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And the first prize for best “New Foreign Food” introduced to the United States goes to … India? Well, not yet anyway.
Currently, Japanese and Italian food are some of the most popular foreign foods in the United States. In a Salon interview with NYU food studies expert Krishnedu Ray, the professor predicts that Indian food is not going to be “as popular and prestigious as Italian food” for fifty years.
The key to ethnic food popularity and prestige? High population and high average income. Indian cuisine will not become mainstream in the same way for many years, as “the culture won’t be able to insinuate itself into everyday culture until it’s in the range of 20 million people.” This is dependent on a growing population of Indians in the restaurant business.
However, the success of mainstream Indian cuisine is linked to not only population, but status. According to Ray, the “prestige of Indian immigrants gets linked to the prestige of Indian food.” Since roughly 30-50 percent of Indian immigrants have “substantial cultural capital,” speak English and hold the highest average income in the United States, Indian cuisine has a serious advantage in the market.
In recent years, new media has proved its ability to contribute to the popularization of Indian food. Ray adds that the advent of food blogging has led to the “democratization of food writing” which allows “rare ethnic foods” to find a certain market. In addition, detailed writing on Indian cuisine could debunk certain misconceptions about food in India and generate more informed readers.
However, it’s hard to talk about Indian food as just “Indian” food because the staples, dishes and ingredients vary from region to region. What is commonly known as naan and chicken tikka masala should really be categorized as Punjabi food, but is often mistaken for dishes of the whole country.
As Indian food becomes more mainstream, the dishes are also predicted to become more Americanized. Professor Ray predicts that vada pao will be the most popular, as it is interpreted as “sliders on a bun” while rotis and naans are called “wraps.” He also predicts a slight decrease in spiciness to accommodate the American palette, which is not accustomed to the spice levels of native Indians.
Megan Villet, writing for Business Insider, assiduously criticized what she called the “oversimplification of Indian cuisine.” However, Ray says, “But the food can’t be over-Americanized, or it will lose that cutting-edge element. Indian restaurants want to build bridges to Americans but they always want to build barriers.”
No matter what new changes are made to Indian cuisine, bloggers, chefs and Indian natives will know authentic from Americanized and Bengali from South Indian. They also won’t break a sweat when ordering a curry off the menu.