As the United States’ population continues to grow and diversify, palates that favor multicultural flavors are influencing consumers’ taste preferences, and grocery and convenience store prepared foods sections have seen an upward trend in the introduction and sale of Indian food.
Darren Seifer, executive director and industry analyst of food consumption at the NPD Group, a Chicago-based market research company, says this trend is being driven in large part by younger consumers. “What we've seen with our younger, more ethnically diverse generations is a stronger desire for an increased variety in their food options,” Seifer says. “With this trend we are seeing a rise in demand for multicultural flavors that are spicier and bolder in taste,” such as that found in Indian food.
NPD spokesperson Kim McLynn agrees. According to a recent article, McLynn says, “the affinity United States consumers continue to show for ethnic flavors and dishes is supported by the fact that 75 percent of United States adults, especially young adults, are open to trying new foods.”
Stephanie Madoff of Café Spice, a family-owned company founded on creating Indian food with the Western market in mind, says “consumers’ palates have definitely evolved and grown more adventurous in recent years.” According to Madoff, when Café Spice began in 1998, Indian food still faced many consumer misconceptions that needed to be overcome. For instance, even the word “curry” was a challenge from a marketing standpoint because most people assumed that such dishes would be very—and too—spicy for them.
But Madoff says that “consumers' palates are worldlier today when it comes to ethnic foods in general,” and thus the consumption of Indian food is no longer as intimidating as it once was. Madoff attributes Indian cuisine’s having become more mainstream and accessible than ever before to social media, lifestyle food blogs, and an explosion of food shows on television. Seifer notes in addition that as consumers move away from multiple dish meals towards a desire for simpler one-dish meals, especially at dinner, many Indian cuisines lend themselves to this growing trend.
Chef Carrie Walters, culinary director at Dayton, Ohio-based Dorothy Lane Market (DLM), a family-owned and locally-operated specialty grocery store, says the appeal of yellow and green curry is catching up with red curry in popularity, and that DLM plans to capitalize on this trend by introducing a new red lentil soup made with yellow curry in 2018.
Neil Stern, senior partner at McMillan Doolittle, a retail consulting firm specializing in consumer research and customer experience, says that Indian food is carving out a space for itself in the American diet, especially in supermarket delis. He noted, for example, that the hot bar at Whole Foods has featured Indian dishes such as vegetable korma, tikka masala, saag paneer, vegetable samosas, saffron rice, and naan bread in recent years. Stern also has observed an increase in fusion foods such as coconut chicken tenders with mango sauce earning spots on the supermarket’s catering menu, which he again attributes to the growing popularity of Indian foods more generally.
"American consumers have played an important role in the growing popularity of Indian food [worldwide],” says Chef Hari Nayak, Cafe Spice's culinary director, author of six acclaimed cookbooks and one of the most sought-after chefs in North America. “Once familiarity with the cuisine sets in, consumers tend to show more willingness to explore and experiment with flavors and spices." In accordance with this trend, in 2008 Café Spice launched six ready-to-eat, freshly prepared Indian meals with Whole Foods Market in the Northeast. And in January, Café Spice launched four new Indian retail meals: Butter Chicken Meatballs with Basmati Saffron Rice; Coconut Chicken Curry with Basmati Saffron Rice; Bombay Dal Palak with Basmati Saffron Rice; and Aloo Gobhi Curry with Basmati Saffron Rice.
Beyond its flavor, increasingly health-conscious consumers enjoy the added benefit of Indian food’s health-promoting ingredients. The staple components of the Indian diet are largely very healthy, as they place an emphasis on a wide variety of vegetables and fruits; a multitude of spices and herbs; and ingredients high in fiber and low in saturated fat.
Café Spice, for instance, uses only clean ingredients without any artificial preservatives, additives or colors, and sources chicken that is humanely raised without antibiotics and is fed a vegetarian diet. The company also sources non-GMO ingredients and dairy ingredients that are rBST-free.
Similarly, in April, Earth Fare, a specialty organic and natural foods grocery store, debuted a line called Handpicked by Earth Fare, which features a new collection of Eastern global cuisine on its hot bar, including a number of Indian dishes. Earth Fare's key differentiator is its strict Food Philosophy, which prohibits the inclusion of high fructose corn syrup, artificial ingredients, trans-fats, and bleached or bromated flours in every item in the store. Additionally, Earth Fare's meat and seafood are never treated with added hormones or antibiotics. This Food Philosophy extends to Earth Fare's deli and ready-to-go items, meaning shoppers can get a healthy meal on the go, and feel confident knowing that their meal is sourced using only the cleanest ingredients. The selection of dishes on Earth Fare's hot bar is all made in-house.
As one of many examples of Indian food’s health-promoting staple ingredients, turmeric has been used to promote health for thousands of years. More recently, numerous studies have shown that the curcumin in turmeric quiets inflammations that lead to many debilitating illnesses such as arthritis, Alzheimer’s Disease, cancer, high cholesterol, pain, and depression. Turmeric stars in Café Spice’s new Bombay Dal Palak, warming up the lentil/spinach and tomato blend, and also in Café Spice’s Chicken Tikka Masala and several other signature dishes.
Stern says that turmeric and cumin —key elements of curry powders —have seen continued popularity in the U.S., and that other popular Indian spices such as cardamom and coriander are also predicted to gain more traction in 2018. Curries are among the top growing spices and seasonings being shipped to independent restaurants and commercial and non-commercial foodservice outlets, as that market grew by 11 percent last year, according to McLynn. Stern says that the Michelin Guide and Whole Foods both predict that a focus on authentic global flavors will be a culinary trend in 2018, which aligns closely with key components of Indian cuisine and indicates that there is opportunity for Indian foods to continue to gain favor as Americans continue to diversify their tastes.
Although the U.S. is still very much a country of meat eaters, Seifer says that the NPD Group is seeing a new trend of consumers wanting options other than meat for their protein. While acknowledging that this trend is relatively small in comparison to meat consumption, the NPD Group has on its radar the consumption of alternatives such as plant based protein. According to Seifer, approximately 25 per year, the average American will have a plant-based alternative at mealtime. Stern also notes the growing popularity of vegetarian, vegan, and plant-based diets. Stern says sales of plant-based foods increased by 8.1 percent last year to $3.1 billion, according to Nielsen research.
DLM’s Walters says the retailer has several vegan and vegetarian entrée and side options available in its prepared foods line. She says that the trend towards using cauliflower is particularly strong, and that one of DLM’s newest prepared food items is a cauliflower “rice” dish with an Indian flavor profile. Also available seasonally from DLM is a grilled cauliflower steak and an oven roasted broccoli and cauliflower mix. There’s also a steamed broccoli dish with gremolata.
Similarly, two of Café Spice’s new dishes introduced this year—Bombay Dal Palak with Basmati Saffron Rice and Aloo Gobhi Curry with Basmati Saffron Rice—are vegan. Stern says bowls that feature protein-packed plant-based ingredients such as lentils and chickpeas have become particularly popular as healthy “to-go” options.