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, take-out 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 their Market Intelligence Report: Asian, food industry research and consulting firm Technomic says 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.” Meanwhile, a large banner at last years’ Summer Fancy Food Show in DC 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.
What’s behind the interest in Asian flavors? Credit the Internet, which makes it possible to access any cuisine or recipe at a key-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 also making hard to find ingredients like fresh curry leaves, coconut milk, lemon grass, and all manner of chilies, handy. 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 in point: 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 used to buy all the raw spices—coriander, cumin, fennel, etc.–as well as fresh curry leaves from a local Indian shop, and grind her own curry powder in order to make 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 Sri Lankan 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 notable cookbook.
As I’m no celebrity chef, or even someone with culinary credentials, I probably would never have even secured a book deal in the first place without prevailing attitudes towards 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 healthy, 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 all the criteria that people want—they are simple, cheap, delicious, and beneficial.
It’s no coincidence that the theme of this years’ Culinary Institute of America’s 15th Annual Worlds of Flavor Conference and Festival 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 became 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.