OH! CALCUTTA!

Indian food has been growing in popularity, driven by restaurant openings and cooking classes held in supermarkets and as adult education offerings.Unlike some other ethnic varieties, Indian products can be found a little bit here, and a little bit there, in Center Store. To make a homecooked Indian meal might take spices or herbs from the spice aisle, lentils or beans from a bulk section, and jarred

Indian food has been growing in popularity, driven by restaurant openings and cooking classes held in supermarkets and as adult education offerings.

Unlike some other ethnic varieties, Indian products can be found a little bit here, and a little bit there, in Center Store. To make a homecooked Indian meal might take spices or herbs from the spice aisle, lentils or beans from a bulk section, and jarred or canned sauces from the international aisle to save preparation time.

Because of the consumer's demand for convenience, more and more authentic Indian food, such as cooking sauces and marinades, come in cans or jars in a grocery set that may or may not be marked International Foods.

"By offering their customers an in-depth Indian foods selection, these chains have risen in the eyes of their customers and maintained their cutting edge in foods reputation, and their competitive edge," said Kavita Mehta, chief executive officer of gotethnicfoods.com, Minneapolis. He has worked with Lund's and Byerly's supermarkets for 12 years to help them develop an Indian section.

Sizes of the sections vary, depending upon the neighborhood served by the supermarket and also depending on what sort of niche the store takes for its own.

Mehta said: "An average midsized store like Byerly's/Lund's carries about 20 slots [for Indian food]. Adding frozen, it doubles to 40 or 50. Bigger stores like Cub's carry fewer items in the Center Store."

Asked if retailers are making room for growing ethnic tastes among consumers, Mehta said yes and no, because ethnic foods such as Indian may not have the weekly turnover that can justify their place on the shelves. This, indeed, is the reason he founded his company, he said.

Gotethnicfoods.com provides grocery stores with 2,000 ethnic items that they can insert in their Web sites, with fulfillment done by Mehta's company. He added that Indian food is more popular in larger cities and in urban areas, and more popular on the coasts.

A spokesman for Patak's Foods U.S.A., Austin, Minn., said the company has a number of initiatives to "cultivate overall consumer interest in Indian cuisine," including sending a representative to work with the chefs in the supermarket's culinary school.

Some of the methods used by Patak's are: developing consumer education-oriented programs; conducting in-store cooking demonstrations; creating point-of-sale materials like hang tags and neck rings that include recipe information for Indian dishes; and involvement in a retailer's cooking school, providing information and helping to set up the classes.

Patak's has partnered in any one of these ways with Wegmans, Rochester, N.Y.; Tops, Williamsville, N.Y.; Food Emporium, New York City; both Stop & Shop and Shaw's Supermarkets, in the Boston area; Harris Teeter in North Carolina; and Bruno's in the Southeastern U.S., a Patak's spokesman said.

"In Indian spices, we have a lot of single ingredients as well as curries that we sell," noted T.J. McIntyre, category manager of spices for Frontier Natural Products Co-Op, Boulder, Colo.

"In natural foods, we are selling a lot of curry. We have increased the number of Indian spice blends that are in our planograms, and they are carried in mainstream supermarkets," he said.

"Turmeric sales are high; so is ginger. You have a consumer who becomes interested in ethnic foods. Maybe they begin with Italian, then go to Mexican, then expand to Indian food and Thai food. People are going to Indian restaurants a lot; lots of new ones are opening," McIntyre said.

Scott Goldshine, general manager of Zabar's specialty food store on New York's Upper West Side, said interest in Indian cuisine as defined by grocery items sales has stayed about the same for years, but Indian prepared foods, which Zabar's has offered for the past two years, has steadily increased.

"We carry a whole line of condiments from Patak's, and some things from Sharwood's, and it's a pretty full line, with sauces," Goldshine said. "It's been a steady product line, Patak's and Sharwood's, but it's Americans who are buying it. Not too many Indians are buying Patak's. They go into their local Indian market and make their own at home."

Hormel joined forces with Patak Spices to form Patak's Foods U.S.A. in 1995. A recent study commissioned by the merged company found 60% of consumers more likely to prepare international foods at home than they were five years ago. Northeasterners led the country, Patak's says, with two-thirds of respondents saying they are more likely to bring home international cuisine now than they were in 1995.

A visitor to Super Stop & Shop, Middletown, R.I., found a small section of Indian grocery items containing sauces by two brands, Sharwood's and Patak's Foods. They were found in Aisle 9, which was signed Canned Fish/Meat; Bread Crumbs, Stuffing; Mexican foods, Kosher Foods, Soup Mix. In Patak's cooking sauces, Taste of India line, there were 15-ounce jars for $3.39 of: Rich Tomato and Onion, three facings, and Sweet Peppers and Coconut, two facings on three shelves located just below cart or elbow level. The next shelf had Patak's 10-ounce jars of Mild Curry Paste, Hot Curry Paste, Coriander and Ginger Tikka marinade and grill sauce, $3.89; Spicy Ginger and Garlic marinade and grill sauce, and two chutneys, Major Grey and hot mango, also $3.89.

In the newly opened Whole Foods Market at 25th Street and Seventh Avenue, in Manhattan's Chelsea section, there were 20 feet that stocked Indian grocery items in an aisle signed International Foods, along with several other categories including Sauces and Marinades. The Indian set shared space equally with Thai food, mostly by Thai Kitchen, four shelves each, five feet long.

Indian products were stocked on the top four shelves, with colorful, eye-catching packaging throughout. There were several ready-to-eat boxed entrees from Tasty Bite brand, reflecting various Indian regions -- Jodphur Lentils, Madras Lentils, Bengal Lentils, Punjam Eggplant, two facings; Kashmir Spinach and Jaipur Vegetables. On the next shelf were three more Tasty Bite boxed products: Agra Peas & Greens; Bombay Potatoes, two facings; and Simla Potatoes.

There were also three new Patak's Pappadums -- a bread that cooks up puffy and huge, made from lentil and rice flours and served with chutney or relishes either as a starter, snack or main meal accompaniment. Price was $1.99 for 3.2 ounces.

The third shelf contained jarred cooking sauces, two kinds of Patak's and five kinds of Taj Ethnic Gourmet brand, with two facings each, as well as Taj Ethnic Gourmet Mango Chutney and Tamarind Chutney.

The fourth shelf held Patak's Biryani paste, hot curry paste, Madras curry paste, mild curry paste, spicy ginger and garlic marinade & grill sauce; Garlic Relish, Hot Mango Relish, two facings of Tomato Relish and four facings of Hot Mango Chutney.