Supermarket shelves in the US are lined with chutneys, pickles, sauces and boxed heat-and-serve Indian meals. The number of Indian restaurants has soared, offering an alternative to cheap all-you-can-eat buffets. And a flurry of new cookbooks is introducing home cooks to the subtle regional differences in Indian cuisine.
In Chicago, Indian businessman Vijay Puniani is betting Indian food will be the next big thing. In February 2009, Puniani opened the first in what he says will be a chain of “fast-casual” Indian restaurants, Chutney Joe’s. For $5.99, diners choose one of four meat or four vegetarian entrees accompanied by rice or the naan. Condiments to spice up or cool down the dishes are free.
“We look at Main Street, America as our customer base,” said Puniani, adding that menu items were adapted after research revealed that many Americans consider Indian food too spicy and heavy. For instance, samosas are baked instead of deep-fried, and cream and butter have been banished from the menu.
The growing Indian presence comes at a time when the popularity of cooking shows — including Top Chef, hosted by Indian origin model and actress Padma Lakshmi — and an increase in foreign travel have made Americans more adventurous eaters. “The American palate is no longer bland,” said Andrew F. Smith, editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink of America, who predicts that Indian food will take off in the next decade the way sushi bars did in the 1980s and Thai food did in the ’90s.
In fact, a September 2009 survey of ethnic food by the market research group Mintel found that the fastest growing segment was Indian food, with sales increasing nearly 35 per cent from 2006 to 2008. New York, the dining capital of the nation, has seen an explosion in the number of Indian restaurants in recent years. New York University sociologist and food studies scholar Krishnendu Ray counts some 350 Indian restaurants today compared to the 19 listed in the 1978 edition of a restaurant guide.
Across the pond, Camellia Punjabi’s cookbook 50 Great Curries of India was recently reissued with a DVD “to take the intimidation out of cooking Indian food,” said Anja Schmidt, the New York publisher of Kyle Books. So will ground fenugreek and coriander become flavours as familiar to Americans as basil and oregano? While some skeptics believe Indian food will continue to be an acquired taste, others like Ray think otherwise. “In 2065, Indian may be in the same place as Italian food,” he said.