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Reviving the joy of the great Indian picnic

Picnics and outdoor meals are back, with a handful of startups and chefs catering to a custom that has seen a revival in the pandemic

Picnics transport you to carefree times and bring back that sense of childlike wonder. Photo: iStock
Picnics transport you to carefree times and bring back that sense of childlike wonder. Photo: iStock

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In the early 1970s, my parents would often pack melamine plates and glasses, chutney and jam sandwiches, tea cakes, a thermos of hot coffee and some fruits, with a large bedsheet to sit on, pop it into the boot of our trusted Fiat and take us for an impromptu picnic to the gardens of the Taj Mahal in Agra. I still remember the sense of adventure and divine taste of food. Picnics take us back to the basics—stripped of rituals and cutlery, when food and nature take centre stage. “Everything tastes better outdoors,” says Claudia Roden, in her book Picnics And Other Outdoor Feasts. “Nature sharpens the appetite and heightens the quality and intensity of events.”

The word picnic comes from the French word pique-nique ( to pick a small amount), used for people who would bring their own wine or food to a gathering. Once associated with the aristocracy, picnics were indoor affairs, hunting feasts or garden parties, with tables, linen and crystal. When the French aristocrats fled to other countries, they took the concept with them. And it transformed from luxury to an inexpensive way to spend an open-air evening with friends.

In the 1800s, picnics became a popular British pastime, and the upper classes would escape their formal dining rooms for an alfresco meal. Grocers like Fortnum and Mason and confectioners started creating delicacies just for hampers, from baked beans in tins and salads to cheese, pies and cupcakes. Enid Blyton novels are replete with descriptions of the picnic food of lazy summer days, with bulging hampers of cold ham, buttery scones with clotted cream, cress sandwiches, ginger beer and lemonade.

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Picnics have evolved to include barbecues and cookouts, outdoor and board games, but the essential element still is the sense of camaraderie and uncomplicated experience of eating outdoors. The Japanese gather under the sakura (cherry blossom trees) with picnic baskets, the Australians love their barbecues, the Turkish carry rugs, cushions, lights and grilled meats, with a lot of dancing and singing. Fresh air, sunshine and good company seem to cheer up people every single time.

In India, though the middle class still picnics, it had become passé for the well-heeled. No longer, though. The custom has seen a revival during the pandemic,  and a few startups and chefs are catering to the demand.

Mumbai-based Rajat Mendhi, 39, who gave up a career in advertising to pursue his passion for food, started an alfresco meals concept, Bombay Picnics, in 2018. “When I was a young boy spending my vacations in Jamshedpur, my uncle and aunt would take us on picnics to parks, or the Dimna Lake, with a gang of cousins and grandparents, all packing their baskets with home-made food and bedsheets to sit on. We would also cook on the spot sometimes, on portable stoves, tucking into fresh puris fried in ghee, and aloo ki subji,” says Mendhi.

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“One of my friends told me about his green backyard space, which is a luxury in Mumbai, and this is where I organised my first picnic pop-up for 20 people, on long tables, with five courses of picnic food. Since then,” adds  Mendhi, “we have organised outdoor picnics for people in their backyards, terraces or balconies as well as created packed picnic hampers which people take for a day out at Alibaug beach or a park. All our food is inspired by childhood nostalgia and food that was served in school or family picnics. Picnic food is all about family-style servings, knocking elbows with each other as you reach for something, finger food that is essentially non-fussy but tastes delicious.”

Mendhi has used childhood favourites like Bournvita and Cerelac to recreate several treats. His Bournvita Milk pie has an oats and cornflakes cookie crust, a baked malted milk layer with Bournvita crumbles. “Master Raju” is a “cross between a blondie and a cookie”, combining Cerelac, condensed milk and milk powder in a gooey, crunchy texture. Memories of puris and atte ka halwa led to cardamom brioche doughnuts. “My mother used to make paratha rolls with crispy okra stuffed in it; we reinvented it with our sourdough parathas with smoked jackfruit in black sesame, served with sweet pickled chillies and a ginger chilli salsa,” he notes.

Bengaluru-based Bhawna Rao and Shweta Gupta started The Picnic Company in November 2020. “I was in the travel business and Shweta was in the restaurant industry and we found ourselves at a loose end in the pandemic. We both wanted to channelise our creativity and capitalise on the desire to be outdoors and nostalgia for family picnics,” explains Rao. “ What was amazing is the overwhelming and emotional response to the picnics that we arranged that took people back to their childhoods and the past,” says Gupta.

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They have done themed picnics for Valentine’s Day, pet parents, wedding proposals, even senior citizen groups. There are multiple packages and a choice of three menus, a DIY Picnic Basket, board games, even books and music. Each package has a five-course meal, with mocktails, starters and desserts. “ We are very particular not to overdo the décor as the hero in picnics is the outdoors, but we make sure we provide all the creature comforts, from ice cubes to reusable crockery and cutlery,” says Rao. Most of the venues are farms they have tied up with.

Anubhuti Krishna, a Delhi-based food journalist, says,” We Delhiites are lucky to have monument gardens and large open spaces like Lodhi Gardens and Nehru Park. Sunder Nursery is the latest.... Of course, the well-heeled Delhiites have made it a stylish, European-like experience, carrying cheese and canapés, or hampers from patisseries, but the common man also gets to enjoy it with his puri aloo or simple sandwiches and fruits.”

Chef Bani Nanda of Miam Patisserie, Delhi, says: “India Gate and Lodhi Gardens are very famous spots for families to chill on weekends. People would carry lunch from home with board games or a pack of cards. This was before ultra-urbanisation. Now we are revisiting this trend. In the pandemic, parks and gardens were just the right places to have more people socially distanced. We needed a solution for people to have a hassle-free picnic where they are carefree about what to bring.” Nanda started curating picnic hampers and baskets in December 2020, with an assortment of finger food and goodies, from buttery crumpets, French hearts, raspberry galettes, puff pies and croissants to crackers, cakes, with eco- friendly plates and cutlery, and even a barcode that could be scanned for a playlist.

“Picnics are a state of mind. It could just be a small Mumbai balcony or a large park sitting on mats, where you could enjoy finger food with your friends. It’s about carefree times and childlike wonder, eating with your hands and being casual but still having a great time,” says Mendhi.

Kalpana Sunder is a Chennai-based journalist.

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