Spice world

14/11/2013 - 10:07
Indian food is one of the more popular choices on menus but, if it is to compete with so many other cuisine styles, cost sector caterers have to keep it contemporary and in line with trends. Sheila Eggleston reports

Chicken tikka masala is still a must-have menu item, but there are more adventurous spicier dishes that caterers can tempt diners with, and this is corroborated by market analyst Mintel’s 2012 report suggesting that 32% of ethnic food consumers enjoyed eating spicier food more now.

India’s regions, each with something different to offer according to the food available in that area, highlight the complexity of Indian cuisine. Ways of serving these dishes are also evolving from plated meals to the now more popular pots and handheld wraps that can be sit-down or grab-and-go options – the latter particularly favoured in schools.

Chris Ince, executive chef at 7 Day Catering, part of the Servest Group, says the opportunities for contract caterers with Indian cuisine are boundless.

“This is a cuisine that is as sophisticated, refined and varied as any in the world,” he explains. “As people travel more in search of new experiences and taste sensations, we as caterers have had to adapt our offering to ensure we keep abreast of current eating trends in this category.

“Curry has progressed from being an inauthentic reddish-brown dish with varying degrees of spice, meat and vegetables, into a dish using regional spices and flavourings sourced from the country of origin. Flavours tend to be more exact and, as a result, the dish more subtle and authentic – authenticity being important for any good ethnic food offer.

“We classify ‘spicy’ by the amount of chilli in a dish. Customers who profess to not liking spicy food are usually talking about the levels of fresh chilli or dried cayenne pepper used. In reality, chilli/cayenne pepper should not be the dominant spice, but form part of an overall blend of spices where other flavours play just as important a role in the dish. Knowing and interacting with customers is the key to building a relationship of trust.”

Susan Gregory, head of food at Nestlé Professional, says the rise of supper club pop-ups such as London’s Darjeeling Express and Edinburgh’s Chai Lounge are heightening awareness of regional Indian food. “Street-food brands like Dosa Delhi and Bhangra Burger are blooming and even classic British emporiums such as Fortnum & Mason are embracing the trend,” she adds.

“Operators can capitalise on this growing trend. Authentic regional Indian food is big in flavour, and tastes vary considerably across the subcontinent. For example, Kerala as a coastal region is famous for its seafood and coconut curries, which are light, tasty and quick to produce, for which our Maggi coconut milk powder provides an ideal base, while the cornerstones of Kashmiri food are meat, rice and yogurt.

“Consumer tastes vary and it can be difficult to gauge the right level of spice in Asian dishes. Play it safe with medium-hot dishes and offer customers the choice of yogurt or coconut milk for a milder flavour, or fresh chilli or chilli flakes for those who favour a hotter meal.”

Paul Rogers, operations director at independent education caterer Alliance in Partnership, says it likes to include variety on its menus and reflect national trends and tastes. “We pride ourselves on our diversity, and Indian food is one of our most popular world cuisine options – and there’s no exception in schools,” he says.

“The UK Indian food industry has an annual turnover of £2.5bn so it makes sense as education caterers to incorporate these trends into our menus. Chicken tikka masala is one of the nation’s favourite dishes and is also the favourite choice across our contracts.

“We’ve stopped serving from our curry carts and are serving the same curry pots over the counter for logistics and ergonomics. Schools loved the concept when it was initially introduced but we have had to streamline the offer process further.

“The pots are made from scratch and form part of our Asian Creation range, and we accompany main dishes with rice, naan bread and vegetable samosas. Each sauce is specifically developed to a vegetarian or vegan recipe to enable operators to offer meat-free fillings and appeal to a wider audience.”

Chicken specialist Love Joes says one of its most popular lines is Love Curry, where customers can choose from plain or marinated chicken and 14 authentic spicy sauces. As well as plated meals, the company says its branded hot wraps can be offered with Indian fillings including chicken jalfrezi, chicken korma, soya balti and its new sweet curry variant.

“Hot wraps are a way to offer quick, healthy options packed with Indian flavour,” says operations manager Toni Koumi. “We provide a mixed protein and sauce product that is cooked in the oven, and a free bag of saffron pre-cooked rice that’s heated and mixed with the chicken and sauce to create a filling. For non-meat-eaters, there is the soya balti.”

Latest products include mini skewers of marinated chicken that can be served in ‘paninette’ bread, pitta or wrap. “They can be served as part of a main meal deal, perhaps with rice and mixed salad, plus a pudding for a set price,” she adds.

In the wake of National Curry Week in October, cost sector caterers can use the popularity of Indian food to their advantage, even in schools, says Mars Foodservice.

“Young consumers are more likely to eat an ethnic meal in a restaurant than older consumers, which shows how much Indian cuisine is an integral part of modern society and something younger generations now expect to see on menus,” says Roy Shortland, development chef for Uncle Ben’s ready-to-use Indian sauces and rices.

“Portions are smaller, softer textured and tailored to children in terms of spice, salt and sugar levels, but younger palates are more in tune with ethnic flavours than those of older consumers, who grew up at a time when the world was a far smaller place. It’s also worth considering Mintel research that reveals 58% of ethnic food consumers with children agree that it is important to introduce children to different cuisines.”

Shortland says Uncle Ben’s school food-compliant, ready-to-use Indian sauces offer convenience and can deliver favourites such as balti, korma, tikka masala, madras and rogan josh, which can be used to make break-time light bites such as prawn tikka sandwiches or a lamb madras topping for jacket potatoes.

Mark Rigby, executive chef at Premier Foods, says its Homepride and Sharwood’s sauces also allow caterers to create cost-effective, well-known dishes speedily.

“Caterers who haven’t served Indian food before can subtly incorporate it into menus by using fillings such as chicken tikka in wraps or baguettes to see how popular the uptake is. Another option is to offer a different curry as a special over a certain time period and, whichever sells best, make it a permanent fixture on menus.

“Caterers should ensure they use menu boards to promote specials; it sounds simple but it is the most effective way of grabbing consumer attention.”

Daloon says that in today’s challenging environment, cost sector caterers need to be on top of their game to satisfy customers, and that frozen ethnic snacks offer ideal meal solutions. This is underscored by current data from Kantar Worldpanel, which shows that between June 2011 and June 2013, spending on frozen Indian ethnic snacks grew by 11.6%, highlighting their continued popularity among consumers.

Daloon’s premium Indian snack brand Great Tiger has enjoyed much success since its launch, says general sales manager – foodservice Simon Cliff. He explains that the spices used to create the vegetable samosas, onion bhajis, and vegetable and spinach pakoras capture the authentic flavours of the east, and these lines can be cooked from frozen in minutes.

“They make sensational starters, side dishes, snacks and sharing platters, and are equally brilliant for party and corporate buffets, and, of course, Indian-themed nights,” he comments.

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