Kings in the medieval period had a fool-proof method of checking out public opinion against them: they would go in disguise to the markets and strike up conversations with the man on the street. ITPO would do well to take a leaf out of the royal book, because every time FHRAI magazine went to a stall, all one heard was bitter complaints about the organization or lack of it. In essence, the grouse was that Ahaar was far more successful than the organizers could have hoped, with several more participants coming forward. Chaos ensued. There was no clear, well-marked floor-plan, there was frequently no coherence between the stall’s name and how they were registered with ITPO, there was no exhibitors’ directory, not even any stall numbering that was intelligible to the business visitor. The bugbear that many exhibitors have about Pragati Maidan continued: as a trade show, it should not have been open to the public; children were out of place at a forum like this.
We ourselves felt that there was too much intermingling between equipment and food exhibitors. Tushar – well-known importers of Callebaut chocolate, ice-cream mixes and bread mixes was in the midst of the equipment players. Even colour-coding the stall names – one colour each for mechanical equipment, table top accessories, food and beverage would have helped. We also felt that food stalls became the step-child of the equipment exhibitors.
Be that as it may, Ahaar was very successful for many of the equipment manufacturers and importers who exhibited there. It is possible to say the same thing about some of the food stalls too: Pakistani spice major – Shan – can be considered a brand that has been made in Pragati Maidan. They have been attending every Ahaar and International Trade Fair for the last few years and have assiduously built up a network of dealers and distributors. Ahaar 2008 was no exception: Arun Ganguly was pleasantly surprised that he still gets as many dealer enquiries as he did.
However, the food players by and large, belonged to the small sector: major players were conspicuous by their absence, except for branded rice giants Lal Qila and Kohinoor. Aashirwad, Haldirams, MTR, MDH, Brooke Bond, HLL – none of them felt the need to attend the fair. Lavazza who did attend the fair, appeared to be there solely for cosmetic purposes. The skeletal staff strength did not give the impression that they were there to increase awareness about their product. The manager admitted as much to this reporter. “Everyone in the industry knows who we are,” he preened.
It is entirely possible that with the sheer plethora of trade shows in the country, small and medium players stick to visiting and exhibiting in those that are geographically close to them. Ahaar, by that yardstick, precludes many players from the southern states and even Mumbai that has its own show. Having several splinter food and beverage exhibitions all over the country throughout the year effectively precludes international visitors and exhibitors who would be confused about which show would give them the most benefits.
Rahul Upadhyay of Rossari Empire was left with very few bottles of olive oil by the last evening of the fair. His olive oil from Andalusia contained the cold-pressed oil of two olive types: hojiblanca and arbequina. He was one stall holder who welcomed the Average Joe to his stall, because it turned into a ripe testing ground for the product. Just setting out a bowl of olive oil and a few pieces of bread makes you privy to a welter of facial expressions as customers try the product. It is as potent a marketing tool as any.
Ritesh Bajaj felt the same way about his almonds, cashews and pistachios. As a Khari Baoli trader of these three crops, he always looked around for ways to tie these in to his passion for food. Until he hit upon the perfect solution: why not flavour them with onion garlic salt, lime chilli and pudina. Experimenting with the cashew nuts was not difficult: Tulsi Nuts obtains them from the Orissa-Andhra Pradesh border, Quilon and Mangalore.
It was the pistachio nuts that proved the biggest challenge. Typically, they come from three sources: Iran, Afghanistan and California, the latest kid on the block. Touching up the Afghan product would be a crime: the nut from that country is as wild and natural as it gets, given the state of agriculture there. “Yield is not more than 55 percent compared with more than 75 percent in California,” claims Bajaj. Yet Afghanistan’s pistachio is a revelation in taste: a tiny nut with an intense green colour inside and a pungent flavour, it is never brought to India salted. “It is the only type of pistachio that can be used for the expensive pistay ki lauz,” clarifies Bajaj. In comparison, Iran and California’s products are bland. Iran’s product has a greenish hued shell which is not fancied in the Indian market, and California’s product with its yellowish interior and pink exterior has taken the all-important Diwali market by storm.
Tulsi Nuts’ stall at Ahaar 2008 became a sort of testing chamber: all the owning family had to do was track which passer-by helped himself to which nut and note his facial expressions: a slight grimace meant too much salt; a disappointed look meant not enough spice; raised eyebrows meant they had been too generous with the chilli. Tulsi Nuts must have expended considerable raw material for the purpose of their research, but then, they are nothing if not generous: Ritesh Bajaj reckons he has wasted over a hundred kilos of pistachios in experiments!
Zirtoon, an olive oil brand had come to Ahaar all the way from Syria. Manager Ziad Djaroueh spoke too little English to market his product effectively but had appointed a couple of dealers: thin air in Pragati Maidan’s exhibitions is rife with hundreds of agents and dealers who seemingly spring out of nowhere at the opportune moment.
However, there were several lacunae at Ahaar 2008. The first was the absence of the Chinese mafia. The country that grows everything from pistachio nuts to grapes and makes everything from mid-market confectionery to sweet-sour preserved fruit was conspicuous by its absence. Ditto for Thailand, whose canned coconut milk, packaged curry pastes and crab sticks have been the chief reason that every multi-cuisine restaurant in the country can keep Thai curries on their menu. Former years have seen Thai and Chinese stalls doing brisker business than others, so the absence is puzzling.
The other lacuna is with equipment. Considering that Mediterranean food is so huge a trend in the country, paella pans and tagines have always been a mystifying absence. And when there are so many espresso machines and coffee importers, why don’t we see more authentic espresso cups? Not counted are the ones done by bone china manufacturers: their cups lack the thickness. Nor are the bell-shaped pretenders any consolation: they add insult to injury. The other great mystery is the olive fruit and olive oil accessory. You don’t get the fancy, easy-on-the-eye glass or porcelain stoppers that every European restaurant and home has. Bowls for hummus, olives or Mediterranean starters are an unseen quantity and we’d like to know why.