Mirch Masala takes the West by storm

Walk in to any large retailer in the UK or US to pick up your favourite Indian ready meals and pickles.

NEW DELHI: Patak’s going native (ie becoming Brit) may not have meant much to the average desi in India where the UK-based brand has negligible recall, but its sale has added masala to the already spicy Indian story abroad. Apart from being the piquant flip-side of the empire-strikes-back theory — an Indian brand being bought up by a British conglomerate even as Indian companies gobble up British stalwarts — it also reflects a change in western palates. Mirch-masala is there to stay.

And Indian food pioneers like the late Lakhubhai Pathak (who shot to fame in India 20 years ago when he accused PV Narasimha Rao of diddling him of $100,000) and Sir Gulam Noon have probably nudged the west in that direction when they took Indian flavours beyond greasy curry houses into British homes with pickles, spice mixes and ready meals. ABF is part of the western vanguard that wants a piece of the action as more and more Indian brands perk up supermarkets and delicatessens — on both sides of the Atlantic — spurred by desi innovation and initiative.

Britain is home ground now for Indian foods and flavours, with the tikka-masala battling curry for national dish status. At two recent nationwide cookery competitions for “homestyle” British food, one winner was Michelin-starred London chef Atul Kochar with his mustard oil and imli embellished “lamb rack and pan-fried lamb patties flavoured with rose petals” . The other was Somerset-based Anglo-Indian caterer Mignon Johnson who says she’s “very excited” about inquiries from top retailers like Harrod’s for her bottled pickles and chutneys after her Goan pork vindalho recipe shot to fame.

India’s never had it so good in Britain. Before Patak’s , Noon Products, founded by Sir Gulam Noon in 1989 changed hands several times till the Irish conglomerate Kerry Foods bought it in 2005 for £124m. At that time, the chilled ready meals market was valued at £1.4b, with annual growth rates of 5% to 7%. “British big business has been eyeing up the Indian food sector for some time,” says Iqbal Wahhab, owner of the acclaimed Indian restaurant Cinnamon Club. “Even breweries are increasingly looking to put Indian food into their pubs.”

There is, however, always a danger of complacency . “The fastest growing ethnic foods are Mexican and now Polish, so Indian food manufacturers will need to sharpen their pencils in order not to lose market share,” warns Wahhab. Yet large British food retailers like Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s , Waitrose and Marks & Spencers routinely carry Indian ready meals and sauces & spices, showing a matured market.

The stakes are obviously high too: Sharwoods (the famed mango chutney brand now owned by the giant Premier Foods plc) actually poached development chef Munish Manocha from Tony Deep Wouhra’s West Midlands-based East End Foods that supplies Indian ingredients to retailers!
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But a more recent and tougher market is the US, which saw Indians “arriving” there relatively late, from the 1960s onwards. But now Indian masalas are seeping in. According to syndicated columnist Sally Squires, of the Lean Plate Club which has 6 million readers across the US, Indian flavors are indeed going more mainstream. “I can now buy many Indian prepared foods in Trader Joe’s , a national discount boutique grocery,” she told ET. “And in recent years, we’ve had a number of discussions about Indian food on the Lean Plate Club webchat as well as about the Indian version of the Mediterranean diet.”

Washington-based food writer Monica Bhide, who leads many discussions on Indian cuisine on food-based US websites, says Indian spices and packaged products are also showing up in regular grocery chains like Giant and Safeway besides wholesalers like Costco and health food stores like Bread & Circus and Whole Foods. “Just the DC metro area boasts over 70 Indian restaurants,” she says, adding many chefs are using Indian spices in their cooking and “ingredients like kokum are even showing up in French dishes!”

So the US is seeing players big and small enter the Indian game. Behemoth General Mills, for instance , offers frozen Indian flatbreads under the Pillsbury brand, while “conscience brand” Annie’s Homegrown Foods has Tamarind Tree Vegetarian Indian Entrees, promising American convenience with Indian authenticity as does the New Jerseybased Naturally India brand with its ‘simmersauce packages’ — ready-mixed masalas.

“The excitement of spices and Indian food culture has been rising each year in the US, especially thanks to cooking pastes and sauces and readymade spice mixes. Now westerners can make authentic Indian dishes without buying a 13:52 06/06/2007 plethora of spices,” says Neil Sanghavi, CEO of iShopIndian.com who has morphed his Milwaukee-based mom ‘n pop store Indian Groceries & Spices into the largest online Indian food retailer in the US with a 50% non-Indian customer base,.

“Retort pouches — ready-to-eat foods in a vacuum-sealed pouch have added to the interest!” Yes, Indian aromas are becoming stronger but with desis comprising less than 1% of the population in the US, masalas will still take time to seep in.
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