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Based on my subjective experience, Indian food at restaurants is more expensive than Chinese. This seems to hold across restaurant classes, low end takeout is a buck or two more then Chinese takeout, and mid-range is a few dollars more.

Could this be due to the cost of preparation itself - ingredients, equipment, etc. - or is this likely just a result of the local economics?

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I can't say that my experience mirrors yours - in fact, one of my favourite Indian lunch/take-out restaurants near where I work is less expensive than any of the Chinese take-outs in the area. I'll wait to see if other people have answers or similar experiences, although this seems like a localized phenomenon to me. –  Aaronut Feb 21 '11 at 17:04
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This is almost certainly more to do with the local economics than the food itself. Are there more Chinese restaurants in the area (higher competition) or maybe there are issues with the supply chain that increase costs for Indian takeout. –  vwiggins Feb 21 '11 at 17:12
    
Reading the question again, I think this is more likely to get a useful answer here if it's re-framed as an actual cooking question. I've edited this to reflect that. –  Aaronut Feb 21 '11 at 17:19
    
I think the subject of this should be changed to include restaurant in the title. Otherwise the post is initially misleading. –  Zombies Feb 21 '11 at 18:29
    
The only way to answer this would be to poll a statistically significant number of restaurants of both types, and get them to give their average food cost per seat. Since restaurants are unlikely to disclose their food cost (since it tends to be about 1/4 to 1/3 of the menu price), and since small restaurants may not even have the accounting to know their food cost on a dish by dish basis, it is unlikely to be possible to produce a true answer to this question. –  SAJ14SAJ Apr 3 '13 at 21:46

3 Answers 3

Near as I can tell, it's probably the local economics. It seems to me that the cost is different per "component" but would probably balance out in the end.

Chinese food, generally speaking, relies more on fresh vegetables (carrots, peas, bean-sprouts, broccoli etc.) and meat. This means that the storage costs and spoilage costs are higher relative to Indian food, which is higher in legumes and beans that are much easier and cheaper to store, and last forever when dry.

On the other hand, Chinese is generally quicker to prepare (think stir fry, though not only), which means less time on the fire, and less man-power used. Indian food usually requires more cooking time, which may mean that the restaurant has a larger capital outlay for stove space.

Aside from that, in my experience at least, Indian is usually a register above Chinese for "comparable" places. The Indian equivalent of a Chinese place serving simple rice and 10-12 stir-fry dishes would be a simple Thali bar, but there aren't many of those, as us Westerners like to order several different meat/vegetable main dishes at a time, as opposed to a set menu.

Anyway, note that I haven't done any proper costing of these type of food preparation.

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Well, also keep in mind that many Indian dishes can be prepared in advance whereas most Chinese dishes are prepared à la minute, the latter requiring more kitchen staff during service. –  ESultanik Aug 23 '11 at 16:07
    
@ESultanik: That's a good point that I hadn't thought of at all. I still think it's mostly the register of the place, that the Indian is usually a level up from the Chinese in terms of how close it is to family-style cooking in the homeland. –  Carmi Aug 23 '11 at 16:52

I think Carmi's answer is a pretty good theory for the differences between Indian and Chinese restaurants. It makes sense to me that labor- and time-intensive Indian cooking makes Indian restaurants more expensive than quick-cooking Chinese ones. To add on to that, I'm wondering if the number of different spices and their costs plays a role, too.

Like Carmi, I haven't done any proper cost comparisons between the two, but I do cook a decent amount of Indian food. In my experiences, Indian dishes require a larger number of spices than many Chinese dishes do, and those spices tend to be more expensive. For example, an Indian curry might include cumin, coriander, turmeric, asafoetida, garlic, chiles, cilantro, nuts (almond or cashew) AND ginger. Having to purchase all thoses spices costs me a lot more than making a Chinese dish with a pre-made 5-spice powder combined with soy sauce.

Some Indian food requires spices that are pretty expensive to get (at least in the US): saffron, fenugreek and cardamom, for example, are pricey. You don't typically see those in Chinese cooking, but they appear fairly regularly in Indian food.

All of that being said, I do think that local economies play a large role. There are Chinese restaurants everywhere in New York City, but Indian restaurants are less common and more expensive. However, where I grew up in Massachusetts, there were almost as many Indian restaurants as Chinese, and I can get lunch at a new Indian place there for less than $5. Not sure there is a definitive answer for your question.

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'fast food' chinese contains a lot of cheap beansprouts and noodles or rice. Even take away indian contains a lot more sauce and meat.

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