Globalization and immigration bring cuisine from around the world into the world’s greatest gastronomic paradise
The United States has nearly one million restaurants, restaurants, cafes and bars, employing nearly 10 million people (compared to more than 12 million before the pandemic) and representing almost 4% of the working population. Americans eat on a gigantic scale. Nearly 44% of all food expenditure, amounting to $931 billion a year (more than the GDP of all but the top 15 countries), is spent on eating out. Table-service restaurants make about $300 billion in sales a year, with the rest going to takeout, fast food, and more.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average U.S. household spends about $3,500 a year, more than the annual per capita income in 80 countries, on restaurant meals, fast food, and takeout. Consequently, the United States offers the widest range of culinary adventures, thanks in part to its unique status as a country of immigration. Cuisine from almost every corner of the globe is available in major American cities, and increasingly even in suburbs and small towns.
A 2020 study based on an analysis of Google trends and search popularity places Mexican cuisine as the most popular ethnic cuisine in the United States, followed by Chinese cuisine. Italian and Thai came in 3rd and 4th place. The Indians, Japanese and Koreans came in at 5.6.7, completed by the Greeks, Vietnamese and Koreans at 8.9.10.
Mexican food at the top of the list is understandable given the country’s proximity and American demographics; Chinese at No. 2 also makes sense given the country’s size and long history of immigration, as does Italy at No. 3. But how did Thailand get so far ahead of many countries closer and closer to the United States, including the much larger India or the more influential Japan?
Obviously, immigration or ethnic population does not explain this. According to one study, there are more than 5,000 Thai restaurants in the United States, for a Thai-American population of only around 250,000 people. For an Indian population of five million in the United States, or 20 times that of Thais, the number of Indian restaurants is about the same (5,000). This trend is also evident in many other countries – Thai restaurants are disproportionately large in number to its ethnic population. Which give?
Well, it turns out that over the past two decades, successive Thai governments have quietly encouraged, supported and even funded the establishment of overseas Thai restaurants in what has been called pad thai diplomacy. In doing so, Thailand has become a pioneer in what is more formally known as gastrodiplomacy, a term first used by public diplomacy scholar Paul Rockower, who has written that it is “based on the notion that the easiest way to win hearts and minds is through the stomach.”
It is difficult to understand how ethnic cuisines and restaurants promote the interests of a country. There is little evidence to suggest that the glut of Mexican and Chinese restaurants or the popularity of their cuisine in the United States has in any way influenced Americans’ view of those countries. Russia’s association with vodka (the most popular hard liquor in America) or vodka’s association with Russia hasn’t really helped Moscow.
Yet nations (and their ethnic loyalists) are becoming increasingly adept at playing the food card, never missing an opportunity to back up their claims to a particular product or cuisine. Countries continue to compete for products such as baklava and samosa, which have cross-border and transnational origins.
In a recent episode in the United States, an Indian-American entrepreneur hit out at grocery chain Trader Joe’s for ostensibly copying its brand of roasted garlic achar. Chitra Agrawal, 42, has been using her original roasted garlic achar since 2014 under Indian condiment brand Brooklyn Delhi when she was apparently approached in January by Trader Joe’s – which, like many food companies in the United States – United, now wants to offer popular ethnic cuisine. At one point, talk of Trader Joe carrying her products broke down, and before she knew it, the grocery chain was selling its own “Indian-Style Garlic Achaar Sauce.” which she says is eerily similar to her product, the only one of its kind. on the market until TJ is muscled.
This awareness and ownership claims are becoming more and more common as globalization and immigration usher cuisine from around the world into the world’s greatest gastronomic paradise. In fact, award-winning chefs are increasingly invoking family recipes and grandma’s memories to bring long-forgotten or much-despised dishes to new and eager audiences. Earlier this week, the James Beard Award – the Oscars of the Culinary World – for America’s Most Outstanding Restaurant was presented to ChaiPani, an Indian street food restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina. Its menu includes bhelpuri, chaat, vada pav and pav bhaji, among other Indian street food. Indeed, many ethnic cuisines have long spilled from restaurants into food trucks and food carts, demonstrating that there are many routes to a country’s stomach, if not heart.