Claudia D. O'Donnell
Chief Editor

My fascination with India may have started with Hari Kumar, the lead role in Masterpiece Theatre’s “The Jewel in Crown” series. However, one’s intrigue with that region of the world hardly needs to be triggered by a handsome movie star. Captivating images of tigers, the Taj Mahal and exotic fabrics long have been imprinted on the psyches of Americans. India’s seasonings have contributed richly to generations of kitchen spice cabinets and heavily influenced the culinary traditions of many nations.

In the “2005 Prepared Foods’ R&D Survey: Foodservice Product Development Trends” one question asked, “Where does your company get ideas for new foodservice products?” Answers such as foodservice and retail trade shows, trade publications, grocery store products, restaurants, customers and competitors each were checked off by some 49% to 61% of respondents. However, it is useful to look beyond these idea-generating places to remember a key driver of a culinary trend. The introduction of national dishes to any country is greatly influenced by the presence of ethnic communities.

One speaker at Prepared Foods’ 2005 New Products Conference, Valerie Walker at Information Resources Inc. (IRI), noted insights can be gained into an ethnic group’s food preferences by comparing food category development indices (based on sales scanner data) at supermarkets serving neighborhoods with high concentrations of an ethnic group with those in neighborhoods of low concentrations. As non-ethnic consumers are exposed to ethnic foods, the cuisine moves mainstream.

India’s population of slightly over one billion people enjoys a large well-educated, English-speaking segment that has allowed the country to become a major exporter of software services and software workers. According to the Migration Policy Institute, based on the Census 2000, foreign-born people from India make up the third-largest immigrant group in the U.S. at one million. Five states (California, New Jersey, New York, Illinois and Texas) account for 58% of the Indian immigrant population. However Idaho, Washington, Colorado, Georgia and Minnesota have population growth rates of 260% or more.

Indian foods dovetail well with trends such as vegetarianism and interest in foreign fare. For me, the heavy use of dairy products and some aromatic flavor profiles cause great delight. Other less familiar spice combinations remind me that “Americanization” will broaden the cuisine’s appeal. Whether standing on its own or a key partner in a fusion dish (chicken tikka masala taco anyone?), East Indian food will make its mark on the American food experience.