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By Indian cuisine is beginning to make its mark in the US. Hari Pulakkat on why the curry is finally finding favour in the great north American melting pot
  • Published 4.04.10

Priya Ranjan Dass, formerly an engineer at Prasar Bharati in Calcutta, popped the question to himself two years ago. Dass was then doing his MBA at the Ross School of Business in Michigan University and working on a project with Domino’s Pizza. As he accompanied the delivery boys on their rounds and learned the rudiments of the food business, he could not but wonder at one fact: why wasn’t there a good Indian restaurant chain in the United States?

The question wasn’t rhetorical. Many other major world cuisines are represented in restaurant chains. Mexican cuisine has Taco Bell and Chipotle, the Chinese have Panda Express and Chang’s, the Italians, Olive Garden. You can easily spot Japanese, Korean and Mediterranean fast food outlets at leading airports. But while it is easy to get a pizza, or even sushi or falafel in most corners of the US, dosas, idlis or pakoras are hard to come by.

Dass interviewed several hundred Indian restaurant owners in the US to find out why other forms of cuisine had outpaced Indian food and decided that he had the answer.

Indian restaurants in the US, he reasons, are usually started by wealthy people such as doctors or engineers. “They are not run by real managers with a good understanding of business practices,” says Dass. Running a large restaurant chain is not like owning a single restaurant; it requires an in-depth knowledge of business and finance. So Dass decided to set up a fast food chain himself, and founded a company called Rainbow Hospitality with investments from several people.

The company is already going places. It has one restaurant in Michigan, and will soon open a series of Indian fast food restaurants in the US. Dass has also started marketing a $5.59 Indian food box.

Over the last few years, many entrepreneurs and chefs have been trying to put Indian cuisine in the US on a footing — in terms of popularity — equal to other major world cuisines. Several upscale Indian restaurants have set up shop in major American cities. Celebrity chefs have started using Indian ingredients and cooking styles and Indian chefs are becoming visible in the US. American food companies are launching Indian dishes which are becoming popular in supermarket chains.

During the last four years, 939 new Indian food products were launched in the US. However, the market share of Indian food is still very small: just $40 million out of a total ethnic food market of $2.2 billion. Mexican, at 62 per cent, and Asian (Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Korean), at 28 per cent are the leading categories. The other categories are Caribbean, Creole, Middle Eastern, Hawaiian and East European.

“Indian food is the fastest growing category of ethnic foods in the US,” says David Browne, senior analyst at Mintel, a market research firm. It grew 152 per cent from 2004 to 2009, and Mintel predicts that it will grow by 63 per cent in the next five years. Indian cuisine is leading the growth of the ethnic foods market, itself fuelled by a new interest in world cuisine among Americans.

Companies such as Amy’s Kitchen are flourishing. The company, started in 1987 from a shed, has developed into one of the most prominent organic frozen food companies and the leading ethnic food brand in the US. About 40 per cent of its products is ethnic, and among them are six Indian dishes, including matar paneer, palak paneer, paneer tikka and vegetable korma, all of which were introduced recently.

The founders of Amy’s, Andy and Rachel Berliner, had enjoyed several meals at the homes of their Indian friends and thought Indian food could catch on. “The experience of the founders, along with the increasing number of letters from customers asking for Indian food, led to the creation of this line,” says Michelle Erbs, marketing manager at Amy’s Kitchen.

Amy’s Kitchen products are not targeted at the Indian population. In fact, there has been a rapid acceptance of Indian cuisine among non-Indians. The success of Maya Kaimal, the eponymous company started in 2004, is a good example. Maya Kaimal — who has an Indian father and an American mother — is a cookbook author who turned entrepreneur five years ago.

“When I wrote my first cookbook in 1996,” says Kaimal, “I was told that it would be tough to sell it here.” Indian cookbooks were rare in the US in those days. Now at least a dozen comes out every year.

Kaimal makes sauces — in which you can cook vegetables or meat to create a quick Indian dish — and sells these to the non-Indian market segment. The company has expanded significantly in the last two years, and now has revenue of $2 million. “We are targeting the educated American consumer,” says Kaimal. At $6.99 a packet, the product would not appeal to an Indian family, which would make its own gravies.

Kaimal, which has 10 products of its own including coconut curry, tamarind curry and tikka masala, also produces six products for Williams Sonoma, a large utensils and gourmet food company.

A recent Mintel study throws up some interesting facts about the eating habits of the average American. Young adults and affluent people are the largest consumers of ethnic food. About 84 per cent of the people surveyed say that they cook some sort of ethnic food at home. This is particularly true of high income families, with 92 per cent saying they had prepared at least one ethnic meal in the month of the survey. Two-thirds of those surveyed say they cook their ethnic meals from scratch.

The American consumer had for long neglected Indian cuisine. Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, award-winning food writers who have been researching the sector, say that the first reference to Indian cuisine in America came only in the 1960s while other major cuisines were mentioned in the literature of the 1920s and 1930s.

There were several reasons Indian cuisine took a back seat. Many Americans, used to a cuisine that has been traditionally bland, thought Indian food was too spicy. It was also branded as curry, a be-all term that did little to popularise the diversity of Indian cuisine.

But there has been a change in recent years, largely due to the influence of television and celebrity chefs. In particular, the TV channel Food Network has brought a big change in people’s attitudes to food and cooking. “Many Americans now watch Food Network for entertainment even if they do not cook,” says Karen Page.

With TV chefs often incorporating global themes in their cooking, Indian cuisine is rapidly making its way into many programmes. The celebrity chef contest Iron Chef recently had one episode devoted to Indian cuisine. An Indian chef, Jehangir Mehta, went as far as the final round, narrowly losing the contest.

“This is the age of celebrity chefs, and Indian chefs are also becoming media savvy,” says Dornenburg. One example is Suvir Saran, an artist-turned-chef who is now becoming increasingly visible on television, and is also chairman of the Asian Culinary Studies of the Culinary Institute of America.

Indian chefs have also opened high-profile restaurants. In the last 10 years, restaurants such as Tamarind (opened in 2001), Devi (bought and reopened by Saran in 2007) and Tabla (opened in 1998) have been providing gourmet fare in Manhattan. Entrepreneur Rohini Dey last year took her Indian-Latin fusion restaurant Vermilion in Chicago to New York. Among her investors are writer Salman Rushdie, publisher Sony Mehta and Hotmail co-founder Sabeer Bhatia.

“The quality of Indian food in America has gone up substantially in recent times,” stresses New Jersey-based chef Hari Nayak. He has a restaurant called Tiffin in Philadelphia, a corporate catering company called Gourmet Gurus, and Halo Fete, an ice-cream patisserie in Princeton, New Jersey.

But it is not just Indian chefs who are taking Indian food to Americans; American chefs are doing their bit too. Chef Michael Romano incorporates Indian themes in his creations at New York’s Union Square Café. Seattle chef Jerry Traunfeld has created an India-inspired menu in his new restaurant Poppy — the food is quintessentially Pacific Northwest, but is arranged like and called a Thali.

On television, celebrity chefs Tyler Florence and Emeril Lagasse occasionally cook Indian dishes. So does cookbook author and Talk Show host Rachael Ray.

Yet while Indian cuisine is on the rise, it still has a long way to go. For one, Indian food so far is seen as one monolithic north Indian cauldron — regional Indian cuisine is still to make a mark. Further, the perception that Indian food is unhealthy does not help in an era of health conscious consumers. The rich food in Indian restaurants, Saran stresses, is unhealthy. “For Indian cuisine to be popular, it has to return to our grandmother’s style of home cooking,” he says.

Till then, clearly, pizzas and tacos will rule.