Here is how we make garam masala seasoning in my house: we buy the dozen or so spices separately from a variety of different shops in Bangalore.
The black, white and long peppers from MK Ahmed; the cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg and star anise from the wholesale spice purveyors near Russell Market; and the black cumin or shahi jeera from my friend Syed Ibrahim, who brings it all the way from its source in Iran or Tajikistan. We roast these spices separately, cool them and then hand-mix them using a secret family recipe whose proportions I cannot divulge. After this painstaking process that tests one's patience, we grind the mixed spices in small batches to retain freshness.
Now, Alan D Wilson, the chief executive of McCormick Foods, based in the US, wants to change all that. McCormick has just bought a 26 per cent stake in Eastern Condiments, based in Kerala, for US$36 million (Dh132.2m) and plans to tap the Indian spice industry, valued at $5 billion. I have a word of advice for Mr Wilson: don't even bother.
You see, I am Mr Wilson's ideal customer: as a working mother who puts in long hours, I am part of the great Indian middle class that supposedly values the convenience that pre-packaged food brings. When I lived in New York, I routinely bought pre-packaged Indian dishes from Kalustyan's, the kind that you can pick off the rack in Harrods, Tesco and Sainsburys. Once I moved to India five years ago, my behaviour has changed 180 degrees.
McCormick has done well in the West, I'll grant it that. The use of spices in the US has doubled in the past 20 years, in no small part because of companies such as McCormick, which sanitise, grind and package spice mixes in an attractive and accessible manner. McCormick wasn't affected by the recession because more people began cooking at home and needed to, shall we say, spice things up.
The US market for spices, currently valued at $1.5bn, is expected to grow significantly in the coming years, thanks to the US's broadening spice profile. McCormick Canada recently launched six new "recipe mixes," including lemon ginger beef stir-fry, Tuscan chicken, Cajun chicken, hickory BBQ ribs, lemon thyme pork and balsamic chicken, all of which you can dust over a piece of meat or chicken, pop into the oven and get an entirely different flavour.
Europe too, particularly the UK and Germany, are great markets for McCormick's products, thanks to a growing acceptance of Thai, Chinese, Indian, Mexican and other ethnic cuisines.
In this context, McCormick's growth strategy in Asia and the Middle East makes logical, if not culinary, sense. China is currently McCormick's largest Asian market and the company brands its products locally to include soy sauce among other products. India comes next. Indians are predisposed towards including spices and have been doing so for aeons. It is what brought the Arabs, Dutch, Portuguese and British to our shores. That said, there are a few things that McCormick's sales guys need to factor in if they want to make a dent in the Indian market.
Indians, and all Asians, are suspicious of pre-packaged foods and spices. We may buy them when we are young and live in the West but once we return home, we go back to behaviour that is part of our roots.
Spices are a matter of pride for the Indian woman. She rarely divulges recipes, even to her own daughter-in-law unless the hapless bride has passed a series of Harry Potterish tests. For McCormick to come in and say its spices are better than the household version would be a fallacy.
Indians, even lower middle-class ones, have the luxury of help. In my house, my cook, Geeta, makes all my spice mixes. Why would I buy McCormick's recipe mixes when I have someone make it at home?
Enough of the naysaying. Now, on to the tips. There is one place where McCormick's ought to display and sell its products if it wants guaranteed sales: India's international airports. As a vegetarian, I obsess about my food when I travel abroad, particularly to vegetarian-unfriendly locations such as rural China, Chile, Argentina and South Korea. If I could buy a dozen packets of premixed Indian vegetarian food at the duty-free before I board my international flight, I would.
Another strategy McCormick's should adopt is to customise its spice mixes according to region. Just like Chinese regional cuisine, India too has a dizzying array of techniques and traditions that vary according to region. Unlike China though, we use a heck of a lot more spices, most of them mixed, which is good news for spice companies. Maharashtra has a goda masala that is virtually unknown in the south. The same garam masala is made differently in various parts of north India. The same applies to rasam powder, which is ubiquitous in south India; except with regional variations. The rasam powder of Karnataka where I now live has a pinch of sugar - anathema to the housewives of neighbouring Tamil Nadu. McCormick has to unlearn the standardisation of processes that made it such a success in the US and customise to the nth degree for the Indian subcontinent.
In local news interviews, Mr Wilson said the reason McCormick was not affected by the recession was because "industry" accounted for only 40 per cent of their sales. In India, McCormick should adopt the opposite strategy: it should rely on industries for sales. Large companies such as Infosys, Wipro and DLH all have corporate canteens that cook for large numbers of employees. It is unlikely that their cooks obsess about spice mixes the way an Indian housewife does. McCormick should depend on company canteens to make up their sales numbers.
Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore and the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes