Indian flavors show local appeal

With wide flexibility in spice and vegetarian options, the draw of this Asian cuisine is growing.

indian food

Trend-watchers have been saying for years that Indian food is the next emerging cuisine to hit chain restaurants, but noncommercial dining is way ahead of the curve. These sometimes-spicy, often vegetarian-based dishes are making inroads, foodservice directors find, due to more diverse populations and adventurous eaters in their operations.

Comfort food with wide appeal

“The influence of a corporate town shows an influx of cultures and immigration patterns,” says Jim Mazzaraco, executive chef at Corning, Inc. The materials science company is based in Corning, N.Y. but has a global presence and a significant number of Indian employees among its U.S. workforce.

“We strive to give them comfort food they know and love, even working with our people to get regional recipes from their parts of India,” says Mazzaraco.

But, just as forecasters have been predicting, once Americans get a taste for authentic Indian food, they want more. “As soon as we added Indian food, we got remarkable feedback,” Mazzaraco says. “The food showed expandability beyond the Indian community immediately. It’s grown beyond our stir-fry and quick-order stations to become part of all our menus.”

Mazzaraco has found that vegetarians and vegans especially are receptive to the entrees, which often are meat- and dairy-free. Indian entrees are among some of the most popular on Corning’s menus, he says, with curry dishes, red-bean rajma (also known as Indian chili) and naan bread standing out as employee favorites.

Customization rules in school

It makes sense that Indian cuisine is making more headway among student diners than in the general population. According to Chicago research firm Technomic, spicy flavors are here to stay, driven especially by younger consumers who prefer them.

About a year ago, Binghamton University in Binghamton, N.Y., worked with an Indian restaurant situated a mile away to add a fast-casual version of its concept on campus as part of students’ meal plan options. This idea came about by popular demand from students, who have lined up for the food ever since, says Tom LaSarso, director of retail operations of Binghamton dining services (Sodexo).

“Rice bowls are the most popular option,” among the student population that comes from all over the world, he says. “But the whole menu can be mixed and matched.” Designed to create a customized layer-your-own-meal experience, the menu allows diners to pick from a variety of bases, proteins, toppings and sauces.

“Students eat there five times a week and don’t get bored,” LaSarso says. “Some of the heat levels on those sauces are pretty hot, and many students like to see how spiced up they can make a meal.”

Regional Matters

While fusion styles may be a hit on some campuses, Mazzaraco points out  that his customers are looking for authentic dishes with regional variations. “Defining Indian as one thing is like saying that Latin food is one thing, when Puerto Rican and Brazilian cuisines are vastly different [from each other],” says Mazzaraco.  However, he notes some commonalities among the regions. “Indian  food [in general] is healthy, fresh and nutritious, and that’s what people are responding to.” 

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