A recent post by Robert A. Erdman in Wonkblog, a Washington Post blog, was titled ” Why Delicious Indian Food is Unpopular in the U.S.” An interesting post, even though the title was misleading. What Erdman really meant to explore, as readers soon realized, was ” Why Indian Food is nowhere as popular in the U.S as it should be”.

In his post, Erdman frequently quotes Krishnendu Ray, a professor at N.Y.U, who has been studying the rise of Indian cuisine in the U.S for over a decade. Ray points out that there are over 40,000 Chinese restaurants and an almost equal number of Mexican restaurants in America as opposed to only 5,000 Indian restaurants, 200 of which are in New York City. He also notes that only 1.2 % of the ethnic food market is devoted to Indian food products and that Indian food is not popular even among home cooks in the U.S. He then goes on to write that Indian food is labor intensive,that Americans lack an appreciation for the skill it takes to make Indian food and that as a result “People aren’t willing to pay for good Indian food. If you aren’t willing to pay for it, you won’t get quality. And if you don’t get quality, it’s hard to grow. The whole system has forced a lot of restaurants to rely on less skilled workers and cooks”.

There are two different issues here and I think Professor Ray is getting them mixed up. I agree with him that Americans do not appreciate the complexities of Indian food,  the labor and the skill required to prepare it , and hence are not willing to pay more than a certain price. However, this  explains the failure of high-end restaurants such as Tabla but it has nothing to do with the overall popularity of Indian food. That can be gauged accurately by the number of Indian restaurants nationwide, which is admittedly far less than it should be. The explanation of why Indian food is not more popular with the public is far more complex than Professor Ray makes it out to be.

I feel there are four main reasons for this lack of popularity. They are as follows:

( BTW, when I refer to Americans in the following paragraphs, I mean those who live away from the big cities, people from middle America and from small towns. Americans in the large urban centers such as NYC, Chicago and LA have traveled more , been exposed to many different cuisines and have as sophisticated a palate as any. They however are a minority. )

1.Indian food is mostly vegetarian, unlike Chinese and Mexican cuisines. Americans like to eat meat , particularly beef and pork neither of which is served in Indian restaurants. They do not care for goat or lamb, the preferred meats in Indian restaurants, finding them too gamy. Their preference is for steak or chops and , at the low-end, burgers all of which are plainly served.

2.Indian cuisine is both hot and spicy. Over the years, Americans have come to like heat as evidenced by the popularity of Sriracha and other hot sauces. However, they have yet to come to turns with the heavy spicy gravies that are the hallmark of Indian restaurant cuisine. They find the Indian use of spices overwhelming and the smell offputting.

3. Most of the Indians who emigrated to the U.S between 1965 and 1990 were well-educated and aspired to white-collar jobs. Few of them went into the restaurant business. This has changed in recent years but , even now, Indian restaurants are overwhelmingly in the larger towns and cities where there is a sizeable Indian presence and where diners are more adventurous. There are comparatively few in the smaller towns both because of the difficulty of starting an Indian restaurant in such locales and the perception that there may not be a market for Indian food there.

4. Indian food is requires long cooking. Chinese food and Mexican food, on the other hand, is quickly prepared and admirably suited for takeouts. It can be quickly prepared while the customer waits and thus served hot, fresh and fast. Both of these cuisines are also more familiar to Americans. Chinese take-outs serving Cantonese food such as chow mein/ chop suey have been part of the American scene for over a century and are popular even in small towns for quick, piping hot inexpensive food. Mexican food too is very familiar to Americans because of the longstanding presence of immigrants from South of the border and chains such as Taco Bell. Indian food, however, is a newcomer and will have a difficult time broadening the base of its customers because it is more difficult to cook and it still exotic in the eyes of many Americans.

I also feel the statistic that only 1.2 % of the Indian food market is devoted to Indian food products is somewhat misleading. Most Indians either cook at home or eat out in restaurants. They rarely buy prepackaged ready -to-eat meals. Most purchases by Indian home cooks consist of mainstream items like vegetables and meat and fish. Even today, when double-income families with both parents working are the norm, they prefer to eat out if they cannot cook at home. Furthermore, their children are likely to demand pizza, hot dogs, burgers or spaghetti and as a result the family’s eating habits quickly become eclectic and diverse.

For all these reasons, interest in Indian cuisine in the States is likely to grow slowly and , in any case, will be restricted to the bigger cities where there is a notable Indian presence. Indian food will continue to be a niche market and unlikely to ever achieve the widespread popularity of Chinese and Mexican cuisine.

Apple Tasting

When I first came to the States in 1968, I seem to remember that there were only four types of apples in supermarkets: Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith and Rome. Coming from Bombay where apples were an expensive rarity in those days, four varieties were plenty even if two of them ( Granny Smith and Rome) were mainly used in cooking. In time however, I began to yearn for more. I found that in plenty in the greenmarkets and farm markets in New York City where each fall more than a dozen different types were available. Stayman Winesap, Jonathan, Empire, McCoun, Cortland, Macintosh, Northern Spy and Jonagold were some of those I remember. What a variety of colors, sizes and textures ! In time, I came to appreciate the differences and settle upon my favorites, though they kept changing from time to time. Some had a superior texture, others were sweeter, still others prettier. One of the disappointments was the Pink Lady which had a cottony texture that belied its beautiful exterior. I never found an apple that was perfect in all the attributes of sweetness, texture and appearance but I had fun trying.

Each November, when the farm stands were piled high with different types of apples, I would get two each of several different varieties, core them,cut them into eighths and arrange them on paper plates. My wife and two children and I would then take part in a blind taste test and rank them. It was fun to see how our choices varied and discuss why we preferred one over another. We used to do these taste tests with different types of cheese too. Today, twenty years later, my children still remember those times and the fun they were.

I thought back to those times because of a recent visit to the local Shoprite. Most times, it stocks about half a dozen varieties( Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Fuji, Rome, Granny Smith and Macintosh). Yesterday, there were more than a dozen on hand and I harked back to those days when we used to have blind taste tests. Many of the varieties were new to me and I picked two each of the Ambrosia and the Sonya. I’ve tried the Ambrosia and it certainly lives up to its name. Crisp, sweet but not too much so, and a beautiful yellow-red on the outside. Tonight, the Sonya.

At the southern edge of Edison, a medley of Korean businesses has sprung up in what used to be the Topps Plaza. Among them are a supermarket, an all-you-can-eat BBQ joint, a fried chicken place , a restaurant and a patisserie. Little Sheep Mongolian Hotpot Restaurant is the latest addition and I assumed that it too was Korean owned. Not so.

Little Sheep actually started in Batou in Inner Mongolia, a province of China and has since grown into over 350 outlets all over the world. In the US, its restaurants are to be found mainly in California and Texas. There is only one outpost in New York (in Flushing) and one in New Jersey ( Edison). Originally Chinese owned, the chain was acquired by Yum! Brands, a Kentucky based conglomerate about five years ago.

Mongolian Hotpot is a traditional Mongolian dish much like the Japanese shabu-shabu. Diners dip pieces of meat, fish and vegetables into a communal pot of broth and cook them briefly  before downing them. The broth is also drunk either during or after the meal. The Edison restaurant is a large cheery place which is very busy on weekends and evenings. At peak hours, there is a half hour wait so you might want to make a reservation if you plan to dine there on the weekend.

We went to Little Sheep on a Friday evening and we were glad we had a reservation because it was packed. It was bitter cold outside and many people must have thought, like us, that a Mongolian hotpot would be just the thing. Our group of six fit comfortably on one of the banquettes  and we started to peruse the lengthy menu with its colorful pictures. Basically, each tabletop has two heating elements on which pots of broth kept boiling. The broth can be ordered either savory or spicy , or yin-yang( half and half).The spicy version comes in very gradations ranging from mild to very hot. The basic broth is the same and the heat level is adjusted by the addition of mala peppers and other spices. Take it from me… Do not ask for the broth to be very hot and do not eat the Mala peppers. They are lethal! We ordered the yin-yang, and asked for the spicy half to be medium; that was about as much as we could handle and we are used to heat. The broth was excellent though I’m not sure what the base is. The server told us it was chicken stock but I found that difficult to believe. In any case, it was reputedly flavored with 36 different herbs and spices including goji berries, black cardamom pods, ginseng, jujubes, Szechuan peppercorns and garlic. ( It also seemed to have copious amounts of MSG, though of course that was not mentioned on the site).

From the meats on the menu we chose  lamb shoulder, beef, pork belly and lamb leg. We supplemented that with pea shoots, bok choy, daikon, shrimp, shitake mushrooms, noodles, mixed vegetable combo, and fried fish cake. Each of them cooks at a different rate ranging from 15 seconds (for the thinly sliced meats) to  three minutes ( for the daikon) and you have to be alerted particularly with the quick cooking, thinly sliced meats. Diners are served with chopsticks, and forks ( upon request) and there are ladles ( with and without holes) for the broth. After the trays containing the meats and veggies are brought to the table, diners dip them in the broth and cook them to their liking.There is also a sauce bar with condiments such as Sa Cha sauce, sesame sauce, hot oil, chopped garlic, cilantro etc. Diners can select what they want and use it to spice up their cooked meats, veggies and noodles.

If I were to eat at Little Sheep again, I would probably get fewer of the thinly sliced meats, for two reasons. They are difficult to cook to just the desired level of doneness and, besides, they do not taste much different once they are cooked. Instead, I would go for some of the other options such as the meatballs which are easier to handle and have some textural variety. I would also stay away from the fried fish cake ( insubstantial) and the shrimp ( not worth the cost). Better order a little less than you think you need and then order again; it is easy to order too much.

The broth will run you $ 3.75 per person and the tureens are refilled as needed at no extra cost. Most meats are priced at $ 6.75 for a half portion of 6 ounces. Veggies, noodles and mushrooms are much cheaper, about half as much. There is also a selection of side dishes , most about $3 each. The desserts are underwhelming and we passed on them. Beverages include various teas, hot and cold, and soft drinks but you can BYOB if you want something stronger.

Some people claim to have racked up checks of about $ 40 a person at Little Sheep. Our experience was not anywhere near that; the check for our table of six came to $ 112 before gratuities, but then again we brought our own wine and did not have dessert.

There is also a lunch special available Monday to Friday. For $10 per person, patrons can get a half portion of meat and a quantity of seasonal vegetables, noodles and mushrooms.

The charm of the hotpot is that it is a shared experience with diners eating items that they cook in a common pot of broth. The ambience at Little Sheep with large groups and families eating together in a pleasant, artfully lit dining space is pleasurable. The servers are friendly and efficient, eager to help. I don’t know that I would go there in summer but now, in the dead of winter, I can’t think of any place I’d rather be.

Little Sheep Mongolian Hotpot Restaurant. 1737 Route 27, Edison, NJ 08817.

P.S. If you wish, you can take leftover broth home with you. We did and used it to make an excellent congee (jook ) which with the addition of toppings made for another delicious and fulfilling meal.

The just concluded New- Zealand- Australia match was so outstanding that it is impossible to begin this post with anything else. Given the quality of the bowling and the exciting finish, I don’t see how it can be equaled even should these two sides meet again in the finals. Definitely, the match of the tournament.
There was an surprising similarity to the two innings we saw. Both sides started off guns blazing but then suffered a middle order collapse in the face of some inspired fast bowling. Boult took 5 for 27 for NZ and, later, Starc claimed 6 for 28 for Oz. For Australia, Brad Haddin engineered a spirited last minute stand which saw Australia to a total which proved to be just a tad too little. For New Zealand, Kane Williamson held his nerve and calmed down Trent Boult. And then what a finish as Williamson clubbed a six off Pat Cummins to win it for the Kiwis! Even the replays were exciting!!
When the ninth wicket fell, the camera focused on a young Kiwi fan in the stands; his hands went to his head and you could see the disbelief and despair on his face. Three balls later, Williamson deposited a ball from Cummins in the stands and the Kiwis had won a game they seemed destined to lose moments earlier. I wish the camera had been able to pick out the same boy in the jubilant crowd. It would have been wonderful to see his expression…

In the context of the entire tournament, the New Zealand victory does not change anything since both sides will definitely make it to the next round and almost certainly to the semifinals. However, it will further bolster the Black Caps confidence. The NZ teams of the past always played hard but came up short against the heavyweights. This team appeared to be more talented and possessed a self belief that fed off the heroics of their captain. The win over the Aussies will strengthen their conviction that they can not only play with the big boys but beat them. It is a feeling that they have even instilled in their fans. At one point, when McCullum was taking apart the Aussie pacemen, the crowd serenaded the Aussies with a chant of ” You’re worse than England!”, alluding to the Kiwis one-sided drubbing of England.

One of the things I love about the game of cricket is the sportsmanship of the players. When the last ball had been bowled and the teams were walking off the field, the Aussie players joined the crowd in applauding Kane Williamson. That really tells me a lot about them. The Aussies play hard, are arrogant and sledge opposing batsmen unmercifully, not infrequently crossing the line between acceptable and unacceptable. But, in that moment, when they had just suffered a heartbreaking loss, they were able to put their disappointment aside and clap for the man who had just struck the winning shot. A tip of the hat to you, men of Oz.

Two final thoughts about this match. 1) Should Australia have brought Michael Clarke into the team for such a crucial match? Would they have been better off leaving the team unchanged and bringing in Clarke for the last three round robin matches ? Secondly, and I say this as one who roots for NZ, are NZ too dependent on McCullum? I guess we will find out in the quarterfinals and beyond.

I saw the highlights of de Villiers unbeaten 162 against the West Indies and his knock was amazing for its aggressiveness, its sheer brutality. I know the West Indies pace attack isn’t great but this is the same attack that earlier demolished Pakistan. de Villiers was awesome. Roussow seems to be a good replacement for Duminy, as also Abbot for Philander. The emphatic nature of this win should do wonders for the team’s confidence which must have been badly battered by their loss to India. They are a powerful team , one of the big three along with Australia and New Zealand. The win also improved their Net RR, though I don’t think that matters; they are certain to qualify for the next round and, after that, it’s a whole new ball game.

Afghanistan’s victory over Scotland was thrilling and I’m very happy for them. Following the win, there were calls, pleas even, for them to be given a chance at an overseas tour. As commendable as their performance has been, I don’t see that it changes anything. The bottom line, unfortunately , is everything and fans will not come out to see a visiting Afghan side. Or a team from Scotland. Or a team from the UAE or Hong Kong. It’s too bad but the associates will have a hard time taking the next step.

Snow Removal

In the year that we have lived in an Active Adult community, there have been many amenities that we have come to love. The Clubhouse and the activities, the design of our house which has everything we need on one floor, the lawn maintenance service and of course the friendly neighbors who always have time for us and for each other. But this winter, I have  begun to value one amenity above all… the snow removal service.

When we lived in a ” regular community, winter brought us some trepidation, more so with every passing year. When I was younger, shoveling away the snow was no problem. Four to six inch snowfalls didn’t merit a second thought and even when there were greater accumulations, I could always get it done , for a price, by the neighborhood kids. But, with time, the young kids in the neighborhood grew up and moved away and I grew leery of shoveling away the snow myself;  many stories of people having heart attacks. There were snow removal services , to be sure, but their prices were exorbitant. Once, after a 14 inch snowfall, I had to pay a guy $ 180 to clear off the driveway and sidewalk. He calculated his price by the inches of snowfall and initially demanded $ 280.

In contrast, the snow removal here s included in our monthly service charge and it is taken care off quickly. No more waiting around. No more frantic calls to snow removal services or looking out for neighborhoods who never came. Here, as soon as the snow has stopped falling, a fleet of Bobcats and snowplows springs into action. The plows clear the interior roads, the Bobcats clean the driveways and the sidewalks. Simultaneously, an army of laborers shovels away the snow from the walkways up to the front door and scatters salt on the driveways. They work at all hours and they do a darn good job. All of them are from Mexico and I am not sure how many of them  there are. One neighbor commented that management must have recruited an entire village from Mexico. Another, echoing the title of Hilary Clinton’s book, commented sagely that ” It takes a Village”. This is not to make fun of the workers. We are all appreciative of the service they provide and we realize they work very hard. It is sad also that they, who come from a warm and sunny climate, toil in the cold and often the dark.

One other thing that makes life in winter is that we park our cars in the garage, something we were not able to do in our regular homes during our working years. Then, the garages were full of accumulated stuff and there was no place for the cars. Now , having downsized, we have gotten rid of the junk and the cars are in the garage, where they should have been all along. When it snows, all we have to do is wait for the driveway to be cleared, back out of the garage and zoom away. No more scraping away the ice from the windshield and digging out the car from the snow. ( My nephew tells me of friends in Boston whose cars have been buried in snow for the past three weeks. One snowfall was closely followed by another, leaving no time in between to dig out the cars. As a res, they are now encased in ice and will not be driveable until an extended spell of warm weather has melted away the ice).

Most, if not all, of  the terrors that winter holds are about clearing away the snow from the driveway and making sure the cars are good to go. As retirees, we do not have to get out of the house unless we want to  and the main roads are always in good nick. In an active adult community, winter is just another season and it has its charms.

On sweltering days in summer, the mind is filled with images of ice-cream cones or frosted mugs of chilled beer. On wintry days, however, when the snow is thick on the ground and the wind is gusting, I think of nothing so much as piping hot roast chicken fresh from the oven. Last Saturday was one of those days. The temperature was in the teens and predicted to drop below zero ( Farenheit) and the wind was blowing hard , raising little puffs of snow from what had already fallen. My wife and I both thought the same thing: Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have some roast chicken?

We didn’t have a whole chicken in the fridge and Costco was too far away so I swaddled myself in my winter clothes and heavy boots and drove to the nearby Shoprite. Just like Costco, they sell whole roast chickens for $ 4.99. Unfortunately, that’s where the similarities end. Shoprite’s roast chicken is smaller, the skin is limp and the meat itself has a different texture. Not juicy and bursting with flavor; just blah. If only
Costco were closer…

Costco’s roast chicken has to be the best value for the money of all its wares. At $ 4.99 a whole bird , it is a real steal and I don’t know how they can sell it so cheap.(It must be a loss-leader.) The skin is the right balance between juicy and crispy, the meat is firm and juicy and it is large enough for two meals for the two of us. After we have had our fill of it, we strip the remaining meat from the bones, chop it up and cook with onions and one of a number of sauces to make sandwiches. The bones we boil in canned chicken stock and make a Chinese style Cream Corn and Chicken soup. Delicious, particularly when it is cold out. We have an accompaniment of sliced green chillies and scallions in a mixture of rice vinegar and soy sauce.

Winter has its advantages.

P.S The New York Times cooking section has a recipe for Andrew Zimmern’s Peruvian Roast chicken. It looks like a winner and I’m going to try it out soon.

Before the World Cup started, I had told my friends that, providing India could not repeat as champions, I would like to see New Zealand go all the way. The first week’s play has only deepened these feelings.

My support for the Kiwis is nothing new; it goes a long way back. New Zealand is a small country of just 4 -1/2 million vying against countries with much larger populations such as India, Australia, England, Pakistan etc. There is much less financial reward for their players( except for the very best of them who win IPL contracts). Most importantly, they are a very polite, sporting lot and the polar opposite of their neighbors, the Aussies. They play the game the way it is meant to be played , not an easy thing to do in this era of big money, high stakes cricket. My liking for them grew even more when we visited New Zealand three years ago. The country is beautiful and the people are the friendliest in the world, bar none.

Until this year, their hardworking teams have not always had the all-round talent needed to win. They have made it to the semis but no further. This year, finally, the Kiwis seem to have the goods, their team perfectly suited for the one-day game. Superlative fielding. Tight, penetrating bowling with a mixture of pace ( Southee, Boult) and spin ( the crafty Daniel Vettori). Explosive batsmen ( McCullum, Anderson, Williamson, Ronchi and Taylor ).Additionally, they have the advantage of playing some of their matches on home turf.

As things stand now, it looks likely that Australia and New Zealand will finish 1-2 in Group A, the precise order to be determined by the results of their match next weekend. It is not unlikely that they will both advance to the final. Had the final been scheduled to be played in New Zealand, I would rate the Kiwis chances as 50-50 because the swinging conditions would help their pacemen more than those of the Aussies. On Australian pitches, the Aussies would have to be considered favorites. Regardless, I would root for the Kiwis unless they were going head-to-head against India.

What of India! Their defeat of powerful South Africa showed that they can play with the big boys but I am wary of reading too much into it. Last Sunday, they played an almost perfect game and excelled in all three phases of the game. The batting has always been good but for them to outbowl and outfield the Proteas is unprecedented. I think they will probably make it to the semifinals but then they would probably have to beat both New Zealand and Australia and I cannot see that happening. Of course, all this is mere speculation from an ordinary fan of cricket. Anything can happen in the knockout phase.

But … go Kiwis! Go, India!!

Golden Ripples

About Food, Travel, Sports , Books and other fun things

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