Americans of all backgrounds are discovering ethnic foods and beverages spanning the globe, incorporating a broader array of flavors and experiences than ever before. The young and more educated are leading the way, wandering ever farther from culinary "home," says the Hartman Group (hartman-group.com), Bellevue, Wash. From the explosion of poke bowls, the sweet-heat wave, Cuban sandwiches, Korean barbecue and the use of North African spices, ethnic foods' popularity continues to rise, and more exotic fare from different countries is becoming sought after.
According to Mintel’s latest research, ethnic dishes are favorites, but most important to consumers is authenticity. Two-thirds of Mintel survey respondents who eat ethnic food at home say authentic or traditional flavors are the most important factor when buying or eating ethnic food. Authenticity is what consumers look for, as they associate that term with "real" and "natural" attributes, as well as quality, value and trust.
As the desire to be healthier seems universal, many food formulators also are featuring clean ingredients in their ethnic products, free of GMOs, additives, gluten and preservatives. The number of ethnic products launched on the market doubled from 2012 to 2016, according to Innova Market Insights (www.innovadatabase.com), which finds hot flavors on the rise, including Thai, Indian and Mexican, the last of which is stretching into new geographies.
Likewise, more than 120 million people in the U.S. are multicultural Americans, so this large, young and growing segment is bringing its tremendous culinary influence with it. In fact, multicultural consumers are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population and were responsible for 92 percent of the population growth from 2000 to 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Much of this is the result of immigration into the U.S. and Canada. At the same time, palates that favor multicultural flavors are influencing the taste preferences of non-Hispanic whites and society in general.
Nielsen also finds this influence of flavors is attracting millennials and mainstream consumers alike. Nothing illustrates this better than the phenomenon of sriracha, which has found its way into the homes of 5 million non-Hispanic white households each year.
Americans cannot get enough of ethnic spices, including harissa, curry, za’atar and turmeric, which all originate from Africa and the Middle East. These spices could be the result of “migratory meals,” stemming from refugees from the Middle East and Africa showcasing their heritage and certainly causing the upward spike in trendy ethnic cuisines.
Ethnic grocery stores are popping up and ethnic sections are expanding in supermarkets, replacing natural and organic specialty formats. Hispanic-focused retailers are also increasing, as the U.S. Hispanic population is expected to double by 2050, according to Acosta Sales and Marketing. Hispanic customers tend to buy more groceries and shop more often than other demographics in the U.S.
Melting pot of flavors
Although encompassed in one large trend, ethnic flavors each have their own segments, everything from briny olives on appetizers to snacks adapted from street foods.
"Menu trends today are beginning to shift from ingredient-based items to concept-based ideas, mirroring how consumers tend to adapt their activities to their overall lifestyle philosophies," notes Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research at the National Restaurant Assn., Washington.
Americans now look for flavors such as sriracha, sambal, chimichurri, gochujang and zhug from African, Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin origins on everything, including breakfast menus items such as Spanish chorizo, congee (rice porridge) and Mediterranean shakshuka.
The popularity of Indian food and flavors continues as major food and beverage retailers add or expand the aromatic, intricate cuisine into their product mix. Millennials generally are more adventurous when it comes to Indian food, but it's becoming a favorite this year, according to research from various vehicles including Nation's Restaurant News. Curry is on a roll, it says.
An ingredient that can make an Indian entree truly authentic is the use of the fenugreek herb. An Indian household cannot do without "methi," or fenugreek seeds and leaves. Used in most every Indian preparation, the seeds are somewhat bitter tasting and have a flavor similar to celery, maple syrup or burnt sugar. The leaves are eaten in India as a vegetable and are a favorite ingredient in Indian curries, but can add tasty pizzazz to a bland dish. In India, fenugreek seeds are even roasted and ground to make coffee.
"The use of fenugreek is pretty common in Indian cuisine and is considered very healthy," affirms Shashish Hodlur, general manager of R&D at Tasty Bite (www.tastybite.com), Stamford Conn., one of the first companies to launch shelf-stable pouches of vegetarian products in the U.S. "The ingredient is used as fresh leaves, dried leaves and in seed form. The fresh leaves are sautéed in garlic and onion to create a stir-fried vegetable dish or added in a rich cashew nut based sauce."
Tasty Bite uses dried fenugreek leaves in its vegetable tikka masala entree and tikka masala cooking sauce to give it a sharp aroma and distinct flavor note. The company has been making healthy, authentic and wholesome Indian, Asian, Thai and rice and noodle products for U.S. home cooks since 1995, starting with a handful of pouched entrées.