Groceries: Domestic or Imported brands?

1:13 PM

When I arrived in India in 2003, the first big problem I faced was grocery shopping. A challenge every single expat face. Grocery shopping is that thing you take for granted. It's easy, basic, and anybody can do it right? That is until you find yourself in a whole different country.

Suddenly nothing makes sense any more.

It is less the fact that diet staples are different. This part is expected. It is that packaging has changed. the retail dynamic is different. Names by which certain things go are no longer the same (if they aren't I a different language all together). Brands no longer feel familiar is a cumulative lot of small things that make for a big confusing situation.

The grocery products in this picture are all from domestic brands.

Expats in India, often face another challenge, or rather stereotype road block : the inherent belief everything Indian is of bad quality, unhygienic and unfit for "first world" dwellers. 
I have heard these complaints a bit too often. Remix of "The quality of goods is so bad" or "It really doesn't feel safe to trust Indian brands".

Well, I have lived over a decade here, and haven't avoided desi brands...ever, from the very start. And guess what? I am still alive, and many domestic products are actually at par or better than their imported big international brand versions. And in 2003 there was way way less choice than there is now, both in Supermarkets and Kirana store (mom and pop stores who now sell exotic items too).

In India, packaged brands fall into 3 categories. 

1) Imported goods that are manufactured abroad, by a company that has no presence in India and are brought to you via 3rd party distributors. These usually bear an import sticker stating the name of the distributor and the date of import into the country. The prices of these products can be quite high.

2) International brands that are manufactured in India, or have a presence in the country which allows them to import some of their products themselves. The prices are often more reasonable for their imported goods, and at par with other brands for their locally produced items. Maggi, Knorr, Ferrero, Del Monte, Pepsico and Cadburry are examples of such brands.

3) Local brands which have or been around from before the liberalisation of the market or have been created recently to bridge a gap in the demand for certain goods that were until recently considered exotic ( continental food seasoning as a prime example)

As an expat, the question remains. What should you buy local, and what shall be bought in imported goods? 
From experience, I'll tell you to stick with local products as much as you can, for more than one reason. The first one being, that you will be doing everybody a favour supporting the local economy. Second, the cost factor, nobody likes to spend 5 times the normal cost on anything, even if you can in theory afford it. And last but not least, the freshness.

Imported goods can stay stuck in custom a very long time, and by the time they reach the market, they are nearing their expiry date, if they haven't reached it already. Sometimes these goods are also compromised in transit due to improper handling. A problem that plagues third party distributors and cheat you consumer in the process.

There are things you will find yourself having to buy from the imported good selections: condiments and special seasonings, they usually have a very long shelf life and there is little risk of tampered goods with these (though, it exist). 
Things like pasta, have no or little choice in local brands but are now distributed by international brands with a presence in the country, or brands that have partnered with a local one. 

For everything else, local brands will do absolutely fine. Keya is the spice, herbs and seasoning expert and they also do great instant soups. 24 Mantra does organic juice, cereals and jams on top of offering organic staples such as lentils and pulses. Amul is the big player in the dairy product department, with Go right behind them. Britannia makes great cookies. Golden tips and Organic India make teas that are at par if not better than Twinings. Su drop has a great peanut butter. ID is the undisputed king of convenient Ildi/dosa batters and ready made fresh paratha and roti. The Dabur group is known for their Real brand for juice, their Honey, and their seasoning pastes and tomato purée. Mapro does syrups, and fruit paste based goods. Everest and MDH are the Indian spice mix household names. And FunFood known for their bread spreads and dressings have now partnered with Dr Oeteker.

Will the taste be different? Of course, but that is the one thing you sign up for by default as an expat, food from home will always taste special. That doesn't mean world variants of some staples you know will taste horrific or aren't safe at all. Give them a try, and remember only those who haven't been in your shoes will judge you for craving comfort food from back home.

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  1. Anonymous3:33 PM

    There have been brands in India which were international but we never knew that they were international. A good example is Horlicks which I understand is an international brand but it was always considered an integral part of Indian middle class upbringing. Grand parents recommend horlicks for strength and vitality.

    Another fantastic Indian product which has been handed over from generation to generation is Boroline

    The other international product which has become Indian is Dettol, which was the only antiseptic know to Indians for a long time.

    It was later that we discovered that many of these brand were international and not indigenous. However, we never had that understanding at that time. We probably did not know what brand meant in those days.


    1. I always thought Dettol was Indian but acquired by a multinational group. Interesting.
      In Europe, there was a time when Maggi and Knorr were both independent brands, rival as they were both in the business of making ready made stock and sauce powders. Maggi got acquired by Nestle much later, while Knorr got bought by Unilever, which in India is called Hindustan Lever.
      The Swiss Toblerone was owned by Tobler for the longest time and got bought by the US based company Kraft, I think in the 90's.

  2. Kraft Foods is now called 'Mondelēz International' & is still US based.
    Mondelēz International's portfolio includes Toblerone as well as several billion $ brands such as Cadbury (acquired through a buy out of Cadbury in 2010), Milka chocolate, Jacobs coffee, Nabisco, Oreo cookies, LU, Tang powdered beverages, & Trident gums.
    Mondelēz International has annual revenue of approximately $36 billion and operations in more than 80 countries. ( A truly big big BIG American corporation.)
    "Gits" is another Indian brand that I've found to have excellent products. Their 'instant mixes' for malai barfi, kheer, firni, & gulab jamun to be really tasty (although not exactly 'instant'.
    'Parle' is the only Indian brand I've been disappointed with. Parle biscuits are bland, overly sweet & taste 'cheap'. Since Parle products seem to be the least expensive I just figured the 'lowest price regardless of cost' was the customer niche they were going for.
    Hey Cyn,
    I'm going to bake a Danish cookie recipe that calls for 'diced' almonds. I have heard of slivered, blanched, ground, & halved almonds but never diced? I wonder if someone made an error in translation. The cookie is topped with a blanched almond but the diced almonds are included in the batter. I'm thinking I'm going to whiz some blanched almonds through the mixee til they're powder & use that.......but have you ever heard of diced almonds?

    1. I agree with Parle, I find them bland too. apparently Parle G is a household name, we had it around on occasion, DH can only eat these dipped in Chai, I guess that says it all :-)

      I have never heard of diced almonds, could it be coarse almond powder? Or chunks? Looks like something might have been lost in translation indeed. I would do the same thing you plan on doing, blitz them quickly in the processor and use that.

    2. Anonymous10:31 AM

      Parle was the only biscuit available then. Biscuit meant Parle. Another Indian brand which was part of my childhood memories was Topaz blade. The white and red packing of the blade was most distinguishing. Today we have those light twin blade razors which are like sports car. These sharp topaz blades were fitted into a heavy steel frame and both the sides for the razor was used. I marveled at the way my father used the heavy razor without cutting himself up. The water and soap made the handle slippery and the razor was damned sharp. Now, we cut ourselves up with those tiny blades in our enthusiasm for a cleaner shave. The older generation still uses these blades as they find the newer blades useless. There is something grim and dignified about it. For them shaving is a ritualistic and leisurely activity which need to be respected. We do not have that patience. We broke those blades into two and used them for cutting nails or sharpening pencils.


    3. These old school blades existed in Switzerland too, my grand pa used them. And indeed they were super sharp. I think the disposable razors did play on that to market their product: no more sharp cuts while shaving.
      My dad got himself an electric shaver when I was a kid, and that thing travelled everywhere we went on holidays.

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