Our last unmasked night out at a restaurant was a year ago. The pandemic, and a year at the sink, has changed how we cook and dine

This time last year we were dreaming of butter in ransacked grocery aisles. Panic buying tinned food, stockpiling flour and hunting down biscuits in a desperate attempt to hold on to familiar comforts. Telling ourselves we just need to get through the next few weeks till things settle. Little did we know…

Remember your last unmasked restaurant dinner? That final heady cocktail in our pre-pandemic, hedonistic sanitiser-free lives? The last packed nightclub, alive with strobe lights and sweaty with dancers, none of whom had ever quarantined.

A time before QR-code menus, temperature checks and vaccination selfies.

It has been a year since India’s first lockdown, and the pandemic has changed the way we live, and hence naturally, the way we eat.

First, we washed dishes

March 2020 was a haze of grocery runs, YouTube cooking classes and scrubbing kadais between Zoom meetings.

Perhaps TikTok food trends best explain how the year influenced our cooking. First came sourdough, demanding skill, patience and basic ingredients — ideal for a time when ambulance sirens shrieked outside our windows and we craved a challenging distraction from ominous daily COVID-19 graphs.

Then came Dalgona coffee, channelling our excess energy into whipping sugar, milk and instant coffee into a fragrant froth. Now, as life begins to resume familiar patterns, a quick, elegant nature cereal is trending: pomegranate seeds, berries and ice cubes in a bowl with coconut water.

What they all have in common is a focus on quality ingredients. Through the first few months of lockdown, when fresh vegetables were in short supply, people began to explore ways to be more self sufficient, foraging through their backyards and starting kitchen gardens.

Paranoia around infected surfaces forced us to scrub our bags of rice, potatoes and apples with equal vigour, as well as cook instead of ordering in. Classes from mothers, grandmothers and chefs on Instagram demonstrated basic techniques and demystified regional ingredients, even as Facebook and WhatsApp groups buzzed with generously shared family recipes and cooking hacks.

One year later, we are all more comfortable in the kitchen. It helps that lockdown triggered a wave of food start-ups supplying high quality sauces, pickles and masala for home cooks making it easier to put together both family meals and dinner parties.

It also led to a dramatic rise in dishwasher sales.

Now, the joy of masked dining

Covid baby restaurants surprised everyone, including their promoters. Launching a restaurant is always risky. In a world bristling with fear, you would think it would be riskier. However, after many months of home cooking and solitary dining, customers are embracing new openings with excitement. So these spaces, opened soon after lockdown, bustle with a cheery camaraderie bolstered by a year of confinement.

Eager to venture out again, buoyed by savings accrued from a year at home, people are congregating at restaurants to work, reunite with friends or just linger over coffee.

The romance with home chefs was short. Of course, there was a rise in talented, motivated ones, who steadily cooked their way through the pandemic, drawing a loyal audience. But, in the surge of 2020, many put profits over passion, cutting costs on ingredients and raising prices arbitrarily. Quality is often inconsistent and packaging haphazard, although they do seem to strive tirelessly when it comes to updating Instagram.

We also saw a surge in dark kitchens, as customers embraced takeaway, all of varying quality. Given the current levels of competition, many of last year’s food start-ups will not survive through 2021. The survival of the fittest will come into play, so the ones that do stay open will be a dependable, valuable addition to the city’s foodscape.

The pandemic has devastated the hospitality industry, with restaurant closures and job cuts. However, the last few months have seen an encouraging number of restaurant openings, capitalising on low rents, lower overheads and a large pool of talented manpower available because of last year’s closures.

In response to the lockdowns, they are designed to be bright, filled with sunshine and colour. Menus focus on comfort over style, and local ingredients over imported exotica. Service is less formal, prioritising warmth over ritual. And customers, largely, are less demanding, grateful to be out again.

After a year of uncertainty, restaurants remind us about the joy of social interaction, even if it does come with masks, temperature guns and sanitiser.

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