Indian remains Britain’s favourite ethnic dish by far, but Mexican is the hot favourite to edge Chinese out of second spot. Jaq Bayles reports

Shoppers of the ethnic aisles are becoming much more adventurous as people join the Mexican wave, the cuisine hotly tipped to overtake Chinese as the second most popular style within the next decade.
And while Indian food remains the nation’s favourite in a category that’s worth more than £1bn and growing at 3% year-on-year [TNS 52 w/e August 14, 2005], it still has plenty of room to grow, according to industry players.
Patak’s marketing group director, Fiona Mannion, points out that there are 29 states in India, yet British consumers are familiar with the cuisine of only eight or nine regions, demonstrating the potential for further growth in the Indian market. Retailers are holding back growth in the sector, she says, by failing to inject excitement into the ethnic aisles.
“When it comes to Italian and Chinese there are a few key dishes that have the lion’s share. In terms of India, the ‘big five’ (korma, tikka masala, balti, jalfrezi and rogan josh) account for about 80% of sales. You have to hold consumers’ hands to get them to try new things.
“We came up with some signs which just said: ‘If you like korma, you’ll love passanda’ - it’s simple and it’s reassuring.”
Rod Honess, MD at Wing Yip, is another who believes that broadening regional offerings will extend the category and bring in new consumers. “As we start to become more familiar with China, for example through the Beijing Olympics in 2008, we will start to understand more about different regions.”
The major drivers within the segment appear to be authenticity and innovation, with manufacturers keenly
following more sophisticated restaurant trends.
Geeta Samtani, director at Geeta’s Foods, says: “In future we can expect a greater variety of offerings. Authenticity and restaurant menus, which offer a wide range of regional Indian cuisine, are continuing to drive this sector.
“Over the past 10 years, penetration and frequency of purchase have both increased, reflecting the integration of ethnic food into the everyday British diet.”
Sharwood’s, meanwhile, is predicting a major change in meal consumption and points to research from Datamonitor that British consumers will eat 2.7 billion fewer meals at home by 2008.
“Instead they will increase their consumption of snacks and favour desktop dining. It’s important to respond to this demand,” says group brand manager Helen Williams.
Companies are also doing more to respond to events in the calendar that traditionally see an upsurge in the consumption of ethnic foods.
Chinese New Year and Diwali (the Hindu festival of lights) are used to promote Chinese and
Indian offerings, although Samtani points out that many consumers do not understand Diwali, which is why her company has been trying to educate them through PR.
Patak’s, meanwhile, has produced a colour recipe supplement with food magazine Delicious and launched a cross-curricular, Diwali-themed web site targeting schoolchildren.
Mexican food has no such obvious focal point, yet ambient sales of sauces are growing at 10.6% year-on-year and recently broke the £90m barrier [IRI all grocery outlets 52 w/e September 3, 2005].
Yet it is still under-represented in the ethnic aisles, says Andy Foweather, sales director at General Mills, which manufactures Old El Paso. “Mexican is significantly under-spaced compared with Indian and Oriental and the sales these categories generate per metre of allocated fixture space.”
Patak’s Mannion also takes issue with space allocation for Indian. “There’s a degree of duplication on shelf and retailers should take out some of the copycat brands and give niche specialist newcomers room to breathe.”
Accompaniments have proved some of the top performers of the year, with soy sauces up 15%, pitta bread up 23%, and rice, now worth £181.6m, up 7%, according to TNS. Tilda says there is a sea change in consumer habits with basmati rice, now the number one choice for many UK consumers, while microwaveable rice is one of the fastest-growing sectors.
However, Chinese accompaniments have fared less healthily. TNS reports that prawn crackers are down in value 20%, while noodles have dropped by 7%.