Letter from New Delhi

American food withan Indian accent

T.G.I. Friday's executive Rohan Jetley bucks the "Indianizing" trend and tries to offer Indians a truly American dining experience.
T.G.I. Friday's executive Rohan Jetley bucks the "Indianizing" trend and tries to offer Indians a truly American dining experience. (Emily Wax)
By Emily Wax
Monday, January 24, 2011

IN NEW DELHI Agroup 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, soybeans, peas, garlic, peppers 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, that 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.

India's most recent craze is Cinnabon, which strays from its global formula and offers an eggless Indian sticky bun, a nod to the 40 percent of Indians who are vegetarian.

Starbucks recently announced plans to open stores throughout the land of tea in a partnership with India's Tata Group. Starbucks said its offerings will 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.

"They have to buy into the culture before they will buy the food," Rohan Jetley, vice president for marketing for T.G.I. Friday's, said from a plush booth at the chain's New Delhi 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 NASA astronaut.

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