Why Americans call foreign foods by the wrong names

Foreign brands often have to Americanize and mis-label products to join the US’s $12.5 billion ethnic food industry.
Foreign brands often have to Americanize and mis-label products to join the US’s $12.5 billion ethnic food industry.
Image: Hayden Allison for Sambar Kitchen
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Most Americans claim to love dining on international cuisines. We’ll pay top dollar for spaghetti carbonara from an authentic Italian restaurant and wait in long lines for tempura rolls at a five-star Japanese sushi bar.

Shamelessly broadcasting our love of these dishes makes us feel cultured and well-traveled. And when it comes to non-European recipes like injera and curry, we feel open-minded, worldly, and diverse for declaring them our favorites. Even though we’re often not correct in our labeling.

What’s in a name?

“Americans pretty much only think of the word ‘curry’ when it comes to Indian sauces, so any other Indian sauce gets thrown into that category too,” said Devi Jagadesan, a project manager at Palace Foods Inc., a company that manufactures, packages, and distributes Indian and other “ethnic specialty foods” to the northeastern United States. She helps run the company along with her father, Rajavel Jagadesan, who founded the distributor in 1988.

At the time we spoke, Devi was struggling to find an appropriate name for a line of ready-made sauces created by Sambar Kitchen, a South Indian prepared food and spices label.

While she understands appealing to customers’ taste is a requirement to be a part of the US’s $12.5 billion ethnic food retail industry, she also finds it frustrating that she cannot present her South Indian culture properly and in line with cultural tradition.

One clue as to why Americans have a misguided understanding of Indian foods lies in the fact that when the British colonized America, they brought their love for Indian cuisine with them—but mostly their love for North Indian cuisine, which is why South Indian brands still struggle with the US audience.

This helps explain why most American consumers are so misinformed. Because northern Indian food is the most popular Indian cuisine in western cultures, brands like Sambar Kitchen, which sells ingredients for South Indian cuisine, do not produce curry dishes or ingredients—but they often have to label them as such.

“When we started to introduce South Indian recipes, the response we got from consumers was, ‘I don’t know what to do with this because it says sauce or rice mix,’” she told me.

Devi describes curry as a spice blend with a dairy base traditionally paired with meat. But the sauces produced by Sambar Kitchen are all vegan or vegetarian and oil-based. The brand decided to change the wording from “rice mixes” to “curry sauce” hoping it would help the product sell, despite the sauces being tomato-, lemon-, and mango-based—and the word “curry” being traditionally and culturally incorrect, according to Devi and her colleagues.

“I find it frustrating because when I think of curry I think of curries from Thai food. I especially don’t think of my South Indian food to be curry, but more like a flavorful base for vegetables or soup dishes,” she explained.

Colonizing food

When the British colonized India in 1757, colonizers developed a liking for curry. The trend stuck—so much that British foreign secretary Robin Cook proclaimed tikka masala a British national dish in 2001.

Western cuisine tends to focus on pairing ingredients that mirror each other in flavor compounds, which explains why spicier South Indian foods do not have the same reach in the US as their North Indian sister.

Because they are milder, North Indian flavors compliment bland European dishes without making the dish too spicy—hence concoctions like fries with curry sauce.

It boils down to flavors and meat

Rajavel Jagadesan, Devi’s father and owner of Palace Foods Inc., first saw an opportunity to work in the Indian food business in the 1980s, when he realized the success of the popular condiment label Major Grey’s Chutney.

“It was one of the earliest Indian food products to be found in every major US supermarket,” Rajavel told me.

The mild chutney was created by a 19th-century British army officer who allegedly lived in what was then referred to as British India.

The label’s ubiquitous mango chutney, a blend of mango, vinegar, lime juice, onion, raisins, and other sweet ingredients, was coined the most popular type of chutney in the US in 1982, and has since been replicated by many other Indian food producers.

“Because of British influence, in general the American public perceives curry as a singular spice. They believe it to be the same throughout Indian cooking. However, the spice combinations in North India versus South India differ and yet they’re both called curries,” Rajavel explained. “Curry is probably more synonymous with the general term of soup. The American consumer now identifies any Indian dish as curry which is not true.”

Hybrids, fusions, and crossovers

Enter Anglo-Indian cuisine, the milder, de-spiced version of traditional Indian foods that was created specifically for the British palate during the British Raj and resulted in popularization of chutney in the West via manufacturer Crosse & Blackwell during the early 1800s.

“North Indian cuisine includes a lot of meats, whereas South Indian cuisine tends to be vegetarian, which was not conducive to American culture,” Rajavel explained further. “There isn’t a big sea culture in the south, so that, in addition to spicy flavors, didn’t suit a Western diet.”

Actually, Rajavel told me, tikka masala, one of Indian cuisines most popular dishes, technically isn’t Indian at all, but is British.

When Indian immigration to the US started picking up during the 1950s, the only place to find authentic Indian cuisine—besides in people’s homes—was in Indian-owned grocery stores and small Indian restaurants in Indian neighborhoods and communities.

The crossover to American culture in the 1970s  meant the purity of regional foods became diluted. It also meant the popularization of Indian products in American grocery stores—including in metropolitan cities like New York—forced manufactures to make changes to traditional formulas.

Not just India

In order to pull Western customers in, many international food brands have been faced with a situation in which they must make their authentic food, well, less authentic.

Sometimes this has meant using incorrect wording, changing production, and even mislabeling the origin of the food, like the folks at Palace Foods, Inc. have done with Sambar Kitchen products.

Rajavel gives the example of matar paneer, a North Indian sauce made by cooking paneer and green peas in spicy onion tomato masala that has been coined as a curry dish on Western menus.

Americanizing ethnic food names for American consumption isn’t unique to Indian cuisine. Mexican cuisine, for example, has morphed into an entirely new genre in American culture. Enchiladas and salsa have both been optimized for American consumption. The traditional process for cooking enchiladas is frying the tortillas, dipping them in hot enchilada sauce, then wrapping them in meat, veggies, or cheese and pouring white cheese on top to serve.

In American grocery stores and restaurants, the dish is prepared by wrapping tortillas around the base ingredient and drenching them in enchilada sauce, topping them with a ton more cheese, and then baking them in the oven. Salsa is traditionally served fresh and homemade in Mexico, while it’s a normality for Americans to buy it processed in cans and jars off supermarket shelves.

Americans have a habit of assigning foods to the wrong origin, mislabeling them, and being overall ignorant of the cultures that created their favorite Americanized versions. But at least part of this confusion comes down to a simple matter of business, of market supply and demand. Somewhere along the lines of introducing  foods to a new market, most foreign food brands have had to assimilate their products for the people they are selling to.

“The big food corporations are American-owned, so if the buyers don’t know what they’re reading, they typically won’t put us in stores. And if they do, they would take us off the shelves if the products aren’t selling to their regular consumers,” Devi explained. “It’s just upsetting that most Americans think all Indian food is curry and nothing else.”

Clearly, it’s time for us Americans to learn a little bit more about the foods and cuisines we claim to know and love. But knowledge of the history of assimilation in a bid to make a dollar is perhaps equally important—and that’s about as American as you can get.