Are Americans Too Cheap For Indian Food?

Are American's Too Cheap For Indian Food

“Amp-ah-nada? What’s that?” asked a grandmotherly woman about the delectable little filled pastries so popular throughout Latin America. Her skeptical sneer told me she wouldn’t discover the delights of empanadas anytime soon, or probably ever.

That reluctance to experiment with new foods is a leading reason why foreign cuisines take so long to find a foothold. People who don’t grow up eating certain foods are unlikely to change their eating habits as adults. That’s especially true for those who live in rural areas with limited ethnic and culinary diversity. It’s not only that they might not sample new foods, they might not even be exposed to them.

But those factors by themselves don’t explain why Indian food has taken so long to gain acceptance in the U.S. According to a Washington Post article purporting to solve that mystery, “there are, after all, more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants around the country, and roughly the same number of Mexican restaurants, but only about 5,000 Indian restaurants.” Why?

The popularity of Mexican food in the U.S. is completely understandable. We share a long border with that country, and people of Mexican heritage account for around 10% of the U.S. population. But what about China? The U.S. is about as far removed from China as it is from India. The number of Chinese Americans only slightly exceeds those of Indian descent (3.8 million and 3.2 million, respectively.) Why, then, is Chinese food served in eight times as many restaurants as Indian food. It’s certainly not because Chinese cuisine is tastier. Not by a long shot.

The answer, according to the Washington Post, is that Americans are simply too cheap to pay for Indian food.

They almost certainly have a point. Indian food is by far the most labor intensive of any of the kinds of foods we cook for ourselves. Our favorite Indian dish to make at home takes two days to prepare with about five hours of active cooking and chopping time. It also requires the most ingredients of anything we cook – 19 in total. Our favorite Chinese dish, meanwhile, takes us about 45 minutes to throw together.

Marinated chickens baking in a tandoori oven

Deeply spiced, marinated chickens baking in a tandoori oven

Clearly if we were running a restaurant, we’d need to charge significantly more for our Indian dishes than for our Chinese ones. There’s only one small problem. People aren’t willing to pay more for Indian food.

So you know what would happen then? We’d either limit the number of Indian dishes on our menu because they’re less profitable for us to serve, or we’d exclude them altogether and focus exclusively on the more lucrative Chinese cuisine.

And that’s apparently what is happening all across the U.S. Chinese restaurants are more profitable to run at the price point people are willing to pay for “take out” cuisine. That explains why we have so many more of them.  

It never occurred to me before, but I’m certainly part of the problem. I tend to think of Indian food as “street food” rather than haute cuisine. My first experience eating Indian was at a ridiculously cheap buffet in New York City some twenty years ago. That has probably colored my perception of the food ever since.

But if I want to see this most delicious of all foods flourish in my home country, I’ll need to come to terms with the fact that Indian food isn’t cheap food. But first I’ll have to get grandma to at least give it a try.

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15 Comments on “Are Americans Too Cheap For Indian Food?”

  1. Peter Ellam March 5, 2015 at 9:18 am #

    Hi Brian & Shannon. Here in the UK, Indian (or more frequently Pakistani & Bangladeshi) restaurants proliferate, whilst I get the impression that Chinese are in decline – possibly because so many of them have become complacent and serve rather poor food than was the case years back. Similarly, Thai food is outpacing Chinese, too. I cannot comment on American tastes for ethnic cooking, but I can say that the Indian meal you cooked for us in York last year was excellent!

    Like

    • Brian March 5, 2015 at 9:32 am #

      Hi Peter,
      So true about the UK having a ton of Indian restaurants. We had even heard (perhaps jokingly) that England’s national dish is now chicken tikka masala. We also noticed quite a few high end Indian restaurants while we were there, probably indicating that you Brits are willing to pay for Indian food in a way that we Americans are not.

      And thanks, we’re so glad you liked the meal. We quite enjoyed sharing it with you.

      Like

  2. mytimetotravel March 5, 2015 at 10:15 am #

    My problem with Indian food in the US is that it is, in general, not very good. (Some of the south Indian ones are better, but I prefer northern, non-veg food.) I grew up in the UK, and am very fond of Indian food, but I rarely eat it in the US. I put it down to the fact that most Indian immigrants to the US are tech workers. They aren’t chefs, and they don’t need to work as chefs.

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    • Brian March 5, 2015 at 7:27 pm #

      Yeah, food quality varies everywhere. We’ve yet to visit a place that had universally good food – Indian, or otherwise. But I don’t think we’ve had less luck finding good Indian food in the U.S. than we did anywhere else, and that includes places like London.

      Like

  3. Garrulous Gwendoline March 5, 2015 at 3:49 pm #

    Visiting mainland USA is still on my to-do list, but one thing that always springs to mind is ‘how will I handle the food’? Meaning, the legendary portion sizes. It never occurred to me that the variety might not be as wide as what we enjoy in Australia. I had heard also, that the food there is amazingly cheap, but, too cheap for Indian? Now that is a shame.

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    • Brian March 5, 2015 at 7:22 pm #

      Hi Gwendoline,
      If you’re in any U.S. city of almost any size you’ll have no problem finding almost anything you want to eat.

      Like

  4. 24vs100 March 6, 2015 at 4:20 am #

    When we were in Michigan, we stayed in an area with a large population of Indian/Pakistani groups, so there were good and cheap Indian food everywhere. However, the restaurants mainly attract this same ethnic group. If you look at Japanese food, on the other hand, which is usually a lot more expensive, you will see that Americans have no problem trying and liking sushi. I think it’s just the cultural perception and some people are just afraid to try new things.

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  5. Teaching Wanderlust March 6, 2015 at 11:26 am #

    I didn’t try Indian food until I was in college and living by myself. Then I came home on vacation and convinced my mom to try it. Dad is still on the fence, but my mom was converted!

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  6. allisonmohr March 7, 2015 at 5:59 pm #

    Yup, I come from the rural south where there is little ethnic diversity in the food scene, our spices were salt and fat back. I do like Indian food, except for the heat. If you don’t grow up with it, it’s hard to accept the heat. My friends all know that if I’m with them, dishes will be ordered mild, they have to add after market heat. Palate of a three year old, and all of that!

    Like

  7. Courtney March 10, 2015 at 12:01 pm #

    That was a very interesting perspective, as usual

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  8. jcmindset March 10, 2015 at 9:18 pm #

    Love Indian food. Very interesting perspective though:-)

    Like

  9. Jason March 23, 2015 at 8:07 am #

    Hi Brian & Shannon,
    Hope you are enjoying catching up with family and friends, now that you are home for a while. Seems like you are having a holiday from the travel and blogging 😊 Fair enough too, although I am missing the enjoyment your posts bring to my commute 😁
    Cheers,
    Jason

    Like

  10. Abida October 31, 2015 at 8:19 pm #

    Hi, interesting article. I’m actually a UK food blogger with a focus on Bangladeshi and Indian food who stumbled upon this article through google. Indian food is very popular in the UK, but as previous commentators have mentioned, actually the majority of Indian restaurants are run by Bangladeshis.

    Many of these restaurants sprang to life in the following World War II and the demise of the empire, when unskilled and often uneducated males from places like Bangladesh came over to the UK to fill the shortage of cheap manual labour. Many of these workers, like my own family members, began working in factories and then they noticed a gap in the market and started setting up restaurants and take aways.

    As another commentator mentioned, I suspect the rather smaller number of Indian restaurants in the US may be due to the fact that those who migrate over from the Indian sub-continent are more educated and thus do not think to set up Indian restaurants.

    There was actually an article in the Guardian a while ago talking about how changes to immigration policy which would negatively affect famous curry miles such as Brick Lane in London; the unskilled migrants who are often shipped over to become chefs for such restaurants would be facing a lot more tighter restrictions. Second and third generation migrants from the Indian sub-continent are usually raised by families to stay away from the restaurant trade and focus on higher level education.

    I also wanted to mention that home cooked “Indian” food is very different to that which is served in restaurants. In a traditional Bangladeshi home, cream and ghee is very rarely used in cooking and we often prepare curries with no oil at all. I actually had never tried restaurant dishes like chicken tikka until I was into my teens, believe it or not.

    Just thought I’d share another side to the discussion because as you can tell, I’m very passionate about the subject lol. Thanks for sharing!

    Like

  11. giantslor June 27, 2016 at 1:54 pm #

    If Indian food is so expensive, how do the many poor people in India survive? There must be plenty of peasant/street food that is inexpensive and delicious.

    Like

    • Brian June 27, 2016 at 6:07 pm #

      Preparing food in New Delhi doesn’t have the same cost structure as preparing the same dish in New York, or anywhere else in the US for that matter.

      Like

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