October 28, 2018
Experimenting with Indian Flavors
from Chef Matthew Fuss
Food people have been talking for a number of years about the potential for Indian cuisine to become The Next Big Thing, but I think the trend is finally getting some traction now. That’s because the exotic flavors and exciting specialties of India are becoming more familiar, and because the fast-casual segment represents a promising vehicle for innovative “mashups” that combine the best qualities of Indian food with familiar menu platforms like wraps and bowls.
It’s still a matter of educating the consumer, though. In my hometown of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Chutney Company features Indian street food including dosas (crispy rice-flour crepes with filling) and kati rolls (a burrito-like sandwich wrapped in Indian flatbread). Clever illustrated window signage tells all: “What is a Kati Roll?” and “What are the Health Benefits of Dosas?” I’ve seen another Indian fast casual restaurant where the walls were decorated with “thought bubble” illustrations that define popular menu items like tikka masala and vindaloo—décor as Indian-food dictionary.
Once customers try these tasty specialties, they become much more interested in authentic Indian food, but it just takes that little nudge. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that many Indian specialties are naturally gluten-free, often vegetarian, and extremely flavorful and craveable, so they suit today’s dining interests.
Traditional Indian street foods and snacks, called chaat, lend themselves especially well to fast-casual menus that blend Western amenities like English-language menu boards and familiar Western beverages with authentic flavors and iconic recipes. But there’s also a lot of momentum for more Westernized “build-your-own” concepts like bowls, sandwiches, and even salads that feature Indian flavors and ingredients.
In the U.K., Wrapchic mashes up Indian and Mexican with DIY tortilla-based wraps filled with Indian-sauced proteins like chicken tikka and paneer masala (paneer is an Indian soft cheese). Naansense, in Chicago, casts traditional Indian naan flatbread as a taco to host a choice of marinated, braised or roasted proteins, and sauces such as Savory Tomato or Spiced Coconut. And it’s really smart to create a build-a-bowl concept with a base of white or brown basmati rice, chickpeas or shredded lettuce with toppings such as curry-roasted veggies, tandoori chicken or kebabs, plus a choice of sauces and condiments like raita (yogurt and cucumbers) and chutneys.
The biggest challenge with Indian food moving forward is that it’s still a niche item that can be somewhat polarizing to more conservative diners. But there are several Indian flavor profiles and recipe categories that could be more widely appealing with the right kind of consumer education. Several of these can be sauces adaptable to more familiar menu concepts:
• Butter Masala – Creamy from coconut milk but flavorful with ginger, garlic, garam masala and other spices, Indian butter sauce is most often used to cook chicken, paneer cheese, vegetables or tofu
• Koorma – In this rich, gently spiced dish, meat or vegetables are simmered with yogurt or cream, water or stock, and spices such as coriander and cardamom to produce a thick sauce or glaze
• Tandoori – Named after the clay tandoor oven in which they are cooked, proteins like chicken and fish are marinated in yogurt and spices and then roasted
• Tikka Masala - This creamy, tomato and cilantro-laced curry sauce is most often used to simmer chicken
• Vindaloo – Spicy and tangy, this spice- and chile-laden curry can be made with chicken, pork, lamb, fish or shellfish
• Look to Minor’s poultry or vegetable bases in any Indian recipe calling for stock
• Indian naan bread can be used for a wrap sandwich or as a carrier for dips
• Mix Minor’s GreenLeaf Cilantro Pesto with chopped mint, onion, chiles and lime juice to make a quick cilantro mint chutney, or add to yogurt with grated cucumber and minced scallions for raita
• Leverage the popularity of deviled eggs with a curry or masala-spiced filling, as an appetizer or part of a sampler plate with samosa or another Indian snack