Beyond butter chicken: why is Indian food so popular?

We speak to food professionals around the globe to understand what has been catalysing an interest in the country's cuisine over the past year

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In February 2021, Chef’s Pencil, a food magazine from Australia that reports on industry trends and news, ranked international cuisine according to the number of tagged foods on Instagram.

#Japanesefood featured first with 15 million tags, #Italianfood placed second at about 14 million and Indian cuisine took third place with eight million.

A year later, a comparative study was conducted to see which foods had grown in popularity. Indian cuisine placed second after Italian with about 11 million hashtags, showing a growth of 41 per cent ― by all accounts a phenomenal jump in the world of social media metrics.

The research also clocked 10,000,000 #curry, 1,460,000 #biryani, 698,000 #naan and 644,000 #panipuri tags.

Growing global footprint

About six years ago, India and Indians were increasingly represented on several platforms across the world. “From movie streaming platforms to TV shows such as MasterChef Australia, the market potential of the Indian audience was recognised and such inclusions slowly altered the stereotypical perception of India abroad,” says Thomas Zacharias, a chef from Mumbai who is working towards making a deeper intervention within the Indian food system. “Celebrity-chef-helmed restaurants and more international chefs interacting with India and Indian food have changed how people typically think of the country’s cuisines.”

Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal, a culinary chronicler, food researcher and editor of the annual Godrej Food Trends Report says: “Globally people are listening to noted Indian voices more, whether it is chefs like Manish Mehrotra, who put pulled jackfruit on his menu in New York and India; Kishwar Chowdhury, who presented Bengali panta bhaat and aloo bharta at the finals of MasterChef Australia season 13; or chef Sandeep Pandit, co-host of Australian show India Unplated, who places focus on the food of Karnataka and Kashmir.

“All this has added to growing associations over the past few years with Indian food, whether it is turmeric, coconut milk, or [foods that adhere to] Ayurveda, and takes it beyond the stereotype.”

Cooking up a storm

Such interaction with Indian food, if done well, says Hemamalini Maiya, managing partner of Mavalli Tiffin Rooms in Bengaluru, can result in success stories. Her own brand, which is popularly called MTR, has become an integral part of the Singaporean and Malaysian dining scene with a constant stream of local customers.

“Promoting restaurants in a way that brings locals in has helped popularise Indian cuisine, and that is an approach that several brands are adopting,” says Maiya. “More people are experimenting, looking for newer cuisines, and sharing their experiences online. Also, more Indian brands are going abroad.”

While MTR’s Dubai outlet still has a large Indian diaspora visiting, the London outlet that opened this year holds immense potential to bring in the local crowd, believes Maiya.

Changing perceptions on the other end of the catering spectrum is Shilpa Urva, a software engineering professional and Indian home chef from Quebec, who runs Spice Tiffin. Using rice as a staple (flavoured with lemon, tamarind, coconut, ghee and vegetables), Urva offers everything from South Indian mutton stew and spicy fish curry to butter chicken (to cater to demand) and a range of barbecue boxes with meats in Indian marinades.

“When I first started Spice Tiffin in December 2020, it was to educate people about what Indian food was. It surprised most that Indian food was not just paneer and meat in a heavy cream base. Ingredients such as tamarind, coconut milk, cumin and curry leaves were new to many, and opened up variations of spices and flavours,” says Urva, who has a 100 per cent Canadian customer base at present. She says her clients are appreciative of the health factor and often remark about not feeling heavy after a meal.

Health is the operative word here.

Putting health on the table

“Often, umbrella terms become a way for people to make their first foray into a specific kind of food, contributing to the popularity of a hashtag. Curry is the easiest way to search for something, even if the term has been disputed,” says Ghildiyal. “How else would you explain a gassi, rassa or jhol to somebody who has never [eaten around] India?”

Additionally, during the pandemic, Instagram became a place of entertainment and a way to share culinary identities, as myriad figures attest. In February 2019, a survey commissioned by Facebook found 52% of Indians pursue food and drink as an interest on Instagram. A 2021 Instagram Demographics survey by Hootsuite found that, globally, 43 per cent followed food and drink as an interest on the platform.

A contributing factor to the popularity of Indian food hashtags could also have been triggered from within India, believes Zacharias. “During the pandemic, we have gone deeper into and thought about what we are eating. We have gone back to our roots, to comfort food, to food that is familiar. Even the engagement among the Indian diaspora was about what we cooked at home and what we are getting excited about,” he says.

During global lockdowns, food was one of the main indulgences, and people became evermore creative with it. We began to explore ways to cook the same ingredients but from across cuisines. Health and immunity-boosting became important, and everyone from food enthusiasts to chefs were sharing knowledge online.

“India has always been associated with yoga, healing and Ayurveda, and it was natural for the healing properties of spices to come to the forefront. This led to an increase in the use of Indian ingredients and a further digression into how you can cook in various ways incorporating these spices into your daily habits,” says chef Vineet Bhatia, widely considered the father of progressive Indian cuisine, with restaurants such as Kama by Vineet in Harrods, London, and Indego by Vineet in Dubai.

He says the scales also tipped towards plant-based meals, something that India’s numerous, yet hitherto untapped, vegetarian recipes could cater to across cultures and beyond borders. “What became evident is that it’s no longer just Indian food we are talking about, but Indian cuisine, its variety and its depth," says Bhatia. "It is more than biryani, samosas and butter chicken, and that is what has come out stronger.”

Updated: October 13, 2022, 8:50 AM