A. Elizabeth Sloan

The demand for more adventuresome, authentic, and sophisticated ethnic foods and ingredients has never been higher. P.F. Chang’s Home Menu signature frozen meals and appetizers topped SymphonyIRI’s 2011 New Product Pacesetters list as the top-selling new food/beverage of 2011, posting first-year sales of $102 million.

According to Mintel’s Ethnic FoodsU.S., at-home ethnic food preparation continues to escalate; 87% of meal preparers cooked ethnic dishes at home in 2011, up from 84% in 2010. Three in 10 chose independent ethnic restaurants when dining out for dinner, according to Technomic’s October 2010 American Express Market Briefing. Because those under age 34 are the most likely to order at restaurants or cook ethnic foods at home, the outlook for foreign foods is very good.

Meal preparers are showing a new propensity for cooking a greater variety of ethnic cuisines at home, explains Mintel. In 2011, 70% made Italian meals at home, 63% Mexican, and 51% Asian. One-quarter cooked ethnic fusion or Cajun/Creole dishes at home, and one in five made German, Greek, French, or Indian dishes. Those under age 34, households with children, and households with incomes ranging $75,000 to$99,000 are the most likely to prepare ethnic foods at home, reports Mintel.

Seasonings and ethnic spice mix packets are the top ethnic food product in 73% of U.S. homes, followed by ethnic sauces in 70% of homes; ethnic noodles/pasta such as soba and udon are in 58%. Shelf-stable ethnic food such as soup bowls and Indian/Asian sides and dishes can be found in 43% of U.S. homes, frozen ethnic entrees/side dishes are in 40%, and fresh/refrigerated prepared ethnic side dishes/entrees are in 28%, according to Mintel’s Ethnic Foods Report.

Ginger, plum, oyster, peanut, Ponzu, and hoisin are among the fast-growing Asian sauce flavors. Mintel reports that 63% of meal preparers used soy sauce in 2011, 49% used teriyaki and other Asian sauces, 14% chili sauce, 9% wing sauce, and 9% duck sauce. Curry, black bean, and tzatziki are gaining in popularity.

Consumers are looking to specialty/gourmet stores and aisles for more authentic ethnic ingredients and lesser known ethnic foods. In 2011, 55% bought Mexican specialty items; 39% Asian; 28% Asian, non-Chinese; 20% Spanish, Mediterranean, or non-Mexican Hispanic items; 13% Indian; and 11% Middle Eastern, per NAFST’s 2011 Specialty Food Consumer Report. Specialty food retailers predict that Latin cuisines, Mediterranean, Indian,Vietnamese, Eastern  European, and African are the next ethnic cuisines for gourmet stores.

Chinese, Mexican, and Italian remain the top three cuisines among consumers. More than half of diners ordered these cuisines in restaurants in 2011, according to Mintel. After Chinese, Japanese is the most likely Asian cuisine to be ordered in a restaurant as cited by 34% of diners. Next popular is Thai at 30%, Szechwan at 21%, Indian at 19%, Vietnamese at 15%, Korean at 13%, and Indonesian at 12%, Technomic reports.

Ethnic fusion tops the list of trending ethnic cuisines for 2012, followed by Peruvian, Cuban, Southeast Asian (e.g., Thai, Vietnamese), North African, and Korean cuisines, according to American Culinary Federation (ACF) chefs surveyed by the National Restaurant Association (NRA). Far Eastern food preparation is gaining favor with chefs. Pickling and fermenting rank first and second among trendy food preparation techniques for 2012, according to the NRA survey.

Ethnic-inspired breakfast items top the list of hot trends for 2012. Such items include Asian syrups, chorizo scrambled eggs, coconut milk pancakes as well as traditional ethnic breakfast items such as huevos rancheros, shakshuka, ashta, and Japanese and French toast. Ethnic-inspired children’s dishes are another fast emerging opportunity. And ethnic street/street-food-inspired appetizers such as tempura, taquitos, kabobs, hummus, charcuterie plates, amuse bouche, and ceviche are among the hot appetizers for 2012, the NRA reports.

When it comes to sides, it’s all about specialty rice and Asian noodles. Black rice, red rice, Asian noodles, vegetable pickles, and polenta are among the trendy side dishes for 2012. Ethnic cheeses will move into the spotlight in 2012. And rambutan, dragon fruit, paw paw, and guava are among the foreign exotic fruits getting more attention.

Expect panna cotta, gelato, granite, and ethnic cookies such as Mexican galletas and French macaroons to get more attention. Non-alcoholic ethnic beverages such as lassi, horchata, specialty iced teas, and dairy-free beverages made with rice milk and soy are moving onto menus, according to ACF chefs. Asian-flavored cocktails and nontraditional spirits such as shochu, absinthe, and sake are also among trendy drink trends for 2012.

Ethnic flatbreads such as naan, papdum, lavash, and pita continue to gain strength. Watch for greater use of ethnic condiments such as black garlic, raita/raitha, chimichurri, Sriracha, chutney, soy sauce, green tea powder, curries, and wasabi peas.


A. Elizabeth Sloan,
Contributing Editor
President, Sloan Trends Inc., Escondido, Calif.
[email protected]