Bon Appetit: What Americans are Eating

The toppings bar at Amsterdam Falafel Shop in Washington, D.C.

Guess in which decade — the 80s, 90s or 00s — the following statement was made.

“New research from the National Restaurant Association released today found that a wider variety of ethnic cuisines are increasingly becoming part of everyday American diets.”

Need some help? Here’s a hint.

In addition, nearly one-third of consumers tried a new ethnic cuisine in the past year.

That 33 percent! Whoa, lots of people.

We won’t waste more of your time. The information is new, though it sounds old. Americans, apparently, continue to order food with origins in other countries and to think of those foods as different from . . . what? Hot dogs? Mac-and-cheese? Burgers? Pizza? Yet even their origins are from places other than here.

Last month, an intriguing article in the Washington Post in fact suggested we stop using the term “ethnic food.”

By all means, eat up. Wrap your fingers around a sticky Laotian sakoo yat sai, savor your first tango with corn smut. But it’s time to stop talking about ethnic food as though we’re Columbus and the cuisines served up by immigrants are ours for the conquering. Let us never again blog a lengthy ethnography, no matter how well-intentioned, when we visit a pupuseria. In fact, let’s drop the term “ethnic food” altogether.

The reporter, Lavanya Ramanathan, also points out that foods from Western Europe generally don’t bear an ethnic stamp.

Yet Neapolitan pizza, steak frites, tapas and trendy, leaf-strewn Nordic cod evade the label, even though citizens of European countries are every bit as connected by ethnicity as those from elsewhere, and even though their ingredients are often just as foreign. We simply give Western European cuisine a pass.

Yet we bet because the NRA’s membership includes so many restaurants that it must cater to operators for whom ethnic foods are indeed foreign. In short, their restaurants don’t menu “trendy” items because their customers aren’t likely to order them — strange as that sounds today.

Hot dogs? Mac-and-cheese? Burgers? Pizza? Yet even their origins are in places other than here.

The group’s study, Global Palates: Ethnic Cuisines and Flavors in America, reveals that Italian, Mexican and Chinese are the country’s most familiar cuisines while Ethiopian, Brazilian/Argentinian and Korean are the least known. Some other discoveries:

  • 66 percent of consumers eat a wider variety of ethnic cuisines now than five years ago.
  • 80 percent consumers eat at least one ethnic cuisine per month.
  • 17 percent of consumers eat seven or more cuisines on a monthly basis.
  • 29 percent of consumers tried a new ethnic cuisine in the last year.
  • 85 percent of consumers say they prefer to eat ethnic cuisine in a restaurant focused on that cuisine.
  • 75 percent of consumers say they like it when restaurants with mainstream menus also serve ethnic cuisine.

One of the study’s surprise findings (to us, anyway) is that 25 percent of consumers admitted they like trying “unconventional ingredients like snails, brains or ants.” Snails we get (très français). But ants and brains? That stat makes us want to do what the Post’s Ramanathan advises near the end of her essay:

It’s an ideal moment to lay down our forks and rethink how we perceive our immigrant cuisines. Our exposure to a world of foods has never been greater; our palates have never been more primed.

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