Indian food’s poor representation among American restaurants is not a malaise

A half-century after Madhur Jaffrey's book
Photo by Akhil Chandran on Unsplash

A half-century is a respectable time. It gives a sapling the chance to grow into a tree and become a local landmark. It allows a man to become a pillar of the community. And should the right cookbook have introduced a cuisine to a foreign land, over the span of 50 years one might expect that style of food preparation to have settled into the taste palate of its new home.

But 50 years after the Madhur Jaffrey’s An Invitation to Indian Cooking appeared in the United States, it’s fair to say Indian food hasn’t become typical American restaurant fare. Which is to say it’s poorly represented on the US restaurant scene. “Asian” restaurants in the US dominate the dining-out experience (12 per cent of all restaurants) and Chinese cuisine dominates the Asian restaurants (39 per cent). Indian restaurants are just seven per cent of Asian restaurants.

We learn as much from a new study by the Pew Research Center.

Before anyone starts tut-tutting, it’s worth examining what this says. Funnily, Indian food’s low representation among America’s restaurant choices is a good sign and not an indication of Indians being unable to make headway in the US food business or that Americans haven’t developed a taste for Indian food. Instead, it tells a different story, at least according to Krishnendu Ray, an associate professor of Food Studies at New York University. NBC News quotes Mr Ray saying that Indians in the US are well educated and able to speak English, which means they have choices other than cooking pulaos and tikka masalas: “If you speak English and have a college degree, you do not get into the restaurant business. The restaurant business is a very tight business, a very labor intensive business. It’s mostly sweat capital.”

Ergo Indians in the US don’t want or need to ply the restaurant trade. So, while a half-century may be a lifetime (or thereabouts) it may not be enough to bring about a decisive change in the proclivities and preferred career progression of a people. For that, something so simple and sudden as a natural or a manmade disaster can be enough.

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50 years on, Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian cookbook is useful metric for America