Indian food hits big time on the global map

When in January last year, I stood in front of 50-odd Americans at the Kendall College auditorium in Chicago, ready to lecture them on Indian food, I didn’t know that they were rather familiar with it. Right from learning how to hand-press coconut milk in the interiors of Kerala, to trying a hand at making ghee at home, some of them had been there and done that.

Indian food is fast emerging as a favourite choice across the world, but we’re not quite on top yet, according to Kalyan Karmakar who runs the popular food blog, Finely Chopped.

“Barring the UK, the presence of Indian food in most places I have travelled to is very muted. You get very few restaurants selling a limited fare - with high prices and tastes that neither appeal to the Indian palate nor to an international audience. We have miles to go before Indian food can compare with Italian, South East Asian, Mid Eastern or even Caribbean cuisines when it comes to global popularity.”

Still, Indian food is definitely hot in California, especially Hollywood, confirms Kathy Gori, a screenwriter, and Indian food enthusiast who has been blogging since 2009, at The Colors of Indian Cooking.

“I’ve cooked for numerous movie industry people that we work with. Nearly everyone we have done business with winds up eating Indian food at our house. I am often called upon to cook for Indian guests of friends, and any one I know who has visitors from India coming to LA calls on me to come cook for them.”

For Sandeepa Mukherjee Datta, author and blogger at Bong Mom’s Cookbook, who lives in New Jersey, it is quite a different scene. “Indian Food is the norm here rather than an aberration, and I have seen more Indian food here than in any one city or region in India. But I must admit that 12 years ago, when I landed here and found an Indian grocery store that sells ‘aloo bonda’ and ‘mirchi bhaji,’ I was in the seventh heaven. I am still pleasantly surprised when I find an Indian restaurant in a new city while travelling, like we found one bang in middle of Copenhagen. The food, however, is far from wow mostly.”

Given this universality of Indian food, so to speak, is it a good idea then to play around with it? Mostly people with highly refined palates for spice and heat having a blind faith in the power of our spices may not always have pleasant results for global Indian food lovers.

Kalyan seems to agree on this, and says, “While there is a lot of greatness in playing around within the boundaries of traditional cuisines which have been perfected over the years, trying to do something different and marrying discordant notes from various cuisines without much thought is a recipe for disaster.”

Sandeepa believes that there is no harm in experimenting with fusion food as long as the ones serving and eating it know that it is fusion. She adds, “However, it seldom happens in mass Indian restaurants in the West. So, Westerners think that Indian cuisine is all about naan and butter chicken. But Indian restaurants in India do fusion much better, I think. I have not had the chance to sample them but I have heard rave reviews of many such places that pair bacon wrapped prawns with mustard sauce or make dosas stuffed with kheema. That is the kind of fusion Indian food I would like to see more in the West.”

Kathy, on the other hand, begs to differ, “I’m interested in fusion cuisine, I’ve done a few projects for publishers where I’ve interpreted French dishes and given them an Indian twist.”

So, is Indian food in its pure form the real thing, then? The one place where Kalyan has come across this is in London.“I am referring to the new wave here with chefs such as Vivek Singh and Atul Kochar and their Michelin starred Indian restaurants and the rise of Indian supper clubs. They have created a fair amount of interest in the non-Indian crowd too. I have not seen the same excitement around Indian food outside of India anywhere else,” he says.

Sandeepa would love to see more of regional Indian cuisine on the forefront. “The fixed boring menu of korma, tikka and balti that most restaurants have to offer everywhere is kind of getting boring.”

Kathy is rather tired of the typical Indian restaurant red-coloured fare – and she says that unless she can find someplace that Indian people would actually eat in she prefers not to go anywhere out.

According to Kathy, all is fine and dandy with Indian food going into Western homes, not just restaurants, but the biggest turn off is her American counterparts lamenting that it's too spicy, too hot, too fattening. “None of which is true! Any cuisine can be that way, it just depends on who's cooking it,” she believes.

As far as annoyances go, Sandeepa feels clubbing all our spices into curry powder gets her goat while Kalyan, has often wondered why most conversations surrounding Indian food begin and end with the lame question, “Is it spicy?”