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.