6 INDIAN IGNITION

The rich, spicy flavors of India might be too much for American palates, but make no mistake: The country's cuisine is causing quite a fever among U.S. consumers. It's the complexity of flavors, said Paul Jaggi, founder of Passion Foods, whose company just introduced a line of papadum chips under the Baji's brand name. There's been a critical mass building on the restaurant side, and it's beginning

The rich, spicy flavors of India might be too much for American palates, but make no mistake: The country's cuisine is causing quite a fever among U.S. consumers.

“It's the complexity of flavors,” said Paul Jaggi, founder of Passion Foods, whose company just introduced a line of papadum chips under the Baji's brand name. “There's been a critical mass building on the restaurant side, and it's beginning to really spill into the grocery side.”

Food historians believe the trend has been growing for some time. Its roots go back to the 1980s, when Americans got a taste of piquant Cajun/Creole cooking, and then fiery Mexican/Latino cuisine. It was just a matter of time before this expanding worldview arrived on the shores of India, home to more than a billion people, at least 15 distinct languages, and 31 states and territories. The varied flavors of cardamom, coriander, tamarind and curry have become fertile ground for manufacturers working in the natural/organic category. Using such ingredients helps build “authenticity,” a highly desirable consumer buy-in common to both ethnic foods and whole health.

“Consumers who buy natural/organic products tend to be quite interested in food. They pay close attention to ingredients and look for quality and the origin of the foods they're buying,” noted Steve Warnert, director of sales and marketing at Amy's Kitchen. The company, which began offering Indian foods as early as 2003, realizes such interest is a key driver for consumers.

“Retailers should give careful consideration to the likelihood that shoppers who buy natural/organic are the same ones who are buying specialty and ethnic products at a higher rate,” Warnert said.

Another marketing angle favoring Indian food is its emphasis on legumes and other meatless proteins. Patak's Original, a longtime condiment and sauce manufacturer, just launched a line of shelf-stable, vegetarian entrees. Amy's, too, thinks the swelling ranks of young vegetarians and the popularity of Indian flavors is no coincidence.

“We knew that Indian cuisine was growing in popularity. We believed we could create some really tasty, authentic dishes that would have broad appeal,” said Warnert.

This being the United States, the spice levels have been toned down on most commercially available Indian foods. Jaggi said part of the challenge has been to marry traditional flavors to American-type foods.

“We wanted to take the flavors and apply them to more mainstream products that people could identify with,” he said.

Baji's found its answer in the snack category with chips made of bite-size papadums, a flatbread Jaggi makes with fava bean flour. To prepare for the launch, he followed the lead of Frito-Lay tortilla chips and, more recently, Stacy's pita chips.

“It might be hard for an average American consumer to try palak paneer, but if you give them a Tandoori-flavored chip, they're more used to seeing that type of food and more likely to try it,” he said.