Elizabeth Sloan

With new cuisines, flavors, foods, and ingredients popping up faster than ever before, determining which items will eventually enjoy mass-market success has become even more difficult.

Ethnic cuisines approaching mainstream popularity—such as Chinese and Mexican—have traditionally been a fertile source of emerging mainstream ingredients. According to NASFT/Mintel, Chinese led the list of take-out foods eaten at home in 2006—purchased by 48% of consumers—followed by Mexican/Latin 20%, Asian 19%, Italian 14%, barbecue 10%, Indian 6%, and Middle Eastern 8%. And 59% of specialty food customers bought Hispanic foods in 2006, 57% Asian, 18% Middle Eastern, 16% Indian, and 13% "other foods," including African, Caribbean, Greek, Jewish, and Polish.

According to Technomic, Inc., Italian cuisine is enjoyed by 96% of consumers, Mexican 87%, Japanese 64%, Greek 61%, French 55%, German 51%, Thai 49%, Cuban 48%, Korean 42%, Indian 41%, Vietnamese 36%, sushi 31%, Nicaraguan 31%, and Peruvian 31%.

Analyzing ethnic items on non-ethnic-chain menus is a proven tool for identifying potential up-and-coming mass-market ingredients. According to a 2007 MenuMine analysis of 594 non-Asian chain restaurants, 34% include Asian items on their menus. Salads account for 24% of the Asian items; Oriental, Chinese, Asian, and Mandarin Orange Chicken salads account for 50% of salad mentions.

Asianized center-of-the plate items such as shrimp or chicken with teriyaki or soy-based sauces account for 17% of Asian items; prepared entrées 18%.

Teriyaki is the most-menued Asian cooking sauce, followed by peanut, Oriental stir-fry, Thai peanut, and soy; the most-mentioned spices are Oriental, ginger, spicy cilantro, and garlic. Rice—led by white, stir-fried, jasmine, noodle, and pilaf—accompanies 29% of Asian entrees.

Pot stickers are the most-menued Asian appetizer, followed by egg rolls, chicken lettuce wraps, and wontons. Egg rolls account for 43% of all appetizers in quick-service restaurant chains.

The number of Mexican items appearing on non-Mexican chain menus jumped by more than 300 (39%) from 2001 to 2005. The biggest gainers were sandwiches, up 48%, appetizers 46%, and salads 72%. Prominent ingredients in their descriptions included tortillas, chipotle, chili, chile, mole, salsa, ranchera, lime, jalapeño, black bean, refried beans, Mexican rice, Spanish rice, pinto beans, cotija, Monterey jack, nacho cheese, guacamole, and avocado.

According to Mintel’s Menu Insights Group, Thai, Jamaican, Indian, Moroccan, and Spanish made significant menu gains in 2006, but with the exception of a few key ingredients their impact on mainstream food trends is still fairly limited. MenuMine reports that while the number of Indian items mentioned in menu descriptors increased from 66 in 2001 to 89 in 2005, the number of chains menuing these items remains fairly low. Key Indian items appearing on menus include curry, chutney, lamb, kabob, basmati, samosas, pakora, naam, poori, tandoori, saffron, ginger, yogurt, masala, mint sauce, and Indian spices and herbs.

Familiarity offers another route for the mainstreaming of food ingredients. For example, the popularity of pasta has paved the way for soba, udon, and somen noodles, and ravioli has conditioned the acceptance of potstickers and wontons. Watch for lasagna-like Greek moussaka; Japanese, Korean, and Chinese gyoza; and pierogies to enjoy increasing popularity.

With hot-and-sour and egg drop soups already on the top 10 list of most-ordered restaurant soups in 2006, according to NPD/CREST, simple soups like Vietnamese pho soups are a likely crossover. Cuban pressed sandwiches and Vietnamese Bành mi sandwiches—French baguettes with marinated vegetables, barbecued meat, and pate—are other likely additions. Portable stuffed pockets like Indian samusas and Latin papausas are another easy fit, as are Spanish paella and pissaladiere, a white pizza popular in Nice. Expect growing interest in Romesco sauce, Asian fish sauce, Mediterranean pickled vegetables, sweet vinegars, and breads of any kind, including Indian naam flat bread.

Consumers are also looking abroad for new twists on old favorites, such as goat, sheep, and even reindeer cheeses. Other familiar staple variations are hummus, tapanade, and grilled vegetable spreads; Greek yogurts and lassi, a traditional Indian dairy beverage; and charcuterie, salumi, and Serrano hams. Watch for ethnic desserts, such as Greek baklava, Middle Eastern halvah, and pashmak (Persian cotton candy), and snacks such as Indian papadums and pakoras, Italian pizzelles, and Latin plaletas (frozen fruit bars).