Will Indian Food Make the Cut?

Just a decade or two ago, even in Japan sushi was reserved for celebratory occasions or for entertaining important guests. Nowadays, this food is so readily available that it can be found, premade, in many local supermarkets throughout the United States. With affordable sushi so readily available, it is no wonder that this cuisine has swept across the States so quickly but its roots can be connected back to the influx of Japanese immigrants to California where the first restaurants catered to Japanese expats and visiting businessmen. Sushi restaurants first opened in the Little Tokyo section of Los Angeles and the crazy spread from there.

Years ago, investors could not have envisioned a successful restaurant that served raw fish to the American public. Now the question is: as the American palate grows, will Indian fare be the next exotic food that makes the cut? Andrew F. Smith, editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink of America, predicts that Indian food will take off in the next decade in a similar fashion to how sushi grew in the 1980s and 90s.

One of the biggest obstacles is teaching the American public that Indian fare does not inherently mean spicy and hot. As Thai food has become more commonplace, the American palate is learning to associate ethnic fare with more than just heat. Another allure of Indian food is the health benefits. Common spices such as ginger, cinnamon and turmeric are said to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and cancer fighting properties.

A recent study by the market research group Mintel found that the Indian ethnic food market grew by 35 percent from 2006-2008, which was the fastest growing ethnic food market. This growth can be seen in the change at local supermarkets, which are beginning to stock shelves with chutneys, sauces and a variety of boxes of heat and serve Indian fare. In New York City, in 1978 there were only 19 listed restaurants in the city’s restaurant guide. In 2010, there were over 350 Indian restaurants across the city.

Hoping to capitalize on this growth, a Chicago entrepreneur, Vijay Puniani, is opening one of the first Indian food franchises in America, Chutney Joe’s. This affordable fast food style restaurant aims to make Indian fare more accessible to the American public by creating a menu that plays off Chipotle-style simplicity. Diners can choose from four meat or four vegetarian options and rice or naan. In an attempt to make the Indian fare more suitable for the American palate, samosas or dumplings are baked instead of deep fried and the Indian staple, ghee, is not found anywhere on the menu.

In addition to the all you can eat and fast food chains, modern, stylish Indian restaurants are also beginning to pop up across the country. As these restaurants show Americans that there is more to Indian fare than just curry, Chicken Masala may just become the next California Roll.