A Passage to India

Poised to become the next big ethnic trend in North America, the flavors of India are about to make the big leap from restaurants to your supermarket shelves.

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Indian cuisine, like other cuisines hailing from
predominantly agricultural regions, is a tapestry
of a wide variety of regional cuisines.






By Kantha Shelke, Ph.D., Contributing Editor

Indian cuisine spent decades in the shadows of one cultural food craze after another. When the sleeping tiger finally woke up, the long-term familiarity paid off. Today, Indian restaurants are nearly as numerous as the Thai and Vietnamese eateries of the last great food trend. Across the U.S., restaurant chefs are boldly incorporating the sensuous flavors of Indian cuisine into contemporary American menus. Saffron, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves are employed to add new dimensions to mainstream fare and replace calorie-rich cream sauces.

But with a 5,000-year association with health, exotic-yet-familiar flavorings plus a ready audience, the fare of the subcontinent is poised to be one of the strongest players in a generation to enter the packaged foods arena.

Ancient Myths

Indian cuisine, like other cuisines hailing from predominantly agricultural regions, is a tapestry of a wide variety of regional cuisines, each with characteristic ingredients produced and consumed locally. Inter-regional differences, subtle yet important, are beginning to merge as a result of modernization of agriculture and distribution.

Indian cuisine is about diversity of flavors, textures and ingredients, not just spices. “It is futile to explain Indian cuisines without including the influence of various regions and implications of the numerous religions from the subcontinent,” observes Colleen Taylor Sen, author of Food Culture in India (Greenwood Press, Westport, Conn.). This inability to be pinned down left fertile ground for misinterpretation and myth.

There is no one national cuisine in India, much less a single typical dish. There are, however, certain ingredients, dishes and styles of preparation associated with Indian fare. Curry, the archetype of Indian food, does not contain curry powder – an invention of British merchants. Curry (from the Tamil word for sauce, “kari”) refers to the spicy broth or gravy served with rice. In India, the word curry describes any meat, vegetable or fish cooked in sauce.

Another common myth is that all Indian food is fiery hot. As in other parts of the world, the food in the south is hot and fiery while food in the north leans more toward aromatic. Chili peppers, although common in Indian cooking, are not even native to the country.

Restaurant-quality Indian dishes may be prepared at home even by neophytes to foreign cuisine, thanks to products like dipping sauces and simmer sauces from Naturally India.

Cooking the Indian Way

In traditional Indian cooking, spices may be added individually or in combination with other spices as whole, crushed, ground, mixed with water as a paste, dry-roasted or sautéed for unique and characteristic flavors. They may be added once or at different times throughout the cooking process. Many vegetable and meat dishes are begun by sautéing whole spices in ghee or oil as a way to coax the release of their essential oils into the cooking medium for more even permeation throughout the dish.

There are particular advantages processed Indian meals have over their individual ingredients. Commercially produced curry powders are a contribution of the United Kingdom and a poor substitute for freshly ground spices in Indian cooking. Most curry powders contain turmeric, which must be cooked to fairly high temperature to release its flavor; the other components require less cooking. Consequently, cooking with commercial curry powders either burns the coriander and cumin or leaves the turmeric raw and bitter.

Indian food preparation techniques, like other Asian styles of cooking, are difficult to automate. Besides the involvement of time, the cuisine also requires an extensive pantry of ingredients, many of which are in turn made from other ingredients.

Additionally, food processors, blenders and graters do not translate as easily to produce the complex textures and shapes created by the various manual operations dedicated to Indian cooking preparation. Western kitchens armed with smoke detectors and flammable décor also are not conducive to cooking at high temperatures and often on open flames. Creating ready-to-eat food mixes and spice blends is particularly well-suited to consumer needs.

The Essence of Indian

The clever use of intensely flavored spices and unique ways of combining and integrating seasonings is probably what the world has come to appreciate most as the essence of Indian cuisine. No other cuisine uses as many spices in so many ways. In accordance with ancient Ayurvedic principles, six basic tastes form the foundation of Indian cooking: sweetness, sourness, saltiness, pungency, bitterness and astringency.

Four of these tastes are well established in Western cooking; pungency and astringency are lesser-known tastes. The former refers to the sharpness of ginger and radishes, and the latter to the fresh, cleansing taste, such as that of cilantro. A well-balanced Indian meal typically contains all six elements, with regional preferences accentuating one taste more than the others.

Spices are used for many reasons beyond mere flavor. They can create body. The addition of ground onions, garlic, poppy seeds and sesame seeds make a paste that thickens the sauce or gravy. Spices also add texture to a preparation. Small seeds like mustard, cumin and lentils are roasted or fried to add an extra flavorful crunch to cooked vegetables, lentils and rice. But while non-culinary reasons abound for the intensive use of spices in India, spices are added primarily for flavor and health.

A Regional Approach

Immigrants from India are becoming one of the largest minorities in the U.S., and a new generation of chefs is catering to the affluent. But these new citizens come from many diverse regions.

There are as many flavor styles in India as there are regions – vindaloo from Goa, sambar from Tamil Nadu, molee from Kerala, kadhi from Maharashtra, and korma from Kashmir. There are also the more narrowly defined regionals, such as Bengali, Moghlai, South Indian, Gujarati, Hyderabadi, Jewish-Cochini, Chettinad, Punjabi, Madras, Parsi or Balti. The spices and sauces of each are specific, subtle and often surprising.

Contrary to how Indian meals are portrayed in the Western world with meat or chicken as the main entrée, Indian meals are traditionally centered around grains. The south features rice as the centerpiece while wheat based foods are pivotal in the north. Meats and fish are relatively less in proportion and served along with vegetables to flavor the central grain offering, while condiments complement with flavors and provide essential vitamins and minerals. Practically every meal is complemented with plain or seasoned yogurt or buttermilk.

Patak's offers lines of marinades (above), sauces, chutneys, pappadums and canned entrees.

Indian cuisine, confined to ethnic neighborhoods for years, is thus emerging with its exotic flavors and aromas to transform the mainstream American palate in an unprecedented way. The mainstreaming of Indian culinary fare is spurred by demands of increasingly sophisticated diners hungry for new and authentic tastes. Consumers today desire authenticity in cultural cuisines and are increasingly sophisticated about what’s real and what’s not.

The Prepared Foods Arena

Indian cuisine is entering the prepared foods market in a big way. Many of the instant prepared food mixes and ready-to-prepare processed foods on the U.S. retail scene are imported from well established brand leaders, including Ambika (www.ambikaappalamdepot.com) of Chennai, India, and Patak’s (www.worldfood.com) of London. These brands continue to hold major market shares in the Western world emphasizing the value of growing loyalty among consumers.

Ambika evolved from a tiny, nondescript shop in the 1980s to a bustling enterprise with distributors all over the world, and mostly by making appalams. Appalams are similar to papads, fried wafers popular in North India and served as an appetizer in Indian restaurants all over the U.S. A new entry into the marketplace is Naturally India (www.naturallyindia.com), Neshanic Station, N.J. Harshad Parekh, president, launched simmer-sauce packages of prepared spices and herbs to combine the essential first steps of a number of popular recipes. Parekh, a seasoned veteran of the food processing industry, recognized the value in providing culinary aids to consumers so they can enjoy wholesome, restaurant-quality meals at home for a fraction of the cost.

Selling Coals To Newcastle

Patak’s, started in Britain in the 1950s by an Indian immigrant from Kenya. This successful brand favored by consumers and professional chefs across the U.K. and North America is now doing the unimaginable. Meena Pathak, chef and chief marketing officer, is successfully exporting Patak’s ready mixes and pickles to India, capitalizing on the growing need for taste, quality and convenience in a culture where leisurely home-cooked meals were the norm.

Pathak is paving the way for others. Despite rather sophisticated advertising and promotion programs in local Indian newspapers and magazines, Indian food processors tend to shy away from advertising and marketing in mainstream U.S. markets. She developed a series of cookbooks for the North American chef, and astutely partnered with Hormel’s (www.hormelfoods.com), to take advantage of the Austin, Minn., firm’s efficient specialty food distribution network. Together they are poised to take Indian food where it has never gone before: to rural markets and local grocery stores.

Annie Whitney, co-founder and corporate conscience at Annie’s Homegrown Foods (www.annies.com), Wakefield, Mass., understands the importance of the mainstream market for Indian flavors. Annie’s started Tamarind Tree Vegetarian Indian Entrees to combine American convenience with practiced food preparation to serve the evolving demand for restaurant-quality packaged Indian specialties.

Tamarind Tree frozen entrees are made with authentic blends of savory spices, and each microwavable entrée comes with its own basmati rice pouch to create a complete meal rivaling those made from scratch. Annie’s is opening the door for Indian flavors to reach more consumers and to teach them there’s a lot more to the cuisine than palate-burning curry or tandoori chicken.

Without a doubt, Indian cuisine is coming of age in the U.S. It has migrated from home-cooked to commercially produced frozen meals and fancy fare in mainstream restaurants and foodservice. And this is creating new opportunities for service providers and new product developers. This trend is bound to gain momentum as more American chefs adopt Indian spices and food preparation techniques. With conscientious players like Naturally India, Patak’s and Ambika, consumers stand to benefit from health as well as taste and convenience.

Ancient Health Cuisine

Consumers are seeking healthful, fresh, aromatic and flavorful foods. The growing emphasis on health benefits is drawing attention to spices as ingredients to help create new foods. Spices are being researched extensively for their medicinal value, to complement existing ways of healing and as alternatives to drugs. Consumers regard their health more holistically and so opt for foods that go beyond satisfying hunger and taste to remedy ailments and prevent diseases.

Early Indian civilization understood the medicinal value of spices and their application to prevent ailments and help cure disease. Most of the spices and flavorings popular today — anise, basil, cardamom, cinnamon, clove, garlic, ginger, mace, mustard, nutmeg, onions, black pepper and turmeric – are indigenous to India and have been savored for millennia. Spices are frequently mentioned in conjunction with health and medicine in the sacred Ayurvedic texts, which were formulated 5,000 to 7,000 years ago.

Physician Susruta II described the derivation of more than 700 drugs from spices. Turmeric, especially, has held a place as one of the most important healing spices since ancient times.

Indian cooking principles stem from the therapeutic principles of ancient Ayurvedic medicine, which specifies the way of adding, preparing and presenting ingredients to produce meals with desired healing effects. Ayurveda (ayur meaning “life” and veda meaning “knowledge”), which has been practiced in India for 5,000 years, is the only entirely holistic medical system in existence.

Unlike Western medicine, which deals with the treatment of the symptoms of the disease, Ayurveda emphasizes prevention of disease by maintaining the body’s balance and preventing imbalances that cause disease. It is based on ensuring that prana — life force — flows easily into every cell of the body by eating the right foods, using deep relaxation techniques and following an active, healthy lifestyle. In the Ayurvedic meal, ingredients are chosen not only for taste but also to assure physical and emotional harmony and well-being.

Ayurveda classifies foods into six tastes, or rasas, affecting digestion, disposition and health. Different spices and foods contribute differently to each rasa – for example, fennel contributes to sweetness, tamarind to sourness, fenugreek to bitterness, mustard to spiciness and asafoetida to astringency. Cooking the complex spice combinations and achieving the depth of flavor experienced with Indian foods therefore entail much more than simply tossing a bunch of spices together to create a taste. The ultimate objective is to balance taste in the meal to harmonize the body in accordance with each individual’s constitution (dosha).

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