Indian vs. American Food – Why Indian Food In The US Isn’t Popular

Posted on Posted in India, South Asia, Travel Blogs

Americans miss the boat with Indian food in the US! After traveling to India, my appreciation of Indian Food has skyrocketed. The first time we ate Indian food was in Laos. We had stopped by an Indian place in Phonsavan that got good ratings and figured we would give it a try.  We fell in love with Indian food immediately and subsequently ate Indian food all over Asia.  We had our favorite Indian Restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam called Namaste.  We would eat it about twice a week.  Once visiting India, we realized the typical curries and gravy we would order from Indian food wasn't exactly typical of Indian food, and we developed a greater knowledge of the food and regional differences.  

 

 

Standard Indian Meal of Tikka Masala In The US

Indian Food In The US

Indian Food In the US

The interesting thing is that most Indian food in the US is mostly Punjabi style with creamy curries and lots of ghee and not truly “Typical Indian Food”.  If you go to a U.S. Indian food restaurant, you will get Naan and a creamy-curry based gravy, aloo gobi, paneer palak, dal fry, samosas, pakora, at times some biryani, and tandoori on the menus, but all the delicacies of India are not represented in the US, especially regional dishes or street food. Dosas are somewhat harder to find in restaurants across the U.S. as well.

Why Isn't Indian Food Popular?

The problem with Indian food is that it’s just not popular in the U.S. According to Dr. Krishnendu Ray of NYU Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, There are more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants, over 40,000 Mexican restaurants and only around 5,000 Indian restaurants in the U.S.  Indian Food ranks number 9/14 in the most expensive immigrant food restaurant category, not making it the cheapest nor the most expensive in the US.  French restaurants top that list, and at the bottom is Thai in 2014.

The popularity of Indian Food has many factors.  Some believe it is too spicy, some feel that it's pricy for what you get.  If you get a gravy, naan, and some basmati rice, you might pay around 15-20 US for this dish.  This is in the mid-level meal price range.  Many people in the US don't find this type of meal as filling as a burger and fries from a fast food restaurant and to pay more for less doesn't make sense at times.  Many in the US are used to huge portions in comparison to most of the world's portion sized meals and Indian food is relatively small in portions (in comparison) due to the price of ingredients and skill in preparation that is required for good Indian food.  The third reason why Indian Food isn't as popular in US / Western Culture may have something to do with science.

 

 

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Flavor Pairing Chart

Indian Food In The US

The Science of Flavor Pairings

It is possible that many Americans just don’t have the palate for Indian Food. Science in the last few years has been able to identify flavor compounds and why certain things taste good with each other.  There is a whole theory that the way chemicals react in our mouths with our taste buds is a chemical reaction based on basic compounds and how they compliment and/or uncomplimentary react each other.   Ever wonder why some people think cilantro tastes like soap and to others it's a delicious condiment for food? 

Different country's cuisine has different rules as to how and why they are prepared.  Science has revealed that Indian food is negative in complementary pairings while U.S. food is all about complementary pairings. A traditional Indian dish has a minimum of seven combined ingredients, so that each bite reveals different combinations of flavors that hit the tongue at different times in the chewing process. U.S. and Western cuisine tends to have overlapping flavor compound pairings which create a more "muted" combination of flavors and according to Anupam Jain at the Indian Institute of Technology in Jodhpur, Indian food is one of the most uncomplimentary in flavor pairings.   There is an amazing interactive graph where you can find common pairings of food compounds in The Scientific American that illustrates this.

Some Asian Cuisine Philosophies

 

 

Flavor Pairing Chart Based On Country

Indian Food In The US

Vietnamese:  

The people of Vietnam believe that food should follow the 5 elements and have specific foods that pair or do not pair based on this model. Balance is the key and based on the elements, ambient temperature, texture and ingredients.

  The 5 Elements
Wood Fire Earth Metal Water
Spices Sour Bitter Sweet Spicy Salty
Organs Gall bladder Small intestine Stomach Large intestine Urinary bladder
Colors Green Red Yellow White Black
Senses Visual Taste Touch Smell Sound
Nutrients Carbohydrates Fat Protein Minerals Water

 

 

Thai Red Curry And The 5 Fundamental Tastes

Indian Food In The US

Thai:

 Thai cuisine is more based on the balance of five fundamental tastes: bitter, sweet, sour, salty and spicy. For example, the basic ingredients of Thai red curry include; red chili paste (spicy), coconut milk (sweet), fish sauce (salty) and lemongrass or lime leaves (sour), eggplant and/or herbs(bitter) balancing the 5 fundamental tastes.  The basis of Thai food much like Vietnamese is balance.  All plates should have a minimum of 4 of the 5 fundamental taste elements shown below. 

Sweet - cane or coconut palm sugar, sweet pineapple
Sour - lemon, lime, tamarind, paw paw/papaya, raw mango, sour pineapple or other sour fruits
Salty - sea salt, soy sauce, fish sauce or sardine and other fish pastes
Bitter - bitter melon or raw leaves from various plants and trees (either wild or cultivated)
Hot - different chili peppers, fresh and dried, and peppercorns, fresh, pickled or dried, and ground peppers too

 

 

South Indian Food In New Delhi

Indian Food In The US

Indian:

Indian cuisine is perhaps is the most complex due to why the food is prepared the way it is.  Food isn't just sustenance, it has Ayurveda roots which classifies food into 6 basic tastes, 3 categories, and even 3 states of mind of the preparer which all create a mix of food tastes and effects for your body:

Six Basic Tastes

Sweet: strength to tissue and harmonizes the mind.

Salty: Salt aids digestion, clears obstructions in the nervous system and cleanses the body by sweating. Excessive salt causes wrinkles and gray hair.

Pungent:  Helps indigestion and improves metabolism.

Bitter Purify the blood

Astringent: Treat and prevent ulcers and also help with healing wounds.

SourAids digestion and helps the heart function well.

Ayurvedic 3 Food Categories

Here are the main categories of food based in Indian cuisine.

Rasa: Food is categorized based on its tastes as listed above. Rasa means the taste.

Veerya: This is the food that provides potency to the body. Meat provides energy and vigour and hence, was given to warriors and kings.  Brahmins and godly people were given food that did not provide heat to the body; thereby letting them meditate and stay in touch with God.

Prabhav: This is the food that has some special action on the body. This is known as tehseerin Urdu and it implies the hot and cold effects of food on body.

 3 Human States of Mind

The human states of mind are also classified into three types. The food will actually taste different based on who prepares the meal in these 3 categories of people and their state of mind when creating the food.

Ayurveda classifies them as the following:

Satyavik: People who are intellectual, with a curious mind, strives for knowledge.

Rajasik:  People are basically doers and not necessarily striving for knowledge.

Tamasik: People have no desire to learn or expand knowledge.

 

 

 

Mughal Dish Prepared in Udaipur, India

Indian Food In The US

American Food

American food is all about comfort.  What tastes good?  They tend to have a much higher affinity for the fat compounds(4-methylpentanoic acid) and foods that contain glycosides bonds which are found in carbohydrates and other polysaccharides.  In other words meat and potatoes!  Americans love their meat and carbs.  High fats and high carbohydrate diets dominate American cuisine.  Yes we have condiments, however these condiments are many times complimentary in flavor profiles and are just that, condiments.  Americans in general are more concerned with how many calories the food has, salt intake, and western medicinal reasons for why certain foods should be eaten or avoided.  One year we are told by scientists it is healthy to eat eggs the next year we don't because a study shows they have too much cholesterol.  Much of what we consume in the U.S. is based on what western studies say about dietary restrictions.

There is little need for Americans to concern themselves with the temperature outside, balancing 5 or 6 basic tastes, worrying about states of mind of the preparer or how they correspond with the 5 elements of the earth.  Americans are really only concerned with the dietary restrictions set forth by science and does it taste good.  A very different philosophy indeed.

 

 

 

Dosas In Delhi In Karol Bagh

Indian Food In The US

Conclusion:

The differences in philosophy of food in Asia including India, are deeply based in religion and centuries of cultural beliefs.  American philosophy for food is based more on comfort and dietary restrictions.  The food that people consume in Asian countries don't adhere as much to the flavor profiles and more based on external influences and belief systems and American cuisine is based on what "goes well together". 

Speaking in huge generalizations, Americans simply don't have the palate for food that doesn't pair similarly.  Of course there are Americans who love food from other countries and different compound mixtures, however the majority just aren't used to the flavors that other international cuisine offers.  Go to the "bread basket" of the U.S. where wheat and corn are king and queen and you are hard pressed to find someone who really enjoys a good spicy Indian dish. This is changing. As the American palate grows to try new food combinations, the "tastes" that Americans have grown accustomed to with food changes.  Indian food however still has a way to go due to its complex flavor profiles and will probably be in the minority of food choices for most Americans for decades. 

Change in Perspective

We have learned to love food from other countries and not only rely on our roots of American/Western cuisine. It has taken an open mind to food and not having a fear of trying food from different lands to change this.  Travel has opened our minds to not only other cultures, but the food that represents these cultures.  We try it all now!  Even if it looks unappetizing or smells unappealing, we try it to try to understand the culture from where it comes from.  Some food has heat or tingling on your lips, some on your tongue, some in the back of your mouth based on how the cayenne pepper is paired with other spices and textures that make up what a country feeds it's inhabitants.   Food is as  multi-dimensional and layered as the people of a country.  I doubt we would have figured this out if we hadn't traveled.

Food has such an endemic quality based on the culture of a country.  It's easy to go to a U.S.  Thai restaurant and think "hmm. yeah, Thai food is ok, but it's too spicy".  When you begin to understand why Thai food is spicy and understand that it's equally bitter, sweet, and salty, you begin to understand the culture of balance in everyday life in Thailand, you appreciate the complexity of the food and the simplicity of it.  

Our Godfather of food and travel Anthony Bourdain said; “Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed pope-mobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonalds? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria's mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once.” So do we Anthony... So do we!   

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8 thoughts on “Indian vs. American Food – Why Indian Food In The US Isn’t Popular

  1. Hi Shelly and Brady,

    Freaky! First time we had Indian was in Laos. On the riverfront in Vientienne. And our fave restaurant is Namaste in Hanoi. Love the owner! He is wonderful. What a small world 😉 Thanks for sharing.

    Ryan

    1. Hey Ryan!
      Thanks for commenting! Yeah, kinda weird! I ate some in Vientienne that wasn’t as good as Phonsavanh, however that wasn’t near the river front. Ahh I am still missing me some Shahi Korma from Namaste delivered by motorbike at all hours of the day or night in 30 min or less. Still don’t know how they did it.

  2. As a third generation, Indian American, Indian food is also the healthiest possible, the traditional South Indian breakfast comprises of Dosas, Idli, Vadas and Sambhar, it is complete wholesome meal, my favourite is Pongal and Pottu along with kheer. Why hasn’t Brady spoken anything about that. I live in New Jersey and recommend the Delhi Garden restaurant.

    1. I have never tried Pongal and Pottu along with kheer! I think we tried some Kheer for breakfast at a hotel, and I liked it, however very sweet. Pongal looks great however! If I am ever in New Jersey, I will check out Delhi Garden! Thanks for posting on the site Dhawal! I appreciate your input.

  3. Do try Ayurveda Cafe at the corner of 94th and Amsterdam Ave in Manhattan. They have a fixed menu; no choices, eat all you can; not buffet; you can walk in for lunch and they will serve all the items. The menu is supposed to cover all the tastes, a variety of flavors. Only vegetarian.
    Unfortunately, the last time I went there was in 2006.

    1. Sounds amazing! If I am ever in NY I would love to go. I am always in the search for great Indian food. Thanks for the suggestion Shouri and welcome to the Journey!

  4. Next time you’re in India, try the Gujarati cuisine, preferably, a “thali” which means an entire meal, with roti/chapati, shaak (vegetable), dal (lentils) and farsan (mostly fried appetisers) and also dessert. Gujarati food is relatively less spicy compared to North Indian/Punjabi cuisine. You should try Bengali dessert as well. Mouth watering stuff. 🙂 In fact, next time you’re in Mumbai, do let me know. I can show you guys some great places to eat around. 🙂

    1. InkCurrate, That sounds great!!! We would love to have a culinary tour with you! 🙂 Loved the northern Thalis we had and we had a good one in Chennai as well.

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