Front Burner: Five Thousand Years New

The flavors inherent in India’s curry of culture defy any single-word characterization.

By David Feder, R.D., Editor

The term “Indian cuisine” does the flavors of the subcontinent about as much justice as the phrase “American cuisine” does to our home cooking. How could one sum up American cuisine in a single phrase? Put another way, under what descriptive term would we coalesce Californian, Floribbean, Minnesotan or Tex-Mex dishes?

India is home to one billion people, nearly 1,000 languages, and a host of religions. The foods of that ancient land are every bit as dissimilar as those on this continent. Still, there is one thing that does define the cuisine of India to the western mind and palate: spice.

As a chef, I traveled to India and Nepal in 1989 with Pardeep Sharma, a friend of mine from Delhi. Pardeep opened one of the first Indian restaurants in Dallas (my home town) 10 years before. I saw only a fraction of the country but, as we ate our way from small truck stops to five-star hotels, I quickly learned Indian food in India means a whole lot more than the ubiquitous biryanis and vindaloos found on Indian menus throughout America. In those days, every Indian restaurant in the U.S. had the same menu. But that’s changing.

Go to any city of even moderate size in the U.S. and you’ll find an Indian restaurant. Tellingly, there is also the relatively new phenomenon of “Indian fusion” restaurants, employing flavor elements from India, China and all points around. When Tabla opened in New York, I knew we were on the verge of a true happening.

Today, Dallas has several dozen Indian and Indian-fusion restaurants serving one of the largest populations of immigrants from India and environs in the U.S (approximately 100,000 in a metro area of 4 million). There are half a dozen Indian supermarkets plus another dozen small “mom and pop” shops.

In these stores I’ve noticed the huge sections of frozen dinners and processed foods, reflecting an unreported — and thus far intra-ethnic — boom. But I also see the breakthrough of a quantum shift. When these products find solid placement in mainstream supermarkets, Indian cuisine will be as much a part of our daily choices as Italian and Mexican. Between the evolving demographics and the interest American palates are showing in Indian cuisine, every prepared foods company should be looking at how its product line can take advantage of this opportunity.

As an example, look at England. The U.K. has the largest population of people from India and Pakistan outside of those countries. If you go into any British supermarket, the frozen dinner and packaged food sections will include hundreds of Indian and Indian-influenced products. We’re now on the cusp of the same privilege here.

In our feature story, Dr. Kantha Shelke — just back from a visit to her native land — parses this trend while providing a primer of just what makes up the world of Indian cookery. Namaste!

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