“First Impressions” of the Indian Culinary Scene
Fresh off our first trip to Delhi, India, where for nine days we immersed ourselves in the Indian culinary scene, there are a handful of “first impressions” that stand out to us – and might surprise or interest you whether you’re a producer looking to sell products there or a chef thinking about integrating Indian flavors into your menu. (If the latter is true, message us because we brought home a stash of freshly ground Indian spice blends, and a sample might help you in your menu development).
Takeaways on the Delhi, India Food Scene
- India has an oddly limited array of ingredients available in market. Market access to the array of ingredients we see on our grocery shelves and in our restaurants just doesn’t exist yet in India. There’s also a more narrow availability of wine, booze and beers. But that’s changing quickly, so keep reading! We often saw simple twists on the same menu items and ingredient sets as we tasted our way across a broad range of 5-star hotel restaurants and top tier independents in Delhi. To change that will require that chefs and producers work together to import ingredients that will have broad appeal and be a versatile workhorse in their kitchen.
- Delhi’s top independent restaurants are serving up magic in both their culinary innovation and customer experience. America has nothing on the restaurant design and service quality found in top Indian restaurants. What they lack in ingredient diversity, they make up for in innovation and creativity using their arsenal of spices as well as what stunning spaces and impeccable service experiences. Extraordinary really.
- Chefs at all levels were tremendously accessible to dialogue about ingredients and outcomes that they’re looking for and were also very eager to brainstorm ways they could better utilize primary ingredients they already have available – but in new ways (like U.S. chicken and turkey).
- Pastry is big business in India. Executive chefs told us that their pastry departments were the most expensive piece of their overall budget, meaning that if you have a product that could be utilized by the pastry teams, you should meet separately with the Executive Pastry Chef or know you’re walking away from the bulk of the buying power.
- International cuisine reigns supreme. Worried that your Southern fried chicken and pecan pie won’t appeal to the Indian palate? That they won’t be interested in Creole or Cajun or Tex-Mex or Lowcountry? Set your worries aside. The fact is that they’re incredibly eager to learn the stories and techniques and access the ingredients to bring these regional specialties to their international-food-loving diners.
- No holes barred, India is a relationship market and patient to network and build authentic relationships is a must. India is a country that values family and relationships, and it offers some of the most beautiful and thoughtful hospitality we’ve ever experienced. Don’t get greedy and be in a rush to close the sale, or you’ll sell yourself short on the depth of opportunities available. Take your time to get to know people, their needs and add value to them – and get to know the people they know. Go with the flow and network, build relationships and add value to those relationships with both your products and your knowledge of how to use them. You’ll likely come away with friends and extraordinary life experiences – as well as a long-term customer.
I need to be honest: India is a tough market for U.S. exporters.
For starters, they are fairly new to the first-world food safety policy and as such seem to be in a phase of development that can only be described as “overkill.” I liken it to moments in my own business development when we’ve needed new procedures or policies in place and have looked to others for examples and guidance – then initially used EVERY suggestion “just to be on the safe side.” Then, over time, relaxed our policies to best fit the unique needs of our business culture. India is in that “just to be on the safe side” phase with their labeling and documentation requirements both for domestic and imported products. But the good news is that, from everything we heard, in the past couple of years they’ve standardized the process, so while it is rather arduous, it’s a known factor now, which wasn’t always the case.
That being said, what isn’t a known factor is the culinary awareness of the import agent your product may face for final approval at the port of entry. We heard stories about wine bottles touting notes of cherry and chocolate being rejected at the port because the agent didn’t understand the concept of “tasting notes” versus actual ingredients listed on the label. So when it comes to labeling – do it properly – but don’t get too creative in your descriptions or you may regret it. Assume that your import agent won’t have a broad culinary context.
India also has tariff barriers that you’ll face if you export directly from the U.S. to India. We were constantly reminded of the “hurdle” of tariffs when we were planning our trip to India. I can honestly say that while they aren’t a non-issue for foodservice sales into high end restaurants and five star resorts, they’re not going to be as much of an issue in that context.
Here’s what we learned about the what and why of Indian tariffs: India basically impose tariffs pretty democratically to all countries in all categories with a few preferences to a handful of neighboring countries and a handful of specific goods and services that they need in a more urgent way. They charge a high tariff compared to their international contemporaries because, in a country where the struggling class is about 22% of the population, their tariff system has historically provided necessary revenue to develop and provide social services, infrastructure improvements and implement needed systems for things like food safety to one of the largest countries in the world, both in land mass and population. It’s definitely still a work in progress, but the progress is happening at a scale that’s impressive.
Honestly, after a visit there, I’d encourage you to think of the tariff as an imperfect yet direct way to help the Indian people continue their impressive transformation into a modern economy that ultimately will benefit us all. Also, I’d encourage you to not be deterred by the tariff structure, but instead keenly focus on hotel and restaurant accounts where chefs who are commanding premium prices can afford the premium products they need to win awards and wow their customers. Chefs, unlike retailers, can portion these seemingly expensive ingredients to fit their budgetary guidelines, and this leverage can return dividends for your business in the Indian tariff environment.
Consider Exporting to India
All in all, if you allow it, India will arrest your spirit with its beautiful extremes. The people there will welcome you and your premium ingredients generously and be grateful for the access to new ingredients. But it will take some work and time, so it’s a long game. In a country that has an exploding middle and upper class that eats most of its meals in restaurants and also hosts a tremendous volume of international business travelers as well as luxury tourists, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime for those who are willing to grow their business and sustain their future through hard work and patience. If that’s you, prepare yourself for the ride of your life – and ultimately an unimaginably rewarding experience.
Are you a small business located in the Southern U.S. offering food product(s) made up of 50% or greater US products? Are you interested in learning more about export opportunities in India? I’d encourage you to start by registering your business with the Southern United States Trade Association, and of course, contact us to learn more about our experience. We’d love to talk to you more about this opportunity.