America's Take on Foreign Flavors
In America’s cities and suburbs, it’s almost impossible to drive a mile down the highway without seeing sushi joint, Mexican restaurant, or a food cart selling gyros and falafel. Just years ago, people didn’t pick up a burrito at a drive-thru and Americans would be disgusted at the thought of eating raw fish. However, the culinary tastes of Americans are getting more and more adventurous as we are being exposed to dishes of different cultures.
We talked to Michael Nenes, Assistant Vice President of Culinary Arts for The Art Institutes, for his take on how Americans discover and change ethnic dishes. We also spoke with Ellen Koteff, Editor of Restaurant Management Magazine, for some insider information about how cultural trends affect the restaurant industry.
Though many chefs stick to authentic recipes of different countries, many restaurants experiment and tweak the ingredients. When food is “Americanized”, it means that a cultural dish is altered to better fit the prevailing taste profiles of Americans. This is a common practice of many chefs, whose business success relies on pleasing the palates of their customers.
Besides keeping customer tastes in mind, dishes are also often changed based on the availability of ingredients. “Chefs substitute ingredients because they can’t get the ingredient, or it needs to be fresh and only dried is available. The ingredient may be expensive and the chef thinks it does not contribute that much to the end results (not really knowing) and so it is deleted or a substitution is used,” says Nenes.
A trend that has been gaining speed in America is the “local movement”. Diners and chefs are becoming more educated about where their food is grown and how it is produced. People are demanding higher quality ingredients and want to support farmers in their local area. “If a product can be sourced within 50 miles of the restaurant, all the better. It is a win/win for the customer and the chef,” says Koteff. So when chefs are preparing ethnic cuisine, they may be more likely to substitute a hard-to-find ingredient for something that is locally grown. This can subtly (or strongly) change the flavor of a dish.
The expansion of waistlines in Americans shows a clear preference for richer flavors and larger portion sizes. Sometimes dishes are made sweeter than the original recipe, or ingredients are fried rather than roasted or steamed. Many Americans are less adventurous when it comes to heat levels, so a lot of foreign dishes are made less spicy. “For example, small red peppers may be replaced with jalapeno. It makes sense, except the flavor is very different. You could end up with a great dish, just different,” says Nenes.
Besides ingredients and flavors, serving style is often taken into consideration. Many ethnic cuisines are served “family style”, where many small dishes are brought out and shared. However, Americans are more accustomed to restaurant dishes that combine different dishes (maybe a main dish and a side) on one plate. It also may be more convenient and cost-effective for restaurants to serve the traditional restaurant plates that Americans are used to.
However, we’re definitely seeing customers warm up to the small plates trend, as tapas restaurants are popping up everywhere. Diners may be more likely to try a new dish if they don’t have to pay for a full meal. Many food trends start when people get out of their comfort zone and try something new.
America’s love of convenience and speed also influences how ethnic dishes are prepared. Many cultures will linger over a meal for hours, but Americans seem to value a quick and cheap meal so that they can move on to their next activity. Our beloved fast-food restaurants are testament to that. “There is now middle-eastern fast food, Mexican fast-food, and Jack-in-the-Box uses Italian bread,” says Nenes. “You can buy sushi at most major supermarkets, even some Wal-Marts.” Restaurant owners find ways to cut time and costs off of the preparation of these meals.
Because of America’s diversifying palate, many foods that were once considered exotic are now commonplace in grocery stores and restaurants. Foods like edamame, passion fruit, star fruit, tilapia, eel, sushi, paella, and flan are not as rare as they once were, explains Koteff. “Depending on where you live, with a little effort you should be able to find almost any common ethnic cuisine ingredient,” says Nenes.
The trend of integrating different cultures’ foods into our own menus is not slowing down any time soon. Though some chefs are setting themselves apart from the pack by offering authentic unaltered recipes, many more are finding new ways to combine cultures in their dishes. “There is a trend towards regional ethnic cuisine, which means focusing on a specific area in a country. Peruvian cuisine continues to have interest, as well as Thai and Malaysian cuisine,” says Nenes. Koteff revels her prediction: “I think Indian food will be gaining more and more traction. It has wonderful flavors and has yet to reach mainstream America.”
Michael Nenes, Assistant Vice President of Culinary Arts for The Art Institutes
Ellen Koteff, Editor of Restaurant Management Magazine