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India’s best-known food chain abroad is Saravana Bhavan, and the contrast couldn’t be more telling.
India’s best-known food chain abroad is Saravana Bhavan, and the contrast couldn’t be more telling.

Opinion | When Indian food cooked up a storm in the West

Often the curries and tikkas that people order aren’t just bland but a parody of Indian food

Indian food hasn’t been getting much love from around the world. Hardly had the heat generated by US academic Tom Nichols’s harmless little tweet ("Indian food is terrible and we pretend it isn’t") died down, The Economist newspaper stoked the dying embers of Indian outrage when it wrote rather tactlessly that “remove the onion and you struggle to imagine Indian cuisine".

If The Economist piece was largely uninformed and Nichols’s tweet mischievously provocative, the fault may well lie within us, in our ability to clearly articulate to the world the richness and versatility of our food. Indeed, in the aftermath of the battles that raised the hackles of thousands of irate Indian food lovers, it may be useful to ponder why what we believe to be food of the gods is not quite the world beater it should logically be.

An international YouGov study done earlier this year of more than 25,000 people in 24 countries found that Italian food is the most popular in the world, followed by Chinese, Japanese, Thai and French. The survey placed Indian cuisine ninth. To add salt to our wounds, it trailed even American cuisine, which most Indians believe is tasteless and bland.

The Michelin star system isn’t available in India, but there are very few Indian cuisine restaurants with a one, two or three Michelin-star rating across the world. The Michelin site says that, in 2018, of the 1,048 Michelin-starred restaurants around the world, just 11 were Indian cuisine-based. By contrast, 57 Japanese restaurants were star rated. Of the 2,817 restaurants in the world with Michelin stars, France alone boasts of 600, followed by Japan and Italy.

That may be part of the problem, as there aren’t enough outlets to serve as samplers of Indian food. Unlike other services in which India has had great success globally, food cannot be sold remotely. It needs an on-ground presence. It also needs to be affordable if it’s to appeal to younger people in colleges and universities, the usual flag bearers of new trends.

In addition, often the hackneyed curries and tikkas that people order and get aren’t essentially Indian, but customized for a presumed non-Indian palate. The result is food that isn’t just bland, but mostly a parody of authentic Indian food. Here’s travel writer Matthew Meltzer from Matador Network describing his first reaction to Indian food in the US: “The shiny orange layer of slime sitting on top of the chicken thighs looked suspicious. The sign said ‘butter chicken’, but it looked more like what was left in the sink when I was done washing dishes…This, unfortunately, was my— and many other Americans’—first exposure to Indian food." Even Nichols, who is after all a self-confessed “curmudgeon", did clarify later that he was referring to whatever it was that is called “Indian" in the US and UK.

If Americans aren’t partial to Indian food, Indians abroad don’t seem to want it too badly either. There’s economics behind that trend. There hasn’t been any large-scale migration of blue-collar workers from India to the US. In most cases, it is these workers who boost the demand for indigenous food. Thus, Chinese restaurants started in the US nearly 170 years ago, initially catering to poor migrants who had come to the country in search of work. Today, there are over 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the US, but just about 5,000 Indian ones. Evidence suggests that Indian restaurants made their appearance in New York only around the first decade of the 20th century, and the real spurt has only happened in this century.

India’s best-known food chain abroad is Saravana Bhavan, and the contrast couldn’t be more telling. While the South Indian vegetarian chain has around 40 restaurants in other countries, there are nearly 400 outlets of American fast food chain McDonald’s in India alone. Nor is this lack of reach restricted to overseas markets. Even within India, Saravana Bhavan has only 39 outlets.

Despite our great love for food and the pride we take in our various regional cuisines, the sector is highly fragmented and low-tech. Globally, food is a mature business in which the back end, comprising a crucial cold chain, is very important. In India, approximately 30% of all fruits and vegetables grown in the country are wasted because of lack of storage facilities and energy infrastructure.

It isn’t surprising then that Indian food doesn’t get the respect it deserves worldwide. This is a real pity, considering how integral food is to a country’s soft power. Some countries, such as Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea, have actively promoted “gastro-diplomacy" to further the cause of their cuisine. In the present climate of hyper-nationalism, promoting Indian food may well be an assertion of national pride.

Back to Nichols’s tweet, though, and what one commentator called our reaction to it—an indication of “deep-rooted insecurity". Here’s the thing: what if there is some truth in it, and away from the flattering Pinterest and Instagram lenses, Indian food isn’t so sexy, particularly for someone who hasn’t been weaned on dal chawal. After all, food, like love, isn’t governed by any rules. Just because a billion people like a dish doesn’t mean that everyone else should too. Instead of trying to force our traditional food on people for whom our masalas and chillies are alien, maybe we need to cook up a slightly different cuisine to conquer the West.

Sundeep Khanna is former executive editor of Mint

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