January 22, 2011


[For generations, Americans have tweaked Indian recipes to better suit their taste buds - think Level 1 curries and low-fat naan. Now, it's India's turn to play with American food as more U.S. restaurants open here.]

By Emily Wax
NEW DELHI - A group of hungry college students crowded around the newest food stall in an upscale market here: the American Hotdog Factory. Its sign proudly announced, "real American hotdogs for the first time in India."

But these "hawdawgs" - the Indian pronunciation - aren't exactly what they would find on the streets of New York or at ballpark concession stands across America. Where's the beef? The only concession here is to Indian tastes.

Cows are considered holy by many Hindus, India's majority religion. So the top-selling item at this stand is the "American Desi," a mushy, green log of spicy potatoes, soy beans, peas, garlic, chillies and onions held together by a fat hot-dog bun and topped with raw onions and thick mayo chutney.

For generations, Americans have tweaked Indian recipes to better suit their taste buds - think Level 1 curries and low-fat naan. Now, it's India's turn to play with American food as more U.S. restaurants open here.

"I'm telling you, I won't eat it unless it's Indianized," said Jaspreet Dhillion, 20, a college student whose favorite sandwich is Subway's six-inch Veg Shammi, a kebab made of lentils, garlic and onion.

With American companies looking to expand in fast-emerging markets such as India and China, American-style restaurants are laying the groundwork by offering a tasty preview of American culture.

Americans already doing business here have quickly learned that "America" is itself a brand. To many Indians, an America brand symbolizes affluence, aspiration and good hygiene. But while Indians might love the idea of eating at an American eatery, they aren't looking for authentic American cuisine.

Last week, Starbucks announced plans to open stores throughout the land of tea in a partnership with India's Tata Group. Starbucks said its offerings would include many local and American treats, such as samosas next to muffins and spicy chai alongside skinny cappuccino.

Another American icon, the barbecue grill, has also entered the Indian market. But one retailer, Weber, has had to launch "experience centers" where customers attend "License to Grill" sessions to learn how to use the gas-powered contraptions to grill Indian staples such as lentil patties, pineapples and idlis, basically fermented rice cakes that are traditionally steamed.

Not exactly baby back ribs at a roadhouse barbecue.

"They have to buy into the culture before they will buy the food," Rohan Jetley, vice president for marketing for TGI Friday's, said from a plush booth at his flagship restaurant. The room was filled with decorative Americana: a bust of Elvis, a "Charlie's Angels" movie poster, a surfboard, a disco ball and a statue of a U.S. astronaut.

Jetley's insistence on keeping the food authentically American has made him a maverick in India. He even flies in official tasters from the TGI Friday's Dallas headquarters to make sure its signature Jack Daniel's barbecue sauce tastes the same in Bangalore as it does in Baltimore.

Twenty years ago in India, "going out for international cuisine meant basically Chinese food, and even that was completely Indianized," he said. "When we first opened TGI Friday's here, we had to show people what nachos were."

Not so surprisingly, TGI Friday's has done its best business in India's IT hub of Bangalore, where young call-center employees have immersed themselves in American culture, Jetley said.

But it's not just the Indian palette that has made business complicated for restaurateurs serving American food. U.S. business groups criticize India's high import tariffs, which they say are used to protect Indian markets from foreign competition.

Tariffs thwarted Jetley's dream of launching a Krispy Kreme Doughnuts franchise in India. He knew his compatriots would gobble up the hot glazed doughnuts by the dozens, but would they be willing to pay $11 per doughnut? That's the price Jetley said he would have to charge to offset the 200 percent import tariff on the doughnut batter.

But as tariffs decrease, Indian tastes will still be the most important judge of what the country's growing array of American restaurants will serve.

The rise of American restaurants in India is competing with another trend: the rediscovery of regional foods, championed by foodies such as Rocky Singh, who hosts a food roadshow called "Highway on My Plate."

"India's cuisine is the greatest in the world, there ," said Singh, who brings viewers on a televised tour of the country's cultural calories by visiting the Dhabhas - or hearty truck-stop food stalls - and street chaat walas, or snack merchants, from Kashmir to Kerala.

"So with such a strong cuisine, it's very hard for people who are used to this powerful combination of spices and tastes and flavors." he said. "So they have to Indianize. I mean, look at our pizzas, our pizzas are all about onions."

waxe@washpost.com Special correspondent Ayesha Manocha contributed to this report.