Tomato Price Hike: Indian Chefs Talk Effects, Substitutes & More
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Over the last few weeks, the Indian culinary industry—and every Indian household, for that matter—has been impacted by the tomato price hike crisis. Experts have revealed that the severe inflation in tomato prices since June end this year has been primarily caused by the recent monsoon floods, heavy rainfall and diseased crops in parts of the nation that grow and supply the fruit as a major crop. Both crops and tomato supply chains have been severely impacted due to these issues, leading to high prices across India.  

This is not only something that is causing some stress to home cooks and chefs all over India, but also the overall Indian food industry. The biggest news here was when McDonald’s took tomatoes off its menu all across its North and East Indian franchises. But while McDonald’s is a franchise-based giant, there are plenty of culinary professionals and chefs who are also affected by the tomato price hikes. This not only holds true for those who serve Indian cuisine at their restaurants, but also other tomato-based cuisines like Italian. 

So how are Indian chefs handling the tomato price hike? Slurrp caught up with chefs, culinary consultants and experts from across India to answer this and another key question—if not tomatoes, then what should we all use as tomato substitutes until the crisis is resolved? Here is everything you should know. 

Video Credit: YouTube/Turkish Food Travel

Chef Viraf Patel, Director, Firebred Hospitality 

“I mainly deal with European cuisine, so whatever we generally use is imported,” says Chef Viraf Patel. “We use Italian Pilati tomatoes for our pasta and pizza base sauces as well as for our sauces that go with the lamb and other meats. So, we haven’t had to deal with much of the tomato price hike effect there because the prices for those tomatoes have stayed stable. That also means that we aren’t using any substitutes and sticking to our original recipes.” 

Patel, however, points out that he can indeed imagine how hard the tomato price hike must have affected Indian cuisine restaurateurs who use fresh tomatoes to make their gravies and base sauces. "We do use fresh tomatoes in a lot of the restaurants that I’m consulting for, so in those cases we have simply taken relevant dishes off the menu for now and we’ll continue to do that until we get this whole tomato price hike crisis back in order,” he explains.  

“From a culinary perspective, tomatoes are used to bulk up a recipe so we have to find alternatives for that,” he adds. “There are thankfully many companies that make ready-to-use tomato pastes, and I’m sure many have had to switch to those options. But if you are using it as a souring agent then I’d recommend using other souring agents for the time-being. This tomato crisis is not going to be for long and the market will be back in order as soon as we have the August-September crops back in. So just wait it out until this resolves itself.”   

Chef Nishant Choubey, Brand Partner, Saatvik 

As a chef who is known for delectable adaptations to Indian food and for his sustainable approach to cooking, Chef Nishant Choubey believes that while the tomato price hike crisis lasts, people can easily rely on tomato substitutes that are easily available in the market without compromising on the flavour of their food. “The best way to substitute tomato in our cooking is by using Pilati or Pomodoro, or a little bit of canned tomatoes, which are absolutely nice and succulent as well,” he says. “Of course, there are recipes where you can’t substitute tomatoes. But there are some recipes where one can improvise and make it nice enough by adding Pomodoro and Pilati canned tomatoes.”  

Saee Koranne-Khandekar, Food Writer, Culinary Consultant And Chef 

“Frankly, I am not majorly affected by tomatoes because I feel no one ingredient is so indispensable and that alternatives always exist,” explains Saee Koranne-Khandekar. “Tomatoes do two jobs—one as a souring agent, and two, as thickeners/volumisers. In traditional Indian cuisines, and I will speak more specifically about Marathi cuisines, these two jobs have always been done by other ingredients. In fact, until just about four-five decades ago, tomatoes were considered a seasonal fruit! You ate more tomatoes in the winters and fewer in the summer and rainy months. So our cooking revolved more around the available produce.”  

So how do Marathi cuisine experts like her substitute tomatoes during a price hike crisis like this? “Tomatoes are a late entrant into the cuisine, and it is only recently that people have become dependent on them. This dependence is perhaps for ease of use since it is easier to puree a tomato than to break and scrape a coconut or toast and grind peanuts or soak tamarind,” she explains. “As souring agents, we use kokum or tamarind or raw mango (fresh and dried) etc. While as thickeners, we use fresh and dry coconut, ground peanuts, sesame seeds, dals, etc.  So, I haven't bought or used tomatoes in the past two weeks, and I am not desperately missing it as such.” 

Chef Pawan Bisht, Co-Founder, Vinpa Hospitality, Culinary Advisor, Verandah Moonshine 

Chef Pawan Bisht explains that as a chef, restaurateur and culinary advisor, he has never compromised on ingredients that are essential as a base of any cuisine, and yet there are easily available substitutes that can provide the same taste profile. “Tomato substitutes like canned tomatoes, tomato paste, raw mangoes and acidic substitute for tomatoes can be lemon, vinegar etc. can be used instead of fresh tomatoes,” he says. “But again, we are not using these. We are still using fresh tomatoes even if the price is high so that our recipes aren’t compromised. But I’d like to reassure people that this tomato price hike crisis is a matter of time, and all this will be gone soon enough.”