Cuisine focus: Indian

We investigate the popularity of Indian cuisine across the region

Indian cuisine is very popular in the Middle East due to the large number of expats in the region as well as its similarity to local dishes.
Indian cuisine is very popular in the Middle East due to the large number of expats in the region as well as its similarity to local dishes.
The Raan-E-Haider created by executive chef Mahipal Singh who works with Ritz-Carlton Bahrain?s Indian restaurant, Nirvana.
The Raan-E-Haider created by executive chef Mahipal Singh who works with Ritz-Carlton Bahrain?s Indian restaurant, Nirvana.
The interiors of Rang Mahal by Atul Kochhar lends itself to creating an opulent atmosphere.
The interiors of Rang Mahal by Atul Kochhar lends itself to creating an opulent atmosphere.
Creating authentic Indian food in a traditional way at The Oberoi Dubai's Indian outlet, Ananta.
Creating authentic Indian food in a traditional way at The Oberoi Dubai's Indian outlet, Ananta.

Meet the Experts

Amrish Sood, chef de cuisine, Rang Mahal by Atul Kochhar, JW Marriott Marquis

Anil Kumar Vijayappan, culinary director, Food Wise & concept chef, Memsaab

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Mahipal Singh, executive indian chef, Nirvana, Ritz-Carlton Bahrain

Saneesh Varghese, chef de cuisine, Ananta, The Oberoi

Gaurav Singh, head chef, Zafran

Rajarshi Ganguly, executive sous chef, Taj Rasoi, Doha Marriott

How popular is Indian food in this region?
Saneesh Varghese, chef de cuisine, Ananta, The Oberoi Dubai: This cuisine has lots of similarities with the Arabian cooking style, the only difference being in the spice level and the variety of spices used in India. Due to the similarity in style and flavours, we notice Arabian guests tend to choose Indian over Western cuisine.

Gaurav Singh, head chef, Zafran: Indian food has become a staple diet of this region. Its versatility and simplicity makes it popular amongst different nationalities. It is very well-received in the Middle East due to the long history of trade and relationship between the two.

The UAE and India hold striking similarities in rice preparations, curries, salonas or the use of certain spices in the food. With passing time, Indian food has been refined and has become valuable with dining out in the Middle East.

Rajarshi Ganguly, executive sous chef, Taj Rasoi, Doha Marriott Hotel: The large influx of Indian expatriates into the Middle East during the 1970s and 1980s has led to a boom of Indian restaurants, initially designed to cater to the needs of the Indian work force.

Consequently, Indian cuisine is now accepted as one of the most popular food flavours around the globe and appeals to a wider international audience resulting in Indian cuisine becoming extremely popular in the Middle East and beyond. Qatar in particular has seen an increase of European and Western expatriates over the last few years, which has also led to an increase in the number of authentic Indian restaurants across the city.

Is Indian cuisine in the region as authentic as it gets?
Mahipal Singh, executive indian chef, Nirvana, Ritz-Carlton Bahrain: To make any dishes authentic, there should be fresh ingredients and spices originally coming from India. In Bahrain there is a wide market of Indian ingredients that will certainly guarantee freshness.  An important factor of creating authentic Indian cuisine is the touch of a real Indian chef having a complete knowledge and expertise of the cuisine. Some food presentations may alter to go with the flow of the new cookery trend but not the taste and preparation of the food.

GS: You can’t ignore authenticity when it comes to Indian food anywhere. It would always reflect in some way, such as the ingredients used, or the style of cooking. The recipes are tweaked for the local customers so that the cuisine can be made suitable to their preference and this definitely adds value.

Anil Kumar, culinary director, Food Wise: The cuisine is currently almost authentic with the close proximity to India, which lends the ease of hiring skilled staff, availability of all the necessary ingredients and produce. Of course the heat level in curries, a concern among many folks in the Gulf, is resolved by tweaking with non-pungent flavourings.

SV: There are restaurants here in Dubai serving authentic Indian food, but majority of the restaurants tweak spices according to the local customers.

Amrish Sood, chef de cuisine, Rang Mahal by Atul Kochhar, JW Marriott Marquis: There are three aspects on which we measure the authenticity of any cuisine: the recipe, ingredients and cooking techniques.

With the recipe and cooking techniques most chefs stick to the basics, but some make comprises for commercial benefits when it comes to good quality and ethnic ingredients. Although I agree with the idea that sometimes recipes are tweaked as per the request of the local audience.

What is the competition like between outlets serving Indian food and what makes your restaurant stand out?
AS: There is a great demand for Indian restaurants in the region, and there are high-end restaurants & budget restaurants to cater different sets of clientele. Competition is there in every segment of this trade but we believe it is the quality and consistency which prevails. It’s always good to have a competitive environment; it keeps you at forefront and makes you to strive for the best.

MS: There are certainly many new Indian restaurants emerging these days. It is all about keeping the business strong and prolonging its life span. I strongly believe that our guests’ satisfaction in their experience is the key to success.

GS: The popularity of the cuisine itself becomes a challenge at times, as there are numerous Indian restaurants in this region and more coming up every day. The competition becomes cut throat at times so one has to always be focused on quality and value for money.

What is the supply stream like?
AK: I believe better quality of the produce in Indian definitely lands in the MENA region on a steady basis, due to closer proximity combined with good prices fetched.

SV: In Dubai you get about 90% of the ingredients that you need for Indian cuisine. There are some particular spices, which we found little difficult to source here; those we manage to import from India. The quality differs from place to place. It is up to the chef to decide what quality he wants to go with. We faced a similar situation here, and we tried several suppliers in Dubai for spices until we got the quality we required.

GS: The proximity of the Middle East to India is bliss. India is not far which makes the supply chain very supportive. Given that nearly 45% of the UAE’s population is from the Indian subcontinent, the availability of most ingredients is never a problem and is readily available in the local markets.

There are plenty of suppliers for the spices and special ingredients and the market is also very competitive. North Africa might not be as open as the Middle East in terms of supply chain, but is definitely improving with time.

RG: In terms of the supply of quality authentic Indian produce, it can be challenging as there are a limited number of local suppliers, resulting in having to source some ingredients directly from India.

AS: Due to the region being close to the Indian subcontinent we feel the ingredients supply chain is good; it is continuous and cost-effective. The strong presence of Indians in this region is also one of the reasons for great demand and consistent supply.

What challenges to do you face?
RG: One of our biggest challenges is introducing new palettes and flavours to our diners. Many of our guests already have their firm favourites; therefore convincing them of a world beyond the classic chicken tikka masala is something of a challenge.

MS: A challenge is that fancy and stylish types of crockery cannot be found here in the local market hence we are still using the traditional handi and kadai.

AS: Lack of skilled work force and high turnover, which results in inconsistent standards.

SV: We had some challenges in the beginning for sourcing particular spices. There are some traditional spices that are not available in this part of the world. Hence we decided to source them overseas and import directly from suppliers in India.

AK: Being a region with majority part of the population being from India, Indian food is available almost everywhere and highly visible. So the perception of sale price is lower than other cuisines whereas Indian cuisine requires more time, skills, energy and costlier ingredients than most of the popular cuisines in this part of the world. A higher pricing can be expected if you try any other critical path methods like fusion or other adventurous and risky techniques of presenting your food.

GS: Cost wise, it’s never been much of a challenge due to the open market. However, Kuwait is a bit different and the prices fluctuate a lot there. In some case we need exotic spices and to fly them in becomes difficult, as there are not many export houses for such spices.

The best thing about Indian food is that the meats and vegetables can be used from the local market unlike Italian cuisine where you definitely need local tomatoes for the pasta or salads. The only thing Indian food asks for is premium quality spices, good ingredients and excellent skills of the chefs. Finding the right skilled chefs can therefore be challenging.

What does the future look like for Indian cuisine?
AK: Very bright indeed. Indian cuisine is here to stay as the people in the Gulf love it.

SV: Indian cuisine has a bright future here, as most locals and visitors love to try Indian food. We have only seen the beginning of a local trend.

GS: There is a definite bright future for Indian cuisine in this region; it has been seen that more and more companies who are investing in the restaurant business are either running successful Indian concepts or trying to build one.

AS: I believe it is mainly the north Indian cuisine which is most popular in this region, there is lot more to explore. Modes of public dining are undergoing rapid changes in India: more visible trends like pan Indian cuisine, cooking inspired by Ayurveda focused on health and nutrition and ethnic cooking are more in demand. These things are not yet experienced by this part of the world, so I believe the Indian cuisine has a long way to go in this region.

MS: I believe that Indian cuisine plays an important role and may even more dominate in all parts of the region in the future. Although there are other cuisines, Indian food will be always a necessity in the menus of restaurants and outlets, and included in most of the international food selections.

RG: The future of Indian food is at its brightest point ever with Indian cuisine coming a long way in establishing itself on the global dining scene. Indian restaurants in New York, London, and around the globe are being graded on par with some of the best French, Italian, and American restaurants on offer. Indian restaurants, serving authentic cuisine or fusion are becoming hautè.

Ritz-Carlton Bahrain restaurant Nirvana’s executive chef Mahipal Singh reveals how to dish out a delicious raan-e-haider in the simplest way possible.

• 2 pieces/1kg lamb shanks
• 400g yoghurt
• 2 bay leaves
• 8-10 cloves
• 5g peppercorns
• 2 pieces of cinnamon
• 5-6 cardamom pods
• 10g coriander powder
• 5g cumin powder
• 5g turmeric powder
• 5g garam masala
• 3-4 Kashmiri dry red chillies coarsely ground
• 5g garlic paste
• 5g ginger paste
• 500ml vegetable/canola/ sunflower cooking oil
• 2 medium-sized onions chopped fine
• Salt to taste
• Coriander leaves to garnish

• In a bowl, mix the lamb shanks and yoghurt and keep aside. This will tenderise the lamb.
• Heat the oil in a deep pan and add the whole spices (cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, bay leaves, peppercorns).
• Fry till they turn slightly darker in colour.
• Now add the onions and fry till they turn light golden.
• Add the ginger and garlic pastes and fry for a minute.
• Add the powdered spices (coriander, cumin, turmeric, Kashmiri chilly and Garam masala and fry till the oil separates from the masala.
• Add the meat and yogurt mix to the masala and fry well.
• Add the water and salt to taste
• Cook till the gravy is reduced.
• Stir often. The gravy should be thick when done.
• Garnish with coriander leaves and serve with plain boiled rice or pulao as well as a vegetable side dish.

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