All spice

27/11/2015 - 07:52
Indian food is one of the most popular choices on menus, but operators have to keep it fresh, on trend and value for money to compete with other cuisine styles. Sheila Eggleston reports.

There was little surprise that chicken tikka masala recently regained its position as the top Indian dish. According to research carried out in the run-up to this year’s National Curry Week, running 12–18 October, it was declared the nation’s favourite – but only just. However, while past surveys have indicated that heat and spice is a winning combination, dishes such as vindaloo did not even make it into the top ten.

Highlighting the diversity of ethnic cuisine, when compared with all other favourite cuisine styles, Indian came in second with 14%, followed by Thai in third with 10%. But the clear favourite was a vague ‘Other’, underlining the huge variation of cuisine available in Britain, according to the week’s organisers.

They were unsurprised that Bangladeshi was the top regional cuisine, as more than two-thirds of Britain’s Indian restaurants are Bangladeshi-owned or operated, while the growth in south Indian cuisine saw it in joint second place with Punjabi food.

Indian food has always been popular, says Jacqui Mee, director of food at Olive Catering Services but “we’re no longer in a situation where people just go for a curry every so often; customers are keen to eat Indian food as a lunchtime alternative too,” she claims. “For caterers, this gives them a weekly staple as, just as you might have a fish day every week, there’s now also this expectation to have a curry day.”

Mee says that its sites offer curry on a particular day at least once a week and sometimes more when chefs choose Indian food as the basis of their theatre dish.

“As people travel more, they are getting more adventurous with the styles of food they want to eat, and Indian food fulfils this perfectly,” she adds. “This shouldn’t be seen negatively, as there will always be demand for classics such as tikka masala but, with Indian food as diverse as it is, there’s a whole world of options available to chefs to make lunchtimes as exciting as possible.

“Olive’s food innovation team has already worked on producing dishes from different areas in India and, later this year, we will be focusing on curries specifically, with the aim of seeking new ideas, flavours and dishes that are perhaps less common.

“We want to keep dishes as authentic as we can, which means having recipes with the spices and quantities that go in the dish, and getting chefs to buy, roast and grind their own spices, rather than having convenience products. By making this effort early on in the preparation of a dish, chefs can make the dishes stand out more.

“From a cost perspective, Indian food might not have as many of the challenges of other styles of food as the way curries, for example, are cooked is often very slow, meaning that cheaper cuts of meat can tenderise and flavours can develop.

“The one tip I’d give caterers is that confidence in your food can always be a strong selling point, and my recommendation is to offer unsure customers the chance to taste a dish before they buy it.”

Roy Shortland, development chef for the Uncle Ben’s brand at Mars Foodservice, says there will always be the favourites – korma, tikka masala and balti – but introducing a few twists keeps Indian offerings fresh, and answers today’s demand for healthier dishes and street food.

To satisfy demand for grab and go, he says caterers can tap into the growing selection of recipes on its website, from tikka masala marinated pork and courgette kebabs with a curry dressing to fries tossed in balti sauce before cooking.

“The key is not to limit yourself to traditional plated curry,” he says. “Handheld options are good if you are a school caterer, with children enjoying meat skewers and samosas.”

Shortland says that caterers are also under pressure to widen their gluten-free options. “With Indian cooking, this isn’t difficult: you use tomato paste to add texture instead of thickening dishes with flour,” he advises. “Our sauces can also be called upon here as they are suitable for gluten-free diets.”

Santa Maria Foodservice says that its ‘Age Cohort 2015’ report on eating habits and taste preferences revealed that curry is consumers’ favourite sauce and that Indian food was in the top-five cuisine styles preferred by 18–34-year-olds when eating out, while an increasing number of students wanted veggie options.

“Wraps are a great way of getting more vegetables into children’s diets and can count towards their 5-a-day,” says Eimear Owens, country sales manager – UK & Ireland for Santa Maria. “We have heaps of new flavours and quick wins for menus in our ‘Healthy & Simple’ recipe brochure for schools, including a vegetarian saag aloo wrap seasoned with garam masala spice mix.”

Will Matier, managing director of Vegetarian Express, says that research commissioned by the company found that 41% of people feel Indian food is the best for vegetarians. However, more than half the respondents felt there were not enough veggie dishes and, with a third wanting to see between five and ten options, this is an opportunity for operators.

“Indian food is full of intense flavours with a blend of spices that can be customised by chefs,” comments Matier. “There is also a profit opportunity thanks to there being so many vegetarian options in traditional Indian cuisine enabling caterers to tap into a market predicted to be worth £882.4 million by 2016.

“Our spices and dhals offer operators an easy way to provide an authentic Indian experience in every setting while allowing the individualisation that making a dish from scratch offers. For example, if caterers wish to tone down the amount of chilli they put in for a milder dish that will appeal to children, then they can.”

To encourage uptake of Indian breakfasts, the company recruited renowned chef Paul Gayler to create recipes such as Parsee-style eggs with spicy lentil sausages and hummus, and Indian chickpea hummus and crispy fried eggs with coriander chutney.

“Authentic Indian food destroys the perception that healthy food is boring by offering vibrant dishes full of flavour,” adds Matier. “There is also opportunity to provide add-ons such as chutneys, pickles, bread and poppadoms – and profit.”

Indian frozen ethnic snacks account for 22% of the total frozen ethnic snacks market, with individual spend increasing by 3%, according to Daloon Foods UK.

Daloon’s bestsellers include standard and mini samosas with vegetable, chicken tikka or lamb fillings, and onion bhajis and vegetable pakoras in a variety of sizes. Its latest product is a mini samosa selection of its three popular variants – vegetable, chicken tikka and lamb in one case.

“These provide many advantages, including cost-effectiveness, portion control, minimal wastage and total flexibility,” says Simon Cliff, general sales manager – foodservice. “They also offer consistent quality and convenience.”

Opportunities for using healthier cream alternatives that can reduce the amount of fat in Indian dishes are growing. Simon Muschamp, head of marketing at Pritchitts, says that its Millac Gold Single cooking cream makes it easier for chefs. Made from a blend of buttermilk, vegetable oil and dairy cream, the product is halal-certified so is ideal for those catering for the ethnic market.

“When it comes to cooking, it’s all that’s needed,” he says. “It outperforms fresh cream on an operational level offering great value for money and, being neutral in flavour, allows the other ingredients in a recipe to shine.”

Jessica Lalor, brand manager for Kerrymaid, says that to meet consumer expectations, using Kerrymaid Single ensures sauces are rich and thick, while it reduces like fresh cream. “Health-conscious consumers can often shy away from Indian food because of the perception that it can be fatty,” explains Lalor. “By using our product rather than fresh cream, chefs can reduce the amount of saturated fat in their dishes.”

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