It was early 2022, and third wave of the covid-19 pandemic was just about receding. Juhi Dhawan, 36, was looking forward to celebrating her son’s first birthday on 25 February in the great outdoors. “My son is happiest in a park or a garden where he can walk and run around,” says the Bengaluru-based programme manager with Paytm. She and her husband planned a picnic with family and friends. “As a child, I loved picnics. I wanted to relive that nostalgia,” she adds.
Among other things, the picnic basket was top on the priority list for Dhawan. She wanted to pack in treats that went beyond the regular finger foods. So, she roped in The Picnic Company, a Bengaluru-based experiential service that curates picnic hampers and set-ups, to organise a birthday where they could partake of a luxurious meal in an idyllic setting.
The success of any picnic depends solely on the contents of the basket. As soon as it is opened, the guests’ curiosity is piqued. What will come out of it—will it be a Famous Five-style meal with gleaming ham, lashings of hard-boiled eggs and scones with clotted cream, or a set of treats from The Faraway Tree including Google buns and toffee shocks? Though we would all like our picnics to be straight out of an Enid Blyton book, there are no set rules for what should go into the basket.
The key is to ensure there’s something for everyone. Yogendra Prasad, executive chef at Le Méridien Mahabaleshwar Resort, likes to keep it simple and includes dishes that cater to all age groups. So, he packs in muffins, artisanal breads, fruits and berries, which are sourced locally. The basket is prepared for the hotel’s guests, who embark on a forest walk around the property.
The Picnic Company also keeps this thumb rule in mind and offers a wide selection of menus. “Our picnic basket includes a five-course meal comprising soup, starters, a platter of dips and chips, mains and dessert. There are Indian, Asian and European options to choose from,” says co-founder Shweta Gupta. To provide a wholesome experience, the company offers cutlery, furniture and crockery as well.
Here’s an example of a menu, which is perfect for summer, and is light and fresh. You could start with drinks like an orange basil cooler and follow that up with a soup, say, a watermelon gazpacho. The next course could include black bean and corn, Caprese and Mediterranean chickpea salads. The guests can then choose from starters such as pita, olive bread and lavash platters while mains offer a choice between khow suey, pasta or biryani. End the meal on a sweet note with chocolate lava, sticky date pudding or a lemon soufflé. The menu would differ for those who wish to enjoy an afternoon soiree.
Prasad also suggests opting for DIY kits to add a fun element to a picnic. Guests can make their own sub and sandwich using a selection of home-made dips, pickles and spreads. Many picnic baskets also include premixes for mocktails which provide added value.
Dhruv Kalra, co-owner, Vietnam-ease Càphê, which curates picnic baskets featuring authentic Vietnamese dishes in Gurugram, believes that the perfect outdoor meal should include a variety of snacks that are unique and easy to carry. Include dishes that you would not necessarily eat or cook at home. A Vietnam-ease Càphê basket comprises street-style snacks like Banh Mi, rice paper rolls, crispy lotus stem chips, Vietnamese coffee and desserts. The team takes into account dietary restrictions and customises menus to suit vegan and gluten-free preferences by making use of a variety of flours like rice, tapioca, and potato starch.
In another part of Delhi NCR, Yashita Dalmia, a lawyer and home chef, puts together a basket that spotlights desi ingredients and dishes. “No matter how much we travel and try different cuisines, we all love homely food. Hence, I offer Indian food in a Western avatar,” explains Dalmia. For instance, theplas are transformed into tacos and the kadhi samosa is served in mason jars. The menu also includes cocktail idli skewers, Rajasthani garlic cream cheese with achari masala crackers and grazing boards with chutneys, mini samosas and matar kachori. Some other dishes on the menu include smoked beetroot galouti, ker sangri and Bikaneri parathas. Drinks such as rose sabja and khus sabja mojitos are immensely popular with guests.
Condiments also go a long way in adding to your meal. Depending on the menu, make sure to pack in a selection of dips, ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard, oregano and salad dressings. These can be packed in small jars to save on space.
While you can unleash your creativity when planning a picnic, make sure to avoid ingredients and dishes that are delicate in nature or need to be stored at a certain temperature such as ice cream. Also, opt for spill-proof containers that come with tight-fitting lids instead of ziplock bags. “Our airtight containers are collected back from the customers at a convenient time. These can be reused, adding a touch of sustainability to the whole experience,” says Kalra. Don’t forget to pack drinks in an icebox with cold packs to ensure they stay chilled.
Now that the monsoons have spread across parts of the country, the overcast skies and gentle breeze make for perfect picnic weather. Instead of the light summer menus, opt for warm spreads with soups and hot beverages. For Dalmia, the ideal monsoon basket would feature a thin tomato soup, buttery garlic bread, theplas with ‘chuki hui hari mirch’, creamy vegetable bunny chows and gooey nutty chocolate pudding jars. On the other hand, Gupta’s idea for a rainy picnic is a good barbeque. “We don’t really change our menu during monsoons, but as an add-on, we offer a barbeque set up that allows guests to cook and savour mouth watering veggies, fish, steaks in an open set-up,” she elaborates.
Though food is the mainstay of the picnic, don’t miss the sundry items such as a corkscrew or a bottle opener in case you want to drink beer or wine. Throw in some paper towels and wet wipes to fix the mess and spills. Trash bags will help with an easy clean-up. A small first aid kit is a good item to bring along as well. Keep a few band-aids and gauze handy along with a mosquito repellant. Another must-have is a Bluetooth speaker to enjoy your favourite tunes. So, the next time you are wondering what to pack in your bag, follow this guide and you will be good to go.
Pranjali Bhonde Pethe is a Pune-based writer.