I asked the opinion of a well seasoned ex-pat:
Ken Renfrew, a curry aficionado, world traveller, businessman (and brother in law), was
born and bred in the
where he frequently experienced the delights of curry cuisine in the north of England. Now, living and working in North
Carolina, America for almost 30 years, he reflects on how the Indian restaurant
scene in the US has changed …
Ken: This evening when I finished work I took the dog out and stopped at a supermarket where there is a 'grab it on your way home' food bar, i.e. the place where people shop who don't want to cook or go out for their evening meal. Typical food on offer here usually consists of fried chicken or at the very extreme - goulash.
Such sights used to be more common in the ethnic areas of the large American cities, along with bazaars, beards and burkas, where immigrant families lived and fed on familiar food. Other famous examples include
Little Italy, and Little Havana - all of which offer great opportunities for
ethnic dining. I was amazed to see the Indian food in our supermarket tonight,
but it shows who is demanding a change, and it’s not the original locals. China Town
When we first moved to
Research Triangle Park, NC back in 1987, an area known for its hospitals
and hi-tech companies, there was - as far as we knew - just one Indian
restaurant serving Durham,
Chapel Hill and Raleigh. Now
there must be 20 or 30. Similarly, when we moved to Charlotte
20 years ago there were just two Indian restaurants serving a population of
around 700k - now I can think of about 15. But then again, this region is the
second most rapidly growing in the nation.
As different cultural groups have always done in the New World, migrants from the Indian sub- continent come here for work, family, a better life, or just for a change. Not surprisingly, the restaurateurs pinpoint locations where the new diaspora work and live (no marketing degree or MBA needed to work out why!). The first places they choose are near hospitals, universities and concentrated areas of high tech business - Silicon Valley,
, Cambridge Mass for
example. Then boy meets girl, relations follow, and pretty soon there is a new
thriving community spreading the word about great curry, helped along by a few
ex-pat Brits, and an American population that begins to love Indian food. Research
This roving correspondent has seen a huge increase in Indian restaurants in the past 10 years. It used to be a struggle to find Indian food in the developing areas of some states. Since moving to the US, my work has taken me to 43 out of the 50 states many times and I always make a point of dining at an Indian restaurant somewhere within an easy drive of my destination – usually by GPS or Google. Nowadays, finding one is not a problem.
A key difference between the
UK and America
restaurants involves the variety of types of Indian food. Yes, in the UK 90%+ of Indian restaurants are Bangladeshi.
But in America there is a
descending order: Indian, to Pakistani to others including Bangla and a subset
of Goa style restaurants.
Even Mongolian restaurants are sometimes generalized under ‘Indian’.
So, maybe the variety of flavours, styles, spices and methods of preparation are more varied in the
USA than the UK.
That doesn’t make one country’s menu diversity any better than the other, but
it does mean the traveller in America, either
from out of the country or within, won’t find it easy to get the same
flavours between one geographic region and another, or for that matter even
between nearby restaurants. Does that make dining in Indian restaurants in the USA more interesting than a 90% Bangla-English
dominated selection? Maybe, maybe not, because as curry life in the UK continues to expand so does the quality and
inventiveness of chefs. It’s different, that’s all. Even celebrities become
accustomed to, and develop preferences for particular flavours but perhaps it's
because they're used to those wonderful Bangla curries in Great Britain.
|Sangam Indian restaurant in Cornelius, N. Carolina|
Our 'local' Indian restaurateurs who own Sangam in Cornelius, North Carolina, who are also great family friends, are Punjabi originally and their cuisine is very similar in flavour to the typical UK upscale Indian restaurant. Some Americans find Indian and
Pakistan style curries harsh and maybe, if the
blend of spice is different in Bangladeshi cuisine there is an opportunity for
entrepreneurs to open up a restaurant serving Bangla-British style flavours
that would appeal more to the Americans' palate.
What do Americans think about Indian food? In this great continent you have people of every social, educational and experiential mix. There are some who have been to
more times than you can shake a stick at. There are huge American Indian
populations. If there is a social group
that may not like Indian it’s only those who haven’t been exposed to it, or
those who prefer simpler food flavours (even though they still love spicy
Mexican food). Are attitudes changing? Absolutely – that’s for sure.
Nevertheless, on average, Americans eat less curry than the Brits. Perhaps it’s just a question of numbers. The population of Bangladeshis in the
is about 500,000 in a total population of 64.6 million or just under 1% – and
Bangladeshis own about 90% of the Indian restaurant market. In the USA there is
a combined Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi population of about 3.7 million or
just over 1% of the total USA population; pretty even. So it’s not a case of
dilution by numbers. Could it be that because of the patterns of human
migration Americans simply have other deep-rooted options? Mexican, Chinese oh
… and American! Socio-political history,
meaning historical connections, migrations and networking, may just be the
answer for why less curry is eaten here – on average.
What does all this mean? Like anywhere, there are good restaurants and not so good ones there are styles of cuisine that some love, others hate. And there are the usual picky/not so picky eaters. Bottom line? Put a plate of curry in front of any American who hasn’t had the pleasure before and most will say something like ‘Not sure what it is, but I like it’.
You must be curious about the dinner we had tonight on my return from the supermarket; an intriguing menu of Andouille spiced pork sausage, bratwurst, American style canned baked beans in tomato sauce, no fries – sorry chips - and a very respectable Aloo with peas curry from the supermarket grab-and-go.
USA we love Indian food – how could we not?