Once upon a time in America, going off the eaten path meant Chinese food, that is, if you were lucky enough to have a Chinese restaurant near you. Today, according to the trade publication, Chinese Restaurant News, Chinese restaurants outnumber McDonald’s franchises by nearly 3 to 1.
This news hardly comes as a surprise when you factor in all of the hole-in-the-wall, wok-and-roll, takeout joints that have become part of this country’s urban fabric. Now that chop suey and General Tso’s chicken have become as assimilated as pizza and as ubiquitous as the golden arches, people seeking something new are delving deeper into Asia — and loving it.
In Market Intelligence Report: Asian, food industry research and consulting firm Technomic found that, “Asian cuisine is one of the ‘big three’ ethnic cuisines, along with Mexican and Italian.” The American palate has moved beyond Chinese food to embrace Thai, Japanese, Indian, Vietnamese and Korean flavors. The report further states that, “The number of Asian concepts is growing in both limited service and full service, and chains large and small are seeing annual sales and unit counts rise.” A large banner at last years’ Summer Fancy Food Show in Washington, D.C., proclaimed: “Importers identify Mediterranean and Indian as the most influential emerging cuisines.” These so-called trends did not occur overnight, but have been building for years.
Pop culture paves the way
What’s behind the interest in Asian flavors? Credit the Internet, which makes it possible to access any cuisine or recipe at a mouse-click, as well as 24-hour cable outlets like Food Network, the Cooking Channel and Travel Channel for creating a more educated consumer. National supermarket chains such as Whole Foods are selling once hard-to-find ingredients such as fresh curry leaves, coconut milk, lemon grass and all manner of chilies. Last but not least, successive waves of Asian immigrants, cuisines in tow, are stirring up the melting pot with new flavors.
Take my own case: A second-generation Sri Lankan immigrant, I grew up eating “rice and curry,” as the cuisine of the island is known. I watched intently as my mother bought all the raw spices — coriander, cumin, fennel, etc., along with fresh curry leaves from a local Indian shop, and ground her own curry powder for our meals. As food represents an important connection to one’s culture, I wanted to learn how to make these dishes myself, so I returned to Sri Lanka for a year and studied its food from the spices on up. Upon returning Stateside, I published “Rice & Curry: Sri Lankan Home Cooking” (Hippocrene Books, 2011), which the New York Times recognized as a notable cookbook.
Even the economy shapes tastes
I’m no celebrity chef, or even someone with culinary credentials, and I probably would never have secured a book deal without the prevailing attitudes toward food — especially the ascendant culture of cooking. American cooks are becoming more adventurous in their outlook and sophisticated in their tastes. People also want to eat healthily, and are more conscious about where their food is sourced. Throw in the pervading economic slump, which is making eating in popular again, and you have a recipe for the success of Asian food. Despite the regional diversity, the cuisines of the sub-continent fulfill the criteria that people want: food that’s simple, cheap, delicious and beneficial.
It’s no coincidence that this year the theme of the Culinary Institute of America’s 15th Annual Worlds of Flavor Conference and Festival this year is “Arc of Flavor: Re-imagining Culinary Exchange, From The Mediterranean and Middle East to Asia.” Chefs and culinary professionals from all over the world will participate, exchanging ingredients, techniques, and ideas. Although Pan-Asian as a concept has played out, one cannot help but ponder the possibilities of a world fusion cuisine. Whatever the case, it sure is an exciting time to be cooking — and eating.
S.H. Fernando Jr. (aka “Skiz”) is a journalist, filmmaker, musician, and gastronaut. His most recent book, “Rice & Curry: Sri Lankan Home Cooking,” which focuses on the cuisine of his homeland, was a New York Times notable cookbook for 2011. For more Skiz, see his blog, Rice&Curry; taste his Sri Lankan curry powder, Skiz’s Original; and watch his YouTube cooking series, Pan Asian.
Photo: Skiz Fernando. Credit: Sam Canagasaby
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