It’s not big news anymore; Americans love to eat out. With the restaurant industry expected to bring in over $537 billion this year and now being the second largest employer in the nation (second only to the U.S. government), it’s clear that we look forward to having someone else cook our meals for us.
But the flavor of dining out has changed. Ethnic dining is now mainstream; even the most ordinary of chain restaurants offers something Mexican (perhaps a quesadilla or some nachos), something Asian (maybe a spring roll or egg roll), and something Italian (of course, various pasta dishes). Americans may be on the fence about immigration politically, but we are wholeheartedly embracing the cuisines of those now calling America home.
Anyone considering becoming a chef in today’s multi-cultural restaurant climate needs to be fully trained in various ethnic cuisines. If you are currently considering studying the culinary arts, consider carefully the curriculum of any cooking school you are interested in to be sure they address this trend.
The Roots of Ethnic Dining
Ethnic dining is not just part of casual dining either. While the French may be responsible for the existence of restaurants (the French Revolution drove Royal chefs out of the palaces and into the streets looking for work, and many of them opened the first fine dining restaurants), fine dining is certainly no longer the exclusive providence of the French. Now, step into virtually any city and you will find exclusive restaurants featuring everything from Pan-Asian to Caribbean to African to Indian specialties.
Popular Ethnic Specialties
Mexican food continues to be the fastest-growing ethnic dining trend, but as Americans have grown accustomed to the standard Tex-Mex style of eating—even going so far as to have salsa replace ketchup as the most common condiment sold—restaurants are now focusing on more authentic Mexican fare. So it’s out with the nachos and in with the fish filet in a mild chipolte sauce and Chihuahua cheese.
Pan-Asian cuisine follows on the heels of the authentic trend. Instead of the standard Chinese food—another staple of every American diet—Thai and Vietnamese cuisine is becoming commonplace. Both culinary specialties feature much lighter fare than “traditional” Chinese food, with sauces that are crisp, clean, and spicy.
Additionally, sushi has exploded in popularity—no longer exclusively a food of the very rich, you can find a sushi counter in nearly every supermarket today. It is hard to believe that this meat-and-potato nation has become such big fans of an ethnic food that features raw fish, seaweed, rice, and a Japanese horseradish sauce so spicy that it can clear out your sinuses.
Mediterranean food continues to be popular, with Greek restaurants moving away from heavy dishes like souvlaki and moving toward things like psari savori, a lightly fried fish in vinegar sauce.
How Immigration Trends Can Impact the Industry
According to the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service, in the last fifteen years nearly half a million Indians immigrated here. Naturally, Indian restaurants soon followed, and fine dining establishments featuring Indian cuisine have become commonplace in most cities. Indian food, with its focus on vegetables and fragrant, hot spices is so popular that you can expect to see chicken tandoor popping up in your local casual dining spot any day now.
The last contender in the Ethnic food trend is African cuisine. Ethiopian and Somali restaurants are springing up thanks to increased immigration from those countries. These restaurants offer not only unique flavors but provide diners with a new experience—eating without silverware. Both Ethiopian and Somali meals use a soft, easily torn soda bread to pick up and wrap their spicy food—including chicken, goat, and lots of vegetables.
Culinary Schools Adapt
Culinary schools are aware of these trends, and are not only including more and more ethnic foods in traditional instruction, but are more apt to recommend residencies and internships at fine restaurants that focus on unusual ethnic cuisines. Budding chefs need to be aware of these trends, and be sure to find the ethnic niche that fits their tastes and styles. It is clear that this trend is only going to continue to grow.