CUISINE FOCUS: Indian in orbit
A look at the popularity and development of Indian food in the region
There is no doubting the popularity of Indian food across the world, but the Middle East seems to have a special relationship with the cuisine. Jamie Knights finds out why
According to Japanese scientist Masamichi Yamashita, Indian food is perfect for space travel. Working on the premise that induction heating would be used in future space exploration, he told a committee on space research, food should not only be used for nutrition, but also serve as medicine.
“For this, it should contain ginger and garlic, such as used by Indian food, which can warm up the body and enhance metabolism,” he said.
It would appear that Indian food has a future then, but it also has an incredibly popular present, and nowhere more so than in the Middle East.
“Over time Indian food has been refined and it has become synonymous with dining out in the Middle East,” says Zafran brand chef Ankur Chakraborty.
“The demand for Indian restaurants is growing every year in the Middle East; the UAE already has over 30,000 Indian restaurants and eateries.”
This love affair with Indian food didn’t happen overnight, however – it grew out of a long history of trade and relationships between the two regions.
While Indian food has been readily available for many years, MAHEC restaurant manager, Sumit Sachdeva asserts that “in recent times, plenty of upscale restaurants have opened up and this trend will continue”.
“There is a new breed of Indian chef moving here and this is bound to bring in drastic changes in how Indian food is prepared and served,” he continues. “Investors can see the potential of investing in such large restaurants.”
It is little wonder investors are taking note. De Thali chef – Aftab Ahmed explains on a Friday and Saturday “we do about 300-400 covers and, in the week, about 120-150”, while Ritz-Carlton Bahrain executive Indian chef Mahipal Singh confirms the Indian restaurant Nirvana has on average around 100 covers a day.
Chakraborty explains he oversees two restaurants in Dubai and on an average weekend “we do close to 300 covers in Zafran Mirdif and around 165-175 covers in Zafran Marina (lunch and dinner)”.
Supply and Demand
Of course, with such a high demand for Indian cuisine in the region and an influx of high-end offerings, it is essential that supply is consistent and to the right standard.
While this can be an issue for many chefs who work in European-, Far Eastern- and Pan American-style establishments, those working in Indian outlets are somewhat spoiled.
“Since the Indian population is so high in the region, it’s very easy to get quality Indian ingredients all over the Middle East,” Shamsir Rehman, restaurant manager of Amala, Jumeirah Zabeel Saray, confirms.
Singh adds that his restaurant also sources “all kinds of ingredients locally from a supplier with excellent quality”.
And Sachdeva says the UAE is known for its quality, “especially in the Dubai market”.
“All essential ingredients are available within a local market, but sometimes it’s a challenge for spices when it comes to the flavour,” he adds.
“The good thing about the UAE though is that it is so close to India and we can always get it.”
According to Chakraborty, the proximity of the Middle East and India is “bliss”.
“The supply chain works so smoothly for most of the ingredients that these are usually readily available in the local markets,” he continues.
“There are plenty of spice and special ingredient suppliers in Dubai making the market extremely competitive, directly affecting the prices positively.”
However, he does note that in Kuwait, “it is bit different and the prices do fluctuate a lot”.
“On some occasions we do need some exotic spices and have to fly them into the UAE. This can prove a bit trying at times, as there aren’t many export companies for spices in the UAE,” Chakraborty continues. He adds the most important things to Indian food is premium quality spices and ingredients, as well as “excellent skills” from the chefs of course!
Despite this, his overall opinion of the supply chain is that it is “very supportive” regionally.
“Given that nearly 45% of the UAE’s population is from the Indian subcontinent, the availability of ingredients is never a problem,” he says.
Variety: The spice of life
With such demand and an effective supply chain it’s easy to believe that the Middle East gets the complete Indian experience. But our experts are not all in agreement.
“There are plenty of large and small scale Indian restaurants in the Middle East, due to the fact that the largest number of expatriates in the Middle East are Indian,” says Sachdeva.
“We don’t think any of the regions are underrepresented or omitted,” he adds.
It’s a view backed up by Rehman, who adds: “I think you would find food from all parts of India represented in this part of the world”.
Singh disagrees: “not all food from the regions in India is represented in the Middle East”.
Chakraborty concurs and believes “lots of the regions do not get due recognition in the Middle East”.
“The tastes and flavours are slightly different to what people have come to recognise as Indian food,” he continues.
“Foods from Bengali, Kashmir, Rajasthani and Goa, as well as from the North East, are not hugely popular outside of India. To some extent this is because the people of these ethnicities are few in the Middle East and the commercial take on these regions can be difficult.”
There is no arguing with Chakraborty however, when he says “Indian food is as varied as the country itself”.
MAHEC’s Sachdeva adds that “it is said you can eat more varieties of cuisine in India than the rest of the world together”.
India’s vast array of climates and terrains provides an abundance of different ingredients, styles and needs in terms of food consumption.
For example, the people in the northern regions of India such as Kashmir (close to Himalayas with a cold climate) flavour their food using saffron, butters, creams and nuts to give it a rich taste, while places like Tamil Nadu, in the South (closer to the equator, with a warmer climate) use coconut and coconut oil as well as hot spices which make the body sweat, allowing it to adapt to the temperature balance and to sustain the hot climate.
India is also an agricultural country hence the major staple ingredients to most meals are wheat and rice. Lentils and vegetables come as an integral part of the meal.
“Religion also plays a major role in the gastronomy of a region,” Chakraborty explains.
“The majority of the population follows Hinduism which promotes vegetarianism; however, the use of poultry, meat and fish is abundant among the rest of the population.”
Of course, the staple foods of India have always been rice and breads, but there has been a lot of innovation and ‘modern Indian’ has now established itself.
But there are further developments. Sachdeva explains: “Today trends are more about innovation, the element of surprise, healthy food and the way it’s presented.”
“The restaurateur needs to understand that today’s customer seeks a ‘dining experience’. With time, they have become more demanding, exacting, educated and knowledgeable about food.”
Sachdeva uses paring wines as an example of innovation in Indian outlets, while Chakraborty says there is an attempt by some to move away from the perception of Indian food as being “rich and heavy”.
“I see a lot of young chefs and restaurateurs trying to move away from this and instead, experimenting with lighter, much more flavorsome recipes and creative menus,” he asserts.
“Indian casual dining is a trend which is set to become mainstream; however popular dishes such as butter chicken and biryanis still are commercial best sellers.”
De Thali restaurant manager, Mohammed Nasbulain Ansari is part of a unique offering in the region through the use of a Thali theme in the outlet that opened in January of this year.
“De Thali is an Indian concept based on the thali theme, and the idea of common seating generated in the 80s and 90s,” he explains. “At the time, you sat down and were eating in front of someone you were unlikely to know. You eat, pay and then leave... This is what we're trying to create in the UAE.”
With innovation still coming, the Middle East’s love affair with Indian food looks set to continue. Whether it is a move towards healthy options, an exploration of under-represented regions or Indian in space, we can’t wait to try them.
Most popular dishes
Our experts have named their top dishes that the Middle East can’t get enough of.
1. Karahi Lamb chop
2. Beef boti kabab
3. Tawa Kanagora (scallops)
4. Prawn Malai Curry
5. Zafran Chicken tikka
6. Gosht Dum Biryani
7. Lamb Chop Porchii Korma – goes well with Cabernet sauvignon
8. Goan Prawn curry – goes well with Chardonnay
9. Mustard Chicken – goes with Sauvignon Blanc
10. Chicken Tikka
11. Butter chicken
12. Lamb Rogan josh
13. Goan Prawn curry
14. Mutton Biryani
15. Jneenga Coconut Curry
Ankur Chakraborty, brand chef, Zafran told Caterer Middle East about the marketing challenges standalone restaurants have compared to hotel-based outlets.
“We have our restrictions in terms of marketing budgets, which a lot of hotels do not face, as rooms, rather than F&B, is their main source of income. The majority of our marketing budget is for limited in-mall branding activities (we do struggle at times for these) and in home delivery menu drops. We rely very heavily on our social media to streamline and maximise this. The best form of marketing for us however, is word of mouth by our customers.”