The underpinnings of Indian cuisine are spices, called masala. They are incorporated into dishes at every meal from breakfast to dinner, lacing tea, coffee, lemonades and yogurt drinks as well as meats, vegetables, pilafs, ice creams and candies. Spices give Indian food its characteristic flavor, texture and aroma. Judicious blending enhances rather than overwhelms the basic flavor and character of a dish.
An Indian cook’s pantry will always contain a fresh supply of green cardamom, chilies, cinnamon, clove, coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, Kari leaves, nigella, mustard, saffron, tamarind and turmeric. These are used individually or as blends, also called masala. Garam masala, chat masala, chai masala and panch phoron are the four most popular and frequently used spice blends. Equally important, but used slightly less often, are ajowan, asafetida, amchoor, black cardamom and pomegranate seeds. Amchoor, a dried mango powder, and pomegranate seeds are used in dishes in place of lemon due to their sour taste.
Consumers are exploring and educating themselves on a wider array of ethnic foods. “A few years ago, the questions were general, such as the difference between cumin and coriander. Now people ask more specifics, such as the Portuguese influence on Indian cooking, notes Monica Bhide, author of Everything Indian.
Most Indian food epicures credit creative European chefs working in the U.S. for broadening diners’ taste experiences. Ashok Bajaj, chef-owner of Bombay Club, an elite Washington, D.C.-based restaurant whose guest list includes former Presidents Bill Clinton, George Bush and Nelson Mandela, attributes the rising popularity of Indian cuisine to Chefs Gray Kunz and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s use of spices. “They made them familiar and more acceptable to Americans, says Bajaj.
Kunz was one of the first European chefs to cook with Indian spices in his former four-star restaurant Lespinasse in New York City. Vongerichten’s Manhattan restaurant, Spice Market, serves Indian starters papadams and samosas laced with asafetida (garlic-flavored spice), cumin and chilies, representing the chef’s philosophy of “wanting people to leave with a mouth full of spices and pleasure.
Other chefs have fueled interest in Indian foods by lightening the cuisine. For example, Maneet Chauhan, chef of Chicago’s popular new Indian-Spanish restaurant Vermillion, uses reductions and jus instead of traditional cream and butter. Notes Rohini Dey, owner and creator of the menu, “We like vibrant, bold flavors in food, but don’t want it to be heavy on the palate.
Chauhan believes Americans are ready for her cardamom-, garam masala- and lentil-spiced food, such as the signature dish Mysore lamb chops, marinated in 16 spices and lentils before grilling. “They feel a dance going on in their mouths, she says.
Authenticity with Quality
A growing Indian population in the U.S. has helped increase accessibility of the cuisine. Rajan Radhakrishnan, owner of Houston’s Madras Pavilion, a restaurant specializing in South Indian food, believes the arrival of a sizable number of Indians to work in IT and other professional sectors has been an impetus for the availability of traditional dishes. “These immigrants are from different regions and are young and highly educated with a fine palate, Radhakrishnan explains. “They are fantastic consumers, demanding authenticity with quality.
For most consumers, exposure to Indian spices may start abroad or in restaurants, but it is expanding into increasing sales at the retail level as more cookbooks, classes and television shows inspire them to recreate the recipes themselves.
Sukh Bains, owner of Shalimar Indian Grocery in LouisvilleKy., has not only observed a rapid sales increase at his restaurant, Shalimar, but also at the retail operation. “I opened the store to supply my restaurant needs, but now 95 percent of sales are from walk-in customers, says Bains. “Shoppers try Indian food, then come to the grocery store with recipes to cook at home.
“Back in the 70s I packed tiny bags of spices and still it was difficult to sell them, remembers Arun Sinha, owner of Foods of India, one of New York City’s oldest Indian grocery shops, known for its spice selection as well as chutneys, pickles, sauces and ready-to-eat meals. “Now my customers want a minimum of 4 to 8 ounces and come back in a few weeks for more.
Charlie Sahadi, owner of Brooklyn’s Sahadi’s, a Middle Eastern grocer that has been in operation since 1948, believes the best way to sell spices is to demonstrate their use. The retailer started a prepared foods department in 1998 to introduce customers to the flavors the store carried and has since seen sales growth of 35 percent. “We showed how cumin or garam masala taste in a dish and now spices are a hot item, says Sahadi.
Suppliers are simplifying the Indian home-cooking process, too, with pre-measured blends and recipes. For instance, Posh Nosh Imports, Inc. offers Kitchen Guru Indian Spice Packets, ten blends to create authentic dishes such as Chicken Tikka Masala and Goan Style Pork. Brooklyn’s Arora Creations, meanwhile, offers organic savory spice blends for Northern Indian cuisine.
Bringing Flavors Closer
The need for convenience is growing a market of packaged meals, snacks and condiments for consumers wanting authentic Indian cuisine without preparing it by hand. Liberty Richter, Saddle Brook, N.J., for example, has rolled out its Kitchens of India line ofmicrowaveable vegetarian dishes. The products, which were created by chefs at Indian hotels, represent various regions and includes five varieties such as Dal Bukhara, black lentils simmered in rich tomato curry.
Two years ago, Rachel Berliner, creator and co-owner of Amy’s Kitchen, in Santa Rosa, Calif., introduced an Indian line to her organic, vegetarian, home-style prepared-meal offerings. Selections include classics such as Mattar Paneer, Chana Masala (chickpeas in a caramelized onion sauce of cumin, ginger and mango powder) and Vegetable Korma (carrots, green peas, green beans in cardamom nut sauce). “The line has become the top-selling packaged Indian food in mainstream supermarkets and natural foods outlets with more launches scheduled, notes Steve Warnert, director of sales and marketing.
“Our customers want the real flavor, the way Indians dine at home. So we begin with fresh ground spices and cook in small batches in kettles, explains Berliner, who has become as versed in Indian spices as a masalawala (spice seller) in old Delhi. Berliner prefers to stay away from strong flavors. “We work with familiar spices and use small quantities.
Kaleidoscope of Snacks
Indians love to snack and some of the most popular packaged products are snacks called namkeen. The snacks are made with various flours; ground lentil; nuts; spices such as ajowan, asafetida, black pepper, black salt and cumin; and dried fruits. They are available in a kaleidoscope of flavors and textures in brands like Deep, Swad and Haldiram. “Ten years ago there were only two brands; now there are so many I’ve stopped counting, says Sinha of Foods of India. “They are popular with students and busy people, who use them as meals.
“People are looking for convenience-based food, adds Swetal Patel, vice president of sales for Raja Foods, Skokie, Ill., importer and distributor of Indian products and manufacturer of brands such as Swad, Patel and Patel Brothers. “Our best sellers are shelf-stable, ready-to-eat products such as chutneys, sauces and prepared meals like Dal Makhani (creamed lentils with mild spices) and Palak Paneer (cheese and spinach in a tomato sauce with roasted cumin and fenugreek), which are microwaveable and all vegetarian.
In 2006, the line will begin appearing in U.S. specialty food stores and supermarkets. Notes Patel, “Not everybody makes a trip to Indian groceries so we are bringing these flavors closer to the consumer.
Julie Sahni is the chef-proprietor of the Indian Cooking School in New York and author of Classic Indian Cooking. Her company, Spice Adventures, Inc., provides Indian food and spice consulting to corporations and leads culinary tours to India. Contact her at email@example.com.
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