In America’s cities and suburbs, it’s rare to drive a mile down the highway without seeing a sushi joint, Mexican restaurant, or food cart selling gyros and falafel. Not so long ago, people couldn’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 adventurous as we are exposed to ethnic food and dishes from different cultures.
Though many chefs stick to the authentic recipes of different countries, many restaurants experiment and tweak – “Americanizing” with ingredients that we are more accustomed to seeing on menus. 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 for many chefs, whose business success relies on pleasing the palates of their only-slightly adventurous customers.
Besides keeping customers’ 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 Michael Nenes, assistant vice president of Culinary Arts for The Art Institutes.
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. Consumers 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 Ellen Koteff, editor of Restaurant Management Magazine.
So when chefs are preparing ethnic food, 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 ethnic foods 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,” Nenes says.
Besides ingredients and flavors, serving style is often taken into consideration. Many ethnic foods are served “family style,” where many small dishes are brought out and shared. However, Americans are more accustomed to restaurants serving dishes with more than one item(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, customers are warming up to the small plates trend; 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 foods 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. Fast-food restaurants are a testament to that.
“There is now middle-eastern fast food, Mexican fast-food, and Jack-in-the-Box uses Italian bread,” Nenes says. “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, Koteff says.
“Depending on where you live, with a little effort you should be able to find almost any common ethnic cuisine ingredient,” Nenes says.
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 toward 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,” Nenes says.
Koteff reveals her prediction: “I think Indian food will be gaining more and more traction. It has wonderful flavors and has yet to reach mainstream America.”
Written by freelance talent for Ai InSite
Contributing writer for EDMC.