There are around 5,000 Indian restaurants in the United States, which is nothing, compared to the 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the country, closely followed by Mexican restaurants.
However, Indian restaurants are increasing. There were 20 Indian restaurants in the New York area in the 1980s. There are now around 300. The thing is, Indian food is rising in popularity, but its patrons are not only Indian or Indian descendants but people from all backgrounds. Why aren’t Indians eating at American Indian Restaurants? Let’s explore the Indian restaurant market.
Not All Indian Food is Created Equal
An Indian person traveling to the USA will be surprised by the country’s typical Indian menu, finding it unusual and perhaps even nonsensical. Indian food in the United States is becoming more authentic and varied, but most restaurants still serve a watered-down version of the country’s offerings.
Staples that became popular in the UK, rather than in India, such as the ubiquitous chicken tikka masala, are best-selling items in America but don’t represent actual Indian food entirely. Curry is another example — you’ll find much fewer versions of the spicy seasoned sauce in the States than in India, which might be off-putting for people looking for authenticity.
Indian northern cuisine is very different from its western, eastern and southern counterparts. However, most restaurants don’t distinguish between the styles, resulting in an odd combination of dishes inspired by specialties from all around India. Those used to authentic Indian food can tell, which might be why people with Indian heritage don’t visit average Indian restaurants in America as often.
A Bright Future Is In Sight
There are around 4.5 million Indian Americans in the United States, representing a small but significant 1.35% of the population. Needless to say, Indian Americans enjoy the country’s varied menu as much as everyone, but they often hold Indian food in high esteem. If it’s not authentic, then it’s not Indian at all.
The good news is that many, if not most, of the famous Indian restaurants and even restaurant chains are founded by Indian people and are returning to their roots, focusing on regional cuisines or “grandma-approved” dishes. This is no easy feat, as Americanized Indian food has gained popularity. Although the younger generation of Americans looks for authenticity when making a purchase decision, some dishes have become staples, such as chicken tikka masala, and are expected to be available in every restaurant.
To prepare authentic Indian food to cater to Indian Americans, restauranteurs must address other challenges. For example, they must cook authentically, and that means, at the very least, installing a tandoor oven in the kitchen, which is often impossible, especially in small venues.
And if you want Indian people to populate your dining room, you better be pummeling your spices with a mortar and pestle, and this is just the beginning. Authentic Indian food is delicious, yes, but it is also time-consuming and labor-intensive.
Is Indian Food the Next Big Thing?
Given the enormous market gap between Indian food and other popular ethnic cuisines in America, such as Chinese, Japanese and Mexican, there’s no doubt that Indian food will continue to grow and become better represented in the country’s restaurant market.
However, Indian food in America must first get a nod of approval from the Indian American community, and to do so, restaurateurs must return to the old ways and focus on India’s rich regional cuisines. Only then will we see Indian food competing in revenue and popularity with the delicious repertoire of flavors that make the American food scene so incredibly attractive.