This summer, I had dinner with a friend at a restaurant that focuses on a mix of Peruvian, Chinese and Japanese cuisines. As we perused the menu, we quickly dismissed items we were familiar with and homed in on the more unusual dishes, like skewers of duck tongue and cape gooseberry.
My friend and I — like 25% of consumers in the US — are people who enjoy eating unconventional food.
That is, unconventional by American standards, as these items are common in those respective cuisines. But it’s a good example of how the typical consumer is a more adventurous eater than he or she used to be. One in four is a pretty significant number when it comes to culinary exploration.
Overall, ethnic cuisines and global flavors are a long-evolving trend on restaurant menus, both when it comes to restaurants that specialize in one cuisine — or several, as in the example above — and those that have integrated into more mainstream menus.
The American palate is quite familiar with a variety of international cuisines these days. In fact, nine in 10 Americans know and have tried Italian, Mexican and Chinese food, according to a new report by the National Restaurant Association. Two-thirds know Mediterranean dishes, and half have tried Middle Eastern, Thai and sushi at least once.
On the flipside, 70% are not at all familiar with Ethiopian cuisine, and half don’t know anything about Korean or Brazilian/Argentinian food.
Despite limited knowledge of some cuisines, most consumers are fairly comfortable in the world of international flavors. Eighty percent eat at least one ethnic cuisine per month, but quite a few eat many more that that — 17% report eating seven or more cuisines on a monthly basis. Further, two-thirds eat a wider variety of ethnic cuisines now than they did five years ago.
Our recent Global Palates report investigates how familiar Americans are with 30 different ethnic cuisines and items, how often they eat them, where they get them, and how they feel about those choices. The term “ethnic” in this context refers to a cuisine that originates in a specific country, region or culture.
When it comes to eating ethnic food, consumers mostly do so in restaurants, and mainly tableservice ones at that. It’s perhaps not a complete surprise that people tend to leave it to the professionals to handle unfamiliar ingredients and preparation methods. And it can be a challenge to even find ingredients that aren’t exactly mainstream. I have no idea where to go for uncooked duck tongues or cape gooseberries, for example, if I were to try to replicate that Peruvian dish at home.
Another interesting point from our report supporting Americans’ relatively newfound fascination with ethnic cuisine is that 84% say they prefer to eat it at a restaurant that specializes in that cuisine. However, 75% also say they like it when restaurants with mainstream menus serve ethnic dishes. In other words, people are interested in international flavors in whatever way, shape or form they may come.
The report also found that 57% of consumers say they seek out authentic experiences, while 69% say they don’t really care if ethnic food is truly authentic as long as it tastes good. And further evidence that global cuisines have entered our everyday diets is that more than half of consumers say they often customize ethnic dishes to fit their tastes and preferences.
So it’s established. Consumers today are an adventurous bunch. Or are they? When asked to put themselves into one of three categories of diners — adventurous, experimental and stay-in-lane — the adventurous group that likes to try new dishes they haven’t had before is the smallest at 20%. Fifty-six percent call themselves experimental, in that they try new things occasionally, but generally stick to what they know they like; twenty-four percent prefer not to risk it on unfamiliar food.
I believe this signals that the terms “adventurous” and “unconventional” are changing. Take those experimental diners, for example. It’s likely some of the dishes they’ve tried and know they like are from various ethnic cuisines, dishes that probably would have been considered adventurous a couple of decades ago.
Before this report, the last time the NRA explored how consumers feel about ethnic cuisines was in 1999. The restaurant landscape has changed quite a bit in these past 15-plus years. Perhaps if we conduct another survey 15 years from now, we might find that tacos are more common than hamburgers in American diets. Or that duck tongue skewers are the new normal. If so, I can’t wait — they’re delicious.
Annika Stensson is director of research communications for the National Restaurant Association. For more on the NRA’s Global Palates: Ethnic Cuisines and Flavors in America report, go to Restaurant.org/GlobalFlavors.
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