Although curry has been the unofficial national dish of the United Kingdom for some decades, according to Yawar Khan, chairman of the Asian Catering Federation (ACF) based in London, half of all Indian restaurants in Britain are expected to close over the next 10 years. However, the predicted closure of around 17,000 outlets isn’t a reflection of a change of heart regarding Indian food, but the failure of restaurateurs to respond to evolving consumer demands.
"For years we have been telling restaurants they need to up their game with shorter menus, offering lighter healthier options with more fish and vegetable dishes, with genuinely authentic regional food,” Khan told The Independent, a London-based newspaper with national circulation. “Many rarely see a customer at lunch time, while pubs and chains like Nandos are serving thousands of spicy dishes throughout the day.”
This apathy has left a huge opportunity for foodservice outlets to offer a range of Indian dishes which meet modern consumer demands, allowing them to cash in on the popular cuisine. Subsequently this has resulted in restaurants, retailers, wholesalers and suppliers becoming more proactive with new product development (NPD).
“Whilst Indian food remains universally popular, more and more foodservice outlets are capitalizing on the boom in UK street food which demands innovative flavors, textures, colors and cooking techniques,” explained Megan Modha, category manager, grocery, at Brakes based in Ashford, Kent. “The majority of NPD we have seen coming through takes a traditional recipe as its base and is then tweaked to incorporate a modern twist.”
Today’s consumers are interested in provenance and authenticity, and the foodservice industry has taken note with suppliers offering an array of frozen Indian dishes to help caterers satiate the masses.
Street-style food’s popularity shows no sign of abating, but an evolution is afoot with predictions of more sophisticated, regional dishes in high demand. Simply serving bog standard Indian cuisine no will no longer suffice. Consumers want to know their dishes are inspired by the streets of Mumbai or the shores of Goa.
“Indian food is very labor intensive to produce from scratch,” said Gordon Lauder, managing director of Northamptonshire, England-based frozen food distributor Central Foods. “The mix of ingredients is more complicated than those used in Western recipes. There is a minimum of seven ingredients and up to around 200 in total (from a worldwide ingredients list of around 381), more than is used in any other cuisine. There is a lot of marinating of ingredients to achieve just the right taste and aroma and the right mix of spices in the right quantity is key to achieving the perfect flavor.”
It can be notoriously difficult for caterers to replicate these authentic flavors and dedicate the time to creating them from scratch, which is why many turn to quality, pre-prepared frozen Indian products to meet consumer demand with ease.
One company which prides itself on offering authentic, hand crafted Indian cuisine is Blackpool-based Laila’s Fine Foods. Its products are still produced in the way founder and director Laila Remtulla made them in her kitchen over 30 years ago.
“All our products are cooked in a way unlike any other manufacturer,” she explained. “We do not manufacture using large scale production methods but a smaller scale, hands-on approach, similar to how you would cook at home. The fact that all dishes are stirred and packed by hand enables us to maintain a true ‘homemade’ taste in all our products.”
Sharing plates have been popular with consumers for some time and Indian food is ideal for this style of sociable eating. It also enables caterers to allow consumers to try a variety of new bite-sized morsels.
“Indian food lends itself very well to the rising demand for street food-style menu items, and this has paved the way for imaginative new uses for some of the traditional ingredients of Indian food, such as naans,” said Lauder. “Where once naans were just side-of-the-plate accompaniments, now they are used in all sorts of ways and at meal occasions throughout the day – from breakfast (served folded and filled with bacon, egg and chili jam) to topped with blue Stilton and truffle oil for lunch and even marshmallows, chocolate and cream for dessert.”
With increasing numbers of people being diagnosed with food allergies and intolerances, as well as more of a focus on health, the popularity of free from dishes is rising.
“The free from side has really increased, so there is more demand from caterers for vegan, vegetarian and gluten free meals to make up their menu,” said Remtulla. “As consumers are becoming more aware of what they put in their body and using food as a dietary supplement, and there is now a market for higher protein meals. We now have 30 grams of protein included in the chicken stag balti to accommodate this need.”
She continued: “We understand the need to follow food trends and continuously evolve our product range to meet the demands of the market. Luckily we have a very talented and experienced NPD team and are able to work closely with both retail and foodservice partners to spot trends and develop quality products.”
With today’s consumers having more discerning pallets it’s essential to offer premium quality dishes. As with other frozen food items there has been a shift towards premium Indian options made with high quality ingredients and increased percentages of proteins.
“We have noticed that the market growth in frozen meals is being driven by premium products,” said Remtulla. “Consumers also understand that it is worth paying the extra money for a deluxe product that represents good value for money, as there is often a marked increase in the quality of both the product and the ingredients.”
Despite the charm of a classic curry still tempting many, consumer tastes have evolved driving innovation towards truly authentic, regional dishes. The kormas of the world will still have their place, but any business wanting to take a share of this lucrative cuisine needs to move with the times to reap the rewards. – Reported by Sarah Welsh