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  • Exotic products such as Kiwi, hazelnuts, asparagus make their way into India plates

    Oct 13th, 2015

    When Gurgaon resident Avanti Agarwal (name changed) got married this year, dishes made of white asparagus that she had arranged to be served turned out to be a huge hit.

    "We had a separate stall serving white asparagus because it is healthier and more nutritious than the green one. Everyone loved the salads and soups made from it," said Avanti who is a vice president with a multinational bank and a health freak. She is also a regular at gourmet stores in the National Capital Region. Avanti is not an exception and this is not something that's reserved for special occasions. The grocery lists of many households these days have exotic products such as hazelnuts, asparagus, basil and kiwi fruit— products that were barely visible in the country a few years ago and now increasingly appealing to the Indian palette.

    Consider this: India imported $270,000 worth of shelled hazelnuts in the first four months of this financial year compared with $150,000 in the whole of 2014-15. Similarly, asparagus imports have already crossed $160,000 compared with $400,000 last year. Imports of herbs such as rosemary and basil, the foreign cousin of the desi tulsi plant, have more than doubled to $3.5 million in this period from the whole of 2014-15.

    Purchases of exotic fruit, vegetables, oils and other ingredients are increasing, thanks to higher incomes, the opening up of gourmet food stores and the rising number of Indians travelling abroad and bringing new tastes back home. Add to this, cookery shows -- both Indian and foreign - that have exposed the upper middle-class to a range of ingredients and dishes so much that the level of experimentation has gone up dramatically.

    "People want something new in every category -- even something as basic as potatoes. We find that broccoli and baby corns, which were considered essential in Chinese cooking, are now passe. Instead, things like water chestnuts have made their way. People explore new flavours when they travel abroad and want to replicate them here," said Swasti Aggarwal, food strategist at Foodhall, Future Group's premium food store.

    Avocados, native to Mexico and Central America, are Foodhall's highest-selling product these days. The best quality berry costs Rs700-800 each. Aggarwal said that while buying these exotic products, her customers also ask about their health benefits and recipes. Avocado is used in dips, salads, wraps, smoothies and brownies.

    Data from the commerce ministry shows that imports of niger seeds, the oil of which is a substitute for olive oil, have quadrupled to $2.7 million this year. Shipments of virgin olive oil are likely to surpass last year's level of $7.61 million.

    "Olive oil imports are up because edible oil prices have collapsed globally. However, one can't discount the fact that people are giving greater importance to health and wellness and hence, even willing to pay a premium for such products," said Ajay Sahai, Director General and CEO at the Federation of Indian Export Organisations. Higher hazelnut imports have been driven by the opening up of coffee chains that offer hazelnut-based beverages and desserts, besides the growth of chocolate manufacturing in India. The increased purchasing power of India is evident from the imports of raw cashew nuts in the April-July period, which at $636 million are already 60% of the $1.08 billion shipped in during the previous financial year.

    "Domestic cashew consumption is almost 2.25 lakh tons and has been rising. There is consumption here but we can't increase production because of certain regulatory conditions like land ceiling rules," said K Sasi Varma, executive director and secretary of the Cashew Export Promotion Council of India.