Author’s Note : When I was asked to give my views on the potential of regional cuisine in India, I didn’t need to think too much about what I was going to say. India – with its 29 States and 7 Union Territories is comparable to the continent of Europe. Each state has its own individual language, cuisine, gods and goddesses, heroes, rituals and high holidays. Regional diversity has given the F&B industry so much scope for eminence and revenue, that we ought to be the champions of such diversity and identify and invest in the potential of such cuisines sitting under our very noses. Before I share my views on how there is place for the niche-est of cuisines in India today, I would like to add — despite the fact that we as a country are undergoing what will surely be termed as a tumultuous period in our history today, my experience running The Bohri Kitchen for 5 years has taught me one thing – this nation loves its diversity. We love our food and we love our neighbour’s food! The vast amounts of love, goodwill and acknowledgement that my mother’s food has gained across the city of Mumbai has gone a long way to prove that being a religious or indigenous minority may be a numbers game, but being Indian is about acceptance and respect. And as long as the will of the people prevails, there is place for every kind of person, food and culture in this beautiful country.
I run a little business called The Bohri Kitchen (TBK). There are barely 2 million Dawoodi Bohra’s around the world. That’s right 20 lakhs. Understandably our food, our culture and everything about us is ‘niche’ – in fact most Indians probably don’t know what a Dawoodi Bohra Muslim is. Within Islam, we fall within the Shia Sect – our forefathers travelled from Yemen to Gujarat and eventually Maharashtra. Today we’re splattered (much like salli wafer on our raan in red masala) across the world but have larger concentrations in India which also happens to be the seat of power of our clergy.
The cuisine is a representation of our origins and the journey that conveyors of our faith undertook. Our tradition of sitting around and eating from the 3.5 ft diameter steel thaal (platter) arose from the need to protect our food from desert winds that carried sand with them. Who wants sand in their samosas! Our community style of eating from one large platter was a practical move to conserve water and was also in large part rooted in the tribal nature of life in the desert.
We follow various customs such as starting the meal with salt to activate your taste buds, eating one course at a time and alternating between savory and sweet to reset our palate with every course amongst many others. The idea is that our Smoked Patti Samosas, Raan in Red Masala, Incredibly Dum Biryanis, Khajur and Dry fruit chutneys or even the Pineapple Boondi Raita are massively complimented with the entire experience of eating from the Bohri Thaal. We don’t just bite into our Patti Samosas, we bite of a corner, add some lemon in there to really activate that dhungar (the process of smoking and infusing the flavor of burnt charcoal smoke into a dish) flavor in the kheema, then we dip the samosas into some fresh coriander & mint chutney and only then do we finally eat it.
There’s an old Bohri adage, “Ek Kharaas, Ek Meethas, Ek Bypass, Bohri Khalaas!” (One Savory item, One Sweet Item, One Heart Attack and the Bohri is no more!) – a morose but very obvious way of saying that Bohris love their food above everything else.
For as long as I can remember, probably from the first moment that I picked up a Philips Kotler and learnt about the “4 P’s”– my very first thought must have been the potential to market Bohri Food. The food is outstanding, it is highly palatable across communities and dietary preferences (even our vegetarian Nariyal kebabs, Patveliyas, Undhiyus are tremendous) and its simply not available outside the community.
When I first realized that my mother — Nafisa Kapadia is probably the best Bohri Cuisine chef in the world, I connected a few dots and the idea of The Bohri Kitchen came to life. Today The Bohri Kitchen has got me more press coverage than I can count (that’s a lie, we’ve generated roughly INR 7-8 crores worth of Organic Press) and even put me on the cover of Forbes Magazine. We have led the movement for awareness about this niche cuisine to an extent that Zomato today has a Bohri Food category and Times Food Awards has a category for Best Bohri Restaurant. We’ve raised funds from some of the biggest stalwarts from the Industry and successfully built a business model on the back of our Home Dining Experiences, Catering, Delivery & QSR Verticals – activating a supply chain that’s capable of delivering my mother’s age-old recipes at scale across the country.
The Bohri Kitchen has proven without doubt that a niche cuisine has mainstream potential – in fact I believe therein lies a hidden advantage of a natural moat. A natural self-defense against future competition – which is a huge blessing in an industry with cut throat competition and an absolute lack of Intellectual Property protection (you can’t legally protect your mother’s butter chicken recipe). If you are one of the early movers with respect to your niche cuisine – in all likelihood not only can you create the category but you will represent it. Today not only do many more people think about Bohri food because of what TBK has achieved but when anyone thinks about Bohri Food – they think about The Bohri Kitchen. Bohri Food = The Bohri Kitchen.
While a lot of variables came into force that led to the creation of TBK – a Googler quitting his job to work with his mother and my parents signing off their weekends to hosting strangers in their home– but there’s absolutely no reason why our learnings cannot be replicated by other food entrepreneurs who are passionate about their respective regional cuisines.
You simply need to find the right intersection between your cuisine’s inherent advantages and strengths – and the right distribution or business model that’s suited to the same.
Assets can be in the form of the food itself, is It experiential, is the use of ingredients unique in some way, is there a story behind the food and does the community lend any sort of personality to the venture? Distribution can mean many things – is this cuisine right for a restaurant? Delivery? Catering? Or maybe Pop Ups? It’s important to identify a distribution model suited to the brand’s strengths instead of trying to force a cuisine into a model that it’s not best suited to.
Here are some examples of assets a regional cuisine may have –
The Food – While the food may currently be limited to your community, it might actually have appeal amongst a much wider audience. It’s important to have a very real idea of the size of that audience. With The Bohri Kitchen thanks to our Home Dining Experiences we were confidently able to conclude that this food has a massive target audience. The Biryanis, Samosas, Cutlets or even Haleem made as per my mom’s recipes has mass appeal. Biryani is the largest product category in Delivery – so we entered Delivery. The Thaal is highly engaging and has a massive wow factor – so we started Thaal Experiences. Our Samosas and Baida Roti are perfect for the Takeaway model – so we set up our first QSR at Flea Bazaar Café etc.
Is it Experiential? – Does the cuisine offer anything beyond the actual food itself. Is the food supposed to be eaten in a certain way? Are you supposed to sit on the ground? Are you supposed to follow any tradition while eating the food? Eg. A Parsi bhonu or Malyali sadhya is inherently experiential because of the specific occasions on which these types of meals are usually consumed, the styling of the food on lush banana leaves with a preference for eating the food with your bare hands and the particular condiments and beverages that accompany the food. It is these small layers of idiosyncrasies that elevate a regular meal to a memorable one. The restaurant chain – Rajdhani that dishes out Rajasthani flavours in a sit-down thali service type format has gained distinction for not just the cuisine it serves, but also the kind of quick and fuss-free manner in which they carry out service.
You like or dislike the food more because of that component. At TBK the idea of eating from a Bohri thaal is 50% of the entire experience. The traditions we follow actually make the food more appetising. So much so that we launched our very own Thaal in a Box for our delivery service with the goal of taking a little bit of that experience to our delivery customers as well!
Is there a Story? – Does the community have a story or a personality which might lend value to the food venture. Even jaded stereotypes if leveraged correctly can help the venture succeed. Example – Parsis are known for their distinctive dialect of Gujarati, their easy to prominent style of dressing and funny turn of phrases which Soda Bottle Openerwala has integrated into their brand communication, the menus and even the brand name itself. With TBK we’ve created awareness about the origin story of Bohris – but since that wasn’t enough in itself as the community is more insular than say – the Parsis, we’ve created our own story of a mother who let go of saas-bahu shows and candy crush and a son who let go of Google to create The Bohri Kitchen. Ms. Kalpana Talpade of Kalpana’s kitchen fame brings the story of the Pathare Prabhu community to the fore by showcasing the food, stories and notable figures of the Pathare Prabhu community in the beautiful dining room of her home every weekend. The food in itself is different from your typical Maharashtrian fare but the fact that the community and its food is so little known (even on the internet) you are automatically curious to learn a little bit more.
These are the broader criteria for putting the potential of a ‘regional’ cuisine to the test. A one size fits all approach never works, an appetite for trial-and-error is necessary in this space. There is so much untapped potential in the hinterlands of India and even in metropolitan cities but most families or chefs that decide to bring relatively lesser known cuisines to the table, do so haltingly. If you can leverage the right distribution platform and own the food, story and experience as authentically as possible, both commercial success and critical acclaim are inevitable.
Written by Munaf Kapadia (Chief Eating Officer, The Bohri Kitchen) and Zahabia Rajkotwala (Head of Marketing, The Bohri Kitchen)