Yesterday, we told you the secret formula that makes Indian food so delicious. But if you think your love for Indian food is shared by everyone—or even most people—in this country, you might want to think again:
Indian food may be awesome, but it’s pretty unpopular.
Indian food has slowly but surely found its way into the hearts (and stomachs) of cities around the United States. There are more than 300 restaurants that serve cuisine from across the subcontinent in New York City alone, according to Krishnendu Ray, a professor at New York Univeristy who has been studying the cuisine’s rise for more than a decade. Compare that to the mere 20 Indian restaurants that could be found in the Big Apple in the early 1980s. And consider that the cuisine has been pronounced, time and again, the next “ethnic food trend.”
But the truth is that Indian food isn’t anywhere nearly as popular as it should be.
“Indian food isn’t actually as ubiquitous as people think, especially compared to other ethnic foods” said Ray. “Indian food is basically where Chinese food was a generation ago.”
There are, after all, more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants around the country, and roughly the same number of Mexican restaurants, but only about 5,000 Indian restaurants, according to Ray. Population accounts for some, but not all, of this. Even compared to Thai food, for example, interest in Indian cuisine is comparatively muted. In New York City, where there are roughly 20 times as many Indians as Thais, there are approximately the same number of restaurants that serve each cuisine.
And, in terms of ingredients for cooking at home, Indian food accounts for only 1.2 percent of the ethnic food market share.
Which all makes one wonder: Why? How could a cuisine which has been long been heralded by chefs, cherished by foodies, and even studied by food scientists, failed to catch on as quickly as other ethnic foods?
The answer, according to Ray, likely has to do with a certain lack of appreciation for the skill required to make Indian food. The cuisine is among the most labor intensive in the world. And yet Americans are unwilling to pay beyond a certain, and decidedly low, price point. Indian food, in other words, is cheap food in the eyes of many Americans. And that has all kinds of repercussions that have stunted the cuisine’s growth, at least on a commercial level.
“There’s a real problem on the demand side,” said Ray. “People aren’t willing to pay for good Indian food. If you aren’t willing to pay for it, you won’t get quality. And if you don’t get quality, it’s hard to grow. The whole system has forced a lot of restaurants to rely on less skilled workers and cooks.”
While it’s hard to prove that Indian restaurants are employing lower skilled workers, it seems fair to assume that people aren’t willing to pay beyond a certain threshold. Ray calls it the $30 dollar threshold, because Indian restaurants have a hard time selling dinners that cost more than that, even when the labor, rent, and food costs suggest they should.
A perfect example of a restaurant that had trouble selling pricier Indian fare played out at Tabla, Danny Meyer’s contemporary Indian restaurant in New York City, which was forced to close in 2010 after realizing that upscale Indian simply wasn’t sustainable.
“We fought valiantly for nearly 13 years trying to fill 280 seats with food that is tightly focused,” Meyer told the New York Times at the time. “I’ve never closed a restaurant before.”
The main problem, according to Ray, who says he has spoken with Meyer several times since Tabla’s closing, is that people just didn’t have the same allegiance to Indian cuisine as they did to others. When there was a downturn in the economy, especially in the years following the recession, people became much more judicious about when and how they went out to eat.
And Indian restaurants took a good deal of the brunt. It’s unclear how many restaurants were forced to close, but Ray believes the number is significant.
“No one would spend money on Indian food, especially not expensive Indian food,” said Ray. “That basically shows the global hierarchy of taste. Indian food just isn’t as desirable as other foods, so people would rather pay for something else that they want more.”