September 2006 Edition
Ethnic Cuisine - A World of Flavour

Canadian diners have an ever-broadening array of food choices, from an increasingly exotic range of ethnic traditions and points of the globe.


A typical discussion of dinner plans in a Canadian city often focuses on cuisine.

Do you feel like Thai? How about Indian? Greek? Italian? Mediterranean and Asian or South Asian foods have become key features on the culinary landscape, but tastes are constantly evolving.

A 2005 report from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, titled Canadian Food Trends to 2020: A Long Range Consumer Outlook, looks at some of the drivers behind the growing popularity of ethnic cuisines. Canada’s expanding palate is a result of many trends, not the least of which is our multicultural population. Over the past few decades, the pattern of immigration shifted from an influx of people from European countries, to an influx of people from Asian, South Asian and Middle Eastern countries. In the past few years, the influence of Asian cuisines such as Thai, Indian and Chinese has overtaken the southwestern and Mexican flavours that were a prevailing trend in the 1980s and 1990s.


However, the report suggests that the growing Hispanic population in the U.S. will influence markets with a renewed interest in Hispanic flavours, including the cuisines of Mexico, Latin America, Cuba and the Caribbean.


The report also looks at some likely contenders for leading edge trends. With the expected resurgence of Hispanic cuisines encompassing many Central American traditions, the trend may continue south, spurring a keen interest in South American cuisine.


There are four distinct regional cuisines of South America, according to Canadian Food Trends to 2020.


The  northwestern region features exotic flavours such as seafood stew or spicy potato salad with cheese, both offering the intense heat of the aji amarillo chili pepper. The Spanish influence in the north central region is evident in Mediterranean flavours, while coastal areas are renowned for seafood. Brazilian cuisine merges inspirations from Portuguese settlers, African slaves, and the tropical produce native to the region. Possible trends to watch for include ceviche bars serving raw, marinated seafood, and churrasco restaurants serving meats grilled on skewers.


African and Moroccan foods are another emerging trend, featuring exotically spiced soups and stews, and the fresh flavours of fruit, melons and gourds.


Spending on ethnic food is on the rise, growing at about 5% per year in the U.S., and at three times that rate in Europe, according to a Datamonitor report on ethnic food and drink trends. However, it also suggests that the cuisines and products that will have mass market potential are those that also overlap with another major consumer trend, such as premiumization, authenticity and health.

Authentic and premium characteristics can sometimes intersect in the ethnic food market, with artisan products and imported ingredients often falling into both categories. Ethnic cuisines that have strong overlap with health trends include Mediterranean diets that have been praised for their long-term health benefits, Asian cuisines that focus on fish rather than meat, and Indian cuisines that include a lot of vegetarian dishes.


It is not just taste preferences that evolve, but our ways of experiencing them. Just as pizza is no longer served only in Italian restaurants, flavours and influences of ethnic cuisines make appearances on other menus, in parts that range from a starring role to a cameo.


For instance, in English pub-themed restaurants in Canada, it’s not unusual to see a curry dish on the menu. Indian cuisine and Indian restaurants have been so popular in the U.K. for decades that chicken tikka masala seems perfectly at home beside fish and chips and steak and kidney pie. Similarly, Ahi tuna has also become a solo star, featured on a wide variety of menus.


Meanwhile, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada cites a trend toward layering flavours using ethnic ingredients to create a more intense taste senstation. One strong influence on this trend is the Asian savoury flavour sensation known as “umami,” which is often described as the fifth flavour.


Blended cuisine – which takes things a bit more literally than its predecessor, fusion cuisine – lets chefs use flavours and techniques from different traditions to create dishes such as Mexican fiesta quiche or Greek stuffed tortillas. According to Agriculture and Agri-food Canada, the most commonly blended cuisines are Asian, Mediterranean and Mexican.


These techniques that merge the familiar and the foreign can bring ethnic variety to an even wider audience. With a world of possibilities at their fingertips, and increasingly adventurous customers at their tables, creative Canadian chefs can bring a world of flavours to diners.