and sourdough bread. It is the receptiveness of Indian diners, especially the young, to French cuisine that has led to the success of many concepts pioneered by L’Opéra. Other French brands, such as Brioche Dorée and Paul, have also established their Indian branches for the same reason. For me, India has definitely reached a point where the food culture is opening up to diverse influences, and this will only continue in the years to come.
The author is Executive Chairman, L’Opéra, an authentic French pâtisserie, boulangerie and Salon de Thé in Delhi-NCR