Indian ethnic foods were never able to capture global attention compared to others like those from China, Mexico or Japan. One of the major reasons could be the 'reputation' these foods enjoy as strongly spiced because of liberal use of cumin, coriander, turmeric, chilli, ginger. black pepper, fenugreek etc in most of the preparations. For long, restaurants serving Indian foods in countries like the US were patronized mostly by immigrant population from India and other South Asian countries,with a just sprinkling of local customers. The UK where there is a substantial population of Indian origin, boasts of hundreds of Indian restaurants where both immigrants as well as the local people frequent making such joints economically viable. Long colonial history that had forged some cultural ties with the UK could be responsible for the popularity of Indian foods in that country.
In sheer variety, ethnic foods of India have the unique position unrivaled by any other country in the world. Though curry preparations are invariably associated with India, there are thousands of others crying for attention. In the area of snacks and sweetmeats, some of the varieties made by traditional artisans or 'halwais' can beat many confectionery and savory snacks of the west from sensory angle. If these food products have not crossed the national boundaries and could not make any international impact, blame must go to the industry for not trying harder and the indigenous food scientists for not providing timely research support to standardize, stabilize and mechanize the production during the last 5 decades. According to a rough estimate there are more than 5000 traditional food preparations of Indian origin and most of them have limited shelf life. Their quality is not uniform with the sensory perception varying over a wide range. Almost all of them are manually produced with hardly a dozen products being made by well designed large scale machinery. Any hand-made food will be naturally viewed with suspicion regarding its microbial quality, especially by the western consumers.
New opportunities emerged after the Retort Pouch Technology was first developed by the Defense Lab at Mysore which can keep many Indian ethnic foods stable and safe for at least 6-12 months and in some cases even up to 2 years. Large scale exports of these foods to the US, Canada, Australia, Europe and other parts of the world enabled them to be part and parcel of the large grocery chains with high visibility. Added to this is the impetus given to this industry by introduction of many specialized rice preparations in the last 5-6 years by the industry spreading Indian culinary "signature" far and wide. Innumerable number of so called "Indian Stores", that serve the 2.7 million strong Indian community (less than 1% of the population in the US), more akin to the "pop and mom" type of family grocery shops that forms the backbone of food retail here, have substantially contributed to give a distinct identity to Indian foods abroad. It is a pleasure to see large super market shelves in the US, displaying a large range of Indian foods that include pickles, chutneys, sauces, "heat & serve" meals, etc, though much more needs to be done to infiltrate this segment of the market further to enlarge their presence and visibility to non-Indian consumers.
Western palate is not considered to be bland any longer and mildly spiced foods are being liked by many of them expanding the range of customers for Indian ethnic foods in these countries. According to market experts, knowledgeable about growth of ethnic foods from different parts of the world, the next decade will see the growth of Indian foods similar to what sushi bars did in the 1980s and Thai food did in the '90s. A recent survey of ethnic food by one of the market research groups in the US found that the fastest growing segment was Indian food, with sales growing by more than 35 percent from 2006 to 2008. Of course the share of Indian food, about $ 40 million in the $2.2 billion ethnic food market, is not considered high compared to $ 1.4 billion generated by Mexican/Hispanic foods in 2009, Indian foods are expected to be the growth engine for this sector during the next decade. It is incredible that a city like New York boasts of more than 350 Indian restaurants to day compared to less than two dozens 3 decades ago. Same is true in many large metros in the US.
Better presentation, more safety assurance features, improved ambiance and decor of the eateries, improved service quality, uniform food quality, more promotional activities, reasonable pricing and putting in place a reliable delivery service can make the growth chart steeper than what it is to day. Emerging scientific revelations about the positive impact of Indian foods like turmeric, ginger, chilli, black pepper, fenugreek, cinnamon etc on human health are bound to escalate interest in Indian foods substantially in future. If Indian restaurant set ups are linked to the processed food industry back in India, it should be possible to offer in such eating joints pre-processed foods of impeccable quality and safety that should reassure the non-Indian customers about "risk-free" eating and enhance the brand equity of indian ethnic foods interrnationally.