Americanizing Ethnic

August 1, 2006

20 Min Read
Americanizing Ethnic

Americanizing Ethnic

By Cindy Hazen 
Contributing Editor

Probably no cuisine is harder to define than American. Traditional meals might have mashed potatoes, hamburgers or apple pie, but foods that take cues from other backgrounds, such as pizza, tacos, stir-fries and spaghetti, are as common.

Our cooking is as much a melting pot as our citizenry. Weve taken dishes from immigrant cultures and weve added our own unique culinary touches. But were also a very large country with hotspots of ethnic populations.

This results in food as diverse as the landscape between Big Sur and Bangor. The same Asian dish served on the West Coast might contain bok choy accented with a fiery sauce. In the Plains states it might morph into cabbage and a mildly sweet sauce. At what point does this become an entirely different dish? When is it no longer Asian?

What makes it ethnic?

The trend we call fusionthe mixing of cuisinesis more prevalent than a lot of people admit, says Ann Druschitz, research chef, T. Hasegawa USA, Inc., Northbrook, IL. She notes that German, Irish and Chinese foods have long combined with native food. Theres an idea of what Chinese food is in America, whether its sweet and sour chicken or kung pao chicken, she says. Certain things, like red sauce, have been ubiquitous to that cuisine in this country, whether they are truly accurate or not, she observes.

This red-colored pineapple sauce is sweet, only slightly acidic, and served on deep-fried chicken. Im not sure how authentic that is in China, but if you try to make it more authentic here, people wouldnt get it. They would be expecting one thing and you would give them something else. People dont realize thats fusion unless theyve traveled to China.

How far you can modify a food before its no longer considered ethnic depends on ones cultural exposure to that food. For example, Druschitz mentions first-generation immigrants who have lived in another country and experienced its cuisine on a personal level before immigrating to the United States. They have a different idea than their American-born kids who only eat that cuisine on special occasions. It has to do with your frame of reference, she says.

For consumers without personal reference, the simple addition of one or two ingredients might provide an ethnic connotation. Asian, for example, is a big trend. Almost every chain has some sort of variation of Asian salad, whether its got mandarin oranges, toasted almonds or wonton crisps, Druschitz says. Consumers perceive these ingredients as Asian. Yet its not that simple. In reality, one ingredient does not imply ethnic. When you have a hamburger and you put sesame seeds on the bun, does that make it Asian? I dont think so. Its not just ingredients. Its not just the name of the dish.

Guy Beardsmore, corporate chef, Sargento, Plymouth, WI, believes that by the time a food gets to a quick-service restaurant its no longer ethnic. Take the ubiquitous Asian saladits more of a California salad. You wont find many salads like that in Asia, he says. Similarly, Thai noodle bowls found in many chain restaurants are not traditional Thai dishes. Egg noodles are sometimes substituted for rice noodles. Rice dishes found in many chain restaurants use the generic rice they use on other dishes with a different sauce and the same protein, he says.

In some cases, taking out an ingredient can change the dish beyond recognition. For example, Beardsmore notes that removing or reducing the chiles and garlic in an Italian arrabbiata sauce turns it into a basic tomato sauce. An Argentinean chimichurri with roasted garlic substituted for raw garlic is no longer a chimichurri. The whole purpose of the chimichurri is the garlic gives you that bite, that heat, that raw garlic flavor, he says. What you basically have instead, he says, is a roasted-garlic salsa. Likewise, he asks, Why do you add capers in a puttanesca sauce? Because thats what a puttanesca has in it. It doesnt matter if you like them or not. If you take the capers out its not a puttanesca sauce.

People need to understand the cuisine before they change it, Beardsmore cautions. To anyone developing ethnic- themed foods, he says: You need to understand the culture, the recipes and the ingredients, and why they are in the dish.

Beware of polarities 

Product development always requires finding balance between ingredients. Perhaps nowhere is this more important than in the creation of ethnic foods. Some ingredients are polarizing: people either love them or hate them. Garlic and cilantro fall into this category. Plus, There are a lot of people all over the world who dont like the tarragon flavor, says Beardsmore.

Shellie Keller, R&D manager, Kerry IngredientsKerry Savory Ingredients, Waukesha, WI, says that many ethnic dishes that are heavy in polarizing ingredients are toned down to be more Americanized. She cites ginger and lemongrass as examples.

People in Thailand and India have been brought up eating ginger, galangal and lemongrass, says Beardsmore. A lot of Americans in certain rural states may not have tried lemongrass before. If youre Applebees, how can you create a Thai dish for someone whos never tried lemongrass before? You dont want someone saying eeeeeew, whats that flavor? But you still want to try to keep it authentic. Thats the hard balance you have.

Fish sauce is another foreign ingredient to many Americans. But its integral to some cuisines, like Vietnamese and Thai. Its very similar to soy sauce, but a little stronger, says Druschitz. Instead of being made from fermented soybeans, it is made from fermented fish. Obviously, that taste is a little more distinct and pungent. Restaurants that are looking to Americanize may substitute some soy sauce for fish sauce, because Americans are more familiar with soy sauce and its not as off-putting a flavor.

With diverse flavors, too much of any component can throw the balance off, advises Chris Warsow, research chef, Kerry IngredientsKerry Specialty Ingredients, Beloit, WI. I have presented non-culinarians with the individual ingredients and let them sample them: the fish sauce, kaffir lime leaves, shrimp paste. They often say, How can you make something taste so good from such stinky stuff? 

One way is reducing the flavor profile so that it becomes more user-friendly, Beardsmore suggests. Somebody can say, Whats that slight fishy taste? If youre trying to Americanize it, you would look at the amount of fish sauce youd add, reduce it and still try to get some of the flavor benefits that fish sauce gives.

Druschitz finds that reducing the amount of cilantro in a dish makes it more widely acceptable. Ive seen parsley substituted sometimes, she says. I dont know that Id qualify that as a valid substitution, because parsley and cilantro, aside from being green, dont have a lot in common flavor-wise. But thats something you could possibly consider for a cilantro salad dressing to go on a Hispanic salad. Parsley is noted for its clean, green vegetable-type flavor; cilantro has a mild citrus note and is sometimes described as soapy. For toning down a strong cilantro flavor, she suggests partially substituting chopped parsley, or even dried parsley, just to provide green particulates that lend a visual clue.

Moving strong ethnic flavors to the background is key to creating products for the American palateespecially the elements that not all consumers embrace. If its a very hot spicy dish, youve polarized a lot of people, says Beardsmore. Most spicy dishes, to be Americanized, will need heat reducing.

Many cultures use spices or herbs to provide extra flavor in place of salt. However, Americans may find those spices overpowering and bitter, Keller says.

Besides less heat and spice, Lance Avery, corporate chef, Newly Weds Foods, Chicago, advises adding more salt and sugar to make an ethnic product more acceptable to American tastes.

Consumers find some flavors distasteful at first but acceptable over time. Olives are one such ingredient, says Beardmore, but theyre becoming less polarizing as people are eating them more.

Yet many Americans never warm up to some flavors. Blue cheese is a love-itor- hate-it flavor. However, most American fans of blue cheese never embrace the rich European blues, like aged Roquefort or English Stilton. Even Cheddar can be controversial. A lot of Americans like Cheddar, but if you give them a really aged five-year-old Cheddar theyd probably spit it out, says Beardsmore, as the flavor of an aged Cheddar is much stronger. They are used to the mild Cheddar they buy in the local supermarket.

Feta cheese, according to Warsow, also has been Americanized. Feta cheese used to have a goaty-type note to it when it was made in the traditional way, but now it is very milky and doesnt have that punch or intense flavor that a good Greek feta would have.

Sushi has made serious inroads to everyday America. Some acculturated approaches to sushi have featured use of interesting, crunchy particulates in the rolls, as well as other nontraditional ingredients.Photo: Kerry Americas

Americans are particular about their protein source; we prefer ground beef over lamb, for example. For the great British dish, shepherds pie, Ive only seen it made with ground beef in the States, says Beardsmore. Traditionally, this dish is made with lamb. Cottage pie is the beef version. Further, Americans often use prime cuts. To be honest, were sometimes throwing money away, he says. Part of what makes an ethnic dish is the fat and the gristle. In a lot of ethnic dishes, cheaper cuts of meat are used. If you can use a more premium cut, for example, filet instead of shin of beef, this may get more customers to try it.

Mike Schmitt, R&D technologist, Kerry IngredientsKerry Specialty Ingredients, speaks from experience, having grown up in a dual ethnicity household: Vietnamese and third generation German. He witnessed his friends reactions to the foods his mother cooked. Between the two ethnicities, Ive eaten, from nose to tail, several species of animal, he says. Bo vien (Vietnamese beef meatballs) look like the Italian or Swedish meatball, but are made of beef and beef tendon, so there is a chewiness to the meatball that has put off many of my friends at first. Pho with tripe and nuoc mam to flavor it may not go over as well as pho with just beef.

Many countries outside of the United States use more offal, Beardsmore says, which are very hard to sell in the United States. In a lot of Europe they will eat kidneys and sweetbreads, he says.

In this country, the protein is sometimes substituted simply for convenience. Traditional English fish and chips is made with cod or haddock. Here theyll use walleye or some other economical local fish. Thats not fish and chips, says Beardsmore. Youve Americanized it. Wheres the mushy peas? Wheres the malt vinegar? I understand why. How many Americans want to eat malt vinegar on their chips and mushy peas? They dont get it.

What Americans do get is complexity. We tend to add so many ingredients to depolarize it, says Beardsmore. If people dont like mushrooms, but there are olives, tomatoes and basil in there, they might say, Ill try that. I can pick out the mushrooms. Sometimes, its the more stuff you can add into it that reduces the risk.

Thats the opposite philosophy of Italian chefs who believe that simplicity is key. Id been working for the Olive Garden for two years before I went to Italy, says Beardsmore. Id been working in a fine dining restaurant in Chicago that served risottos and pasta. The first time I ordered a risotto in Rome, it was literally just mushrooms and rice. I didnt get it. It was, wheres the rest of the stuff? Until I ate it. It was perfectly cooked rice and perfect, beautifully set porcinis. That was the thing for me. It was like, Wow, now I know why we dont need anything else.

Avery says pizza is a good example of Americanization. Consider the Italian version, with a few simple ingredients (tomatoes, basil and cheese) on a thin crispy crust. America has completely embraced this concept and created a culinary snowball, he says. The original pizza Margherita has morphed into many different and tasty forms, such as Chicagostyle deep dish, New Yorkstyle thin crust, St. Louisstyle with its use of Provel cheese, and Californiastyle topped with unique ingredients.

Ingredient issues 

Product designers can find other reasons to omit or substitute an ingredient in an ethnic-inspired dish. Often, its just for convenience or cost considerations. Rice is a good example of this. Think of all the different kinds throughout the world: jasmine, basmati, rose, Arborio, etc., says Avery. Yet here in average America you probably have only a few choices of rice: long grain, medium grain and Americas very own instant.

Beardsmore notes that ingredient consolidation is important to restaurant chains. For Mexican dishes, they just use the cheese house blend, such as Colby and Jack, for many dishes, rather than something more authentic, like fresh, white cheeses such as queso blanco or queso asadero for quesadillas and other dishes that require even melting. I think the large chains dont want to bring in another line, he says. 

Sometimes a unique ingredient may be used in a dish offered for a limited time, but if that dish is successful, there is pressure to find other dishes that incorporate the ingredient. When youre making ethnic dishes, if you bring in some ethnic ingredients, how can you implement them in other dishes? Are you buying bean shoots to go on one dish? If you can get bean shoots on four dishes, then the risk is spread out. Sometimes, ingredient cost, no matter how widely spread, is completely prohibitive. Scott Adair, director, culinary sales food service, SubHerb Farms, Turlock, CA, says his company gets calls weekly for Asian ingredients. Galangal is also called Laos ginger, he says. It is a rhizome with a hot, ginger, peppery flavor and it is a favorite in Southeast Asian cooking. Kaffir lime leaves are very popular but expensive for the manufacturer setting. Habanero peppers are hard to get now because the processing of them is so painful. All of these products just cost too much to produce. When products like these are left out of formulations because of cost, it has a way of Americanizing the flavors, he says. 

Warsow believes flavor houses are doing a fabulous job of creating true-to-taste flavors of ingredients that may not be readily available in this country. Yuzu is a rare Japanese citrus fruit that has a flavor reminiscent of oranges, berries and melons. I saw yuzu juice going for $30 for 16 oz. in an Asian grocery recently. However, I have tasted exquisite yuzu flavors that can be used as substitutes or to extend the juice.

Anything that has herbs or spices is a candidate for flavor substitution, Druschitz says. Those are big cost savers. It can also be cost-effective to add sesame flavor to canola or soy oil, she believes. Because sesame oil and sesame seeds are very perishable, this can also extend shelf life.

Keller says that flavors are often used for guacamole-flavored items because of the instability of the avocado, especially its tendency to oxidize and lose freshness. Jean Bosenbecker, manager, R&D snack foods, Kerry IngredientsKerry Savory Ingredients, sees pomegranate flavors used, because of the difficulty in processing pomegranate, due to its low solids content.

Its not just the ingredients but the actual methods of cooking that can prove challenging to product authenticity. Specific methods of cooking, such as the clay pots for tandoori, are not widely available or feasible, so the flavor and function must be reasonably replicated, says Bosenbecker. The tandoor oven flavor cant be replicated on a grill or in a regular oven. Asian foods can also be difficult to authentically produce without cooking in a wok over high heat.

Other limiting factors can push a product away from its roots. Kosher food plants may require kosher ingredient substitution, says Keller. Further, allergen concerns limit some of the ingredients that can be used, e.g., peanuts or shellfish. When safety standards are in doubt, the ingredient is omitted or a flavor is substituted.

Trusting whether an ingredient is accurately labeled and safely processed is critical to the food industry. They want to know where it is from field to fork, says Beardsmore. Ingredients offered by third world countries may not be processed according to American or European standards. Over the years there have been numerous ingredient recalls because of the presence of unlabeled sulfites or other allergens.

Familiarly foreign flavors 

How does a food transition from obscure to mainstream? Gradually.

Schmitt, who in his own household observed his friends respond to his mothers ethnic dishes, says, The closer to American cuisine that the food was, the more likely it was to be accepted. A familiar product, such as a peanut or barbecue sauce, can ease someone into trying a dish, then they may be ready to graduate to a mixture of hoisin sauce with some hot garlic chili paste. Give a bit of the familiar with the unfamiliar and most people are willing to try, he says.

At David Michael & Co., Inc., Philadelphia, Anh Nguy, product development chef, Mike Napoleon, product development chef, and Julie Snarski, manager culinary & foodservice development, say Americans like the familiar mixed with the new, such as mango peachat least until the unfamiliar becomes more accepted and can stand alone. Honey green tea is another example of this.

The American taco shows the result of adding a familiar twist to a foreign food. Avery says that the Mexican taco, in its original form, is very simple, with shredded cabbage, two not-so-easy-to-fold corn tortillas and, if they did have cheese, it was queso fresco or queso anejo. In the Americanized version, we replace the cabbage with lettuce, substitute the corn tortilla with the easy-to-fold flour tortilla, and swap the queso with Americans favorite, Cheddar cheese, he says. Now, what is most interesting with the taco is the switch from corn to flour in the tortilla. Corns origin is assumed to have started somewhere in Central America or Mexico. Here in America, we grow corn, but we also grow wheat. And for many Americans, we start eating wheat, or the ultra-refined process of wheat, a.k.a. Wonder Bread, sooner than having our first corn tortilla. So in a way, we are programmed from the start to prefer the flour tortilla over the corn, and in reality it is much more applicable to our fast-paced lifestyle.

With the presence of Taco Bell in even the most rural areas, the American consumer has become familiar with Mexican cuisine. Warsow believes consumers feel comfortable trying something new under its umbrella and, eventually, new flavors or spices evolve into acceptance. I think a shining example of this would be chipotle peppers. Five years ago, the chipotle was unheard of, now its place in sauces and dressing in QSR is standard. I think it grew from the popularity of Mexican cuisine.

Avery suggests that the heat elements of chipotle, as well as its mysterious smoky complexity, have been toned down to broaden its overall palatable acceptance.

Ginger, soy sauce and cilantro are becoming more mainstream. Schmitt says: The fact that I have friends that look for them in some of their foods now kind of surprises me. I believe that their exposure to that flavor in the past may have led them to experiment with that flavor in other dishes until it has become a staple flavor for them.

Druschitz is surprised by the popularity of wasabi: Its a Japanese horseradish that was used a lot in sushi. Not that Americans are eating that much sushi, but whether its wasabi mayonnaise from Hellmans, wasabi-coated almonds or wasabi potato chips, it seems to be out there, especially for people wanting to push the envelope on heat levels. Every time I think Ive seen it all, theres wasabi in something else.

Clever marketing can entice the least adventurous to try new products. Snarski notes that Lipton has Americanized pho by marketing it as Asian beef noodle soup. At Bennigans, egg rolls are filled with a cheeseburger filling, she says.

Whats next?

As global cuisines evolve to appeal to the American populace, the benchmarks in this country also change direction. Ask a number of chefs to predict the next ethnic trends and there is a consensus that cuisine is becoming more regionalized. Adair says its not just Asian anymore. Its Vietnamese, Thai or Malaysian, he says. Latin is not just Tex-Mex anymore. We now see Argentine, Peruvian, Cuban and regional Mexican from each area of Mexico.

Indian food, long popular in England, is gaining acceptance in the United States. There are multiple restaurant choices in middle America, in places such as Des Moines, Memphis, Kansas City and Dallas.

Even Better Homes and Gardens has a recipe for naan, though baking it in an ordinary oven instead of the traditional stone oven Americanizes it. In the United Kingdom, they are looking at Mexican food and trying to explore that a bit more, says Beardsmore. In England 25 years ago, Indian food started getting big. Now theyre looking at different regions. The stereotype of Indian food is a lot of hot, wet curries served with a lot of rice and flatbreads. For me theres such a huge difference between Indian food from the north to the south, just like with Mexican food. If you go to the north, there are a lot of rice-based dishes. They are quite heavy. If you go to the south, its more of a lighter coconut, quick-cooked with more fresh herbs.

Asian and South American foods have been hot for a while, Warsow notes. Now we are seeing more authentic flavors and tastes, he says. The fruits from these regions are becoming increasingly popular. Açai and guanabana are coming to the forefront.

According to Avery, exotic fruits, such as passion-fruit, lychee, durian, guava and mangosteen, are becoming more mainstream and appearing in beverages, sauces, syrups, and sorbets.

Spanish cuisine is rising in popularity. Paellas are passé, says Beardsmore, who characterizes Spanish cooking as having piquillo peppers, manchego cheese, and Spanish olives or Spanish olive oils.

African cuisine is one of the new entrants to the mix, according Napoloean. Where Moroccan restaurants have been around in the past, the cuisine of other African cultures is growing, he says.

Warsow sees North African cuisine and Middle Eastern food becoming more popular, and its not just typical shish kebabs and hummus. Consumers are learning about the complex spice blends and flavor combinations that make this cuisine interesting and healthy, he says.

I think with the tendency for people to travel more internationallynot just to Europe, but to Mexico, South America, the Far Eastits not so exotic anymore, says Druschitz. Going to Hong Kong or India for business is not so far-fetched anymore. It changes your perspective. People are more willing to try things. Americans are broadening their horizons, whether they know it or not, she says.

Creating widely accepted ethnic foods requires marketing and R&D wizardry, but finding that balance of consumer interest and acceptance has huge payouts. When you consider the numerous fast food and quick-serve options, Druschitz observes, these places wouldnt be putting ethnic influenced dishes on their menus if somebody wasnt buying them.

Cindy Hazen, a 20-year veteran of the food industry, is a freelance writer based in Memphis, TN. She can be reached at [email protected]

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