If there were ever a beauty pageant for desserts, the exquisitely elegant French pastries would win hands down. From the impossibly perfect Ispahans that delicately sandwich layers of raspberries and lychees with creamy meringue, to the sinfully colored macarons softened with ganache and buttercream, the French repertoire of sweet treats is a study in delight.
French desserts have always been a connoisseur’s favorite, but off late, yuppy Indians are queuing up at bistros and boulangeries for a slice of that classic confection.
Over the past several years, as eating-in became cool, the young, at least when it came to desserts, took to easy bakes, like nutella microwave cakes and mug puddings. A look at the menus of eateries frequented by Gen X in New York City shows a return to the vintage kitchen in the form of French vacherins and choux pastries. At Marc Patisserie, the boutique at Selfridges in London, éclairs in flavors like banofee and cassis are flying off the shelves. The younger generation of foodies seems ready to appreciate the craft behind classical French confections.
While for an American to appreciate a Tarte Tatin, after growing up on apple pie, may come easy, but an increasing number of Indians too are not only pronouncing, but also appreciating a croquembouche with relative ease. Having had their tasteful of barfis and halwas, neo rich Indians are in a mood to round out their meals with fancy Western desserts.
The trend took off a few years ago, when traditional mithais, during festivals such as Diwali, were replaced with chocolates. Post then, the inclination to explore the toothsome treats from around the world has persisted. Parisian desserts in their classic form, getting revived world over, gave Indians an impetus to move beyond just the mousse and the tarts.
One sociological explanation for this sweet exchange is the growing number of NRIs visiting India and an even larger number of Indians taking leisure trips abroad. NRIs constitute under 1 percent of the Indian population. However, they are significantly shaping the aspirations of millions of middle class Indians at a time disposable incomes and global exposure is growing in metros nationwide.
Anecdotal evidence also suggests that Indians are among the most adaptable communities, absorbing food practices, dressing habits and nuances of alien cultures much more readily.
A great example of not just adopting, but mastering, the culinary culture behind French desserts is the hugely popular Bonelle Pastry Shop in Forest Hills, N.Y., which is run by Indians. Devika Ravel, who takes care of operations in this bakery, established by her sister Rahita Ravel, says: “When my sister opened the place 25 years ago, there was never a doubt in her mind that a French bakery run by Indians would be a problem. We were more concerned about other logistical issues.”
The fact that a good almond croissant turns Americans on, no matter the kitchen it comes from, was evident last year when the bakery was facing eviction. Residents of the neighborhood stepped up to organize support to secure a renewal of its lease and ensure that the bakery stayed operational. Devika Ravel says, “Our customers are very diverse. Americans love their mousse dome as much as Indians do.”
Despite the fact that the traditional Indian sweet palate does not take kindly to sour flavors, such as lemon or tarty rhubarb, in sweets, the French desserts with these components continues to fascinate Indians.
Frenchman Kazem Samandari, who runs a chain of French boutique bakeries La’Opera in India, says: “Like many things in life, it is a matter of taste. Some would say that Indian and French desserts are essentially different, but both rely on a balance of tastes and textures. Indian desserts are made mainly out of sugar, dry fruits and milk. French pastries made with caramel, such as the Mille Feuilles, would certainly appeal to those who appreciate these desserts. Others, however, would be of the opinion that the two cuisines are so vastly different — the French use chocolate, fresh fruits and cream in their desserts and that is another contrast that entices Indians to French desserts.”
What’s important in both culinary cultures is a sense of balance; salty, sweet, bitter, sour are all flavors that can be subtly combined. Within reason, any ingredient can be used in a dessert; differences, such as the lack of lemon or chocolate, in Indian desserts simply arise from the local availability of ingredients and culinary habits, such as the Indian aversion to sourness. But combined with the sweetness of, say, meringue in a lemon tart, the result is pure delight.
During the past decade, the dessert scene in India has changed dramatically. Those who lived or studied abroad had little option but to satisfy their sweet cravings with muffins or cupcakes. And those who stayed in the country were also curious of Western tastes.
Pastry chef Shipra Khanna, who hosts a Nigella Lawson-esque dessert show called Pure Sin, aired on the Food channel, says, “Indians are appreciating classics in food because over the past few years they have satiated themselves with experimental cuisine.”
She adds: “Our comfort level has moved beyond halwa and we have been doing twisty desserts, such as chocolate samosa and besan halwa tarts. Now having learnt the basics behind ganaches, fondant and preserves, we want to explore vintage French favorites such as Napoleons and clafoutis.”
The trend is no doubt tilted toward cosmopolitan cities and speaks to a distinct segment of the new India.
Khanna, whose new book on desserts, titled Simply Sin, released recently, says: “When we say French dessert, that too the classics, we are talking of a niche section. The trend is expensive, it’s taste bound and requires some exposure to global tastes.”
But then what explains its popularity amongst the younger generation, the ones who are just beginning their financial journeys. Samandari offers an explanation: “Today the French dessert experience has become accessible to a much larger audience. Macarons, Mille Feuilles, fruit mousses and are now accessible outside Five Star hotels.”
The Indian travel bug has accentuated the desire. Indians flocking to Paris make the customary trip to world famous boulangeries — Laduree or Pierre Herme. Thanks to the cronut craze, of late people travelling to New York also try to make a pit stop at Dominique Ansel, in addition to a plethora of smaller high-end patisseries.
But if you thought that Indians with new money are just polishing off these delights, then it’s important to also note that leading culinary school across the globe report a growth in Indian culinary students undertaking patisserie making.
Pooja Dhingra, owner Le Café, in Mumbai, who is often dubbed Bollywood’s favorite macroon lady, says: “A few years ago when I studied at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, I was the only Indian in my batch. Today every class has about half a dozen Indian students.”
The American Culinary School too attracts Indian students keen on learning the craft of rolling cake dough and caramelizing Crème Brule. Home bakers, both in India and America, are catering to a large section of Indians now demanding French cakes for special occasions.
Chef Khanna, who was winner of Masterchef India 2012, gives another example why the time is just right for this return to retro amongst new-age Indians with a global exposure: “During the first few rounds in Masterchef show, we were given ingredients such as yam and lotus stem to make a dish of our choice. When I made a dessert out of these ingredients I was a bit unsure. But my yam mousse with apple compote and caramelized lotus stems was a winner. Not just the judges, but also the viewers were delighted and requested for a recipe. That made me realize that we are far ahead on the culinary curve than we may think.”
Samandari agrees: “Coffee is an ingredient that Indians would seldom use in desserts; the Opéra cake, a quintessentially French dessert, is made with coffee. Interestingly this is one of L’Opéra’s best-selling pastries, so I guess Indians are eager to discover.”