From pad thai to pav bhaji: The united tastes of America

Globalisation and immigration ushers in cuisine from the far corners of the planet into the world’s biggest foodie haven

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By Chidanand Rajghatta

Published: Wed 15 Jun 2022, 11:44 PM

Last updated: Thu 16 Jun 2022, 1:46 PM

The United States has close to a million restaurants, eateries, cafes and bars, employing nearly 10 million people (down from more than 12 million before the pandemic), and making up nearly 4 per cent of the labour force. Americans eat out on a gigantic scale. Nearly 44 per cent of all food spending, amounting to $ 931 billion annually (more than the GDP of all but the top 15 countries), is splurged on eating out. Table service restaurants make approximately $300 billion in sales annually, with the rest going to take-out, fast-food etc.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average US household spends approximately $ 3,500 annually -- more than the annual per capita income in 80 countries -- on in-restaurant dining, fast food, and take-out. Consequently, the US offers the broadest scope for culinary adventurism, thanks in part also to its unique status as an immigrant-infused country. Cuisine from almost every corner of the globe is available in major American cities, and increasingly even in suburbia and small towns.

A 2020 study based on an analysis of Google trends and search popularity put Mexican food on top of the most popular ethnic cuisine in the US, followed by Chinese. Italian and Thai came in at #3 and #4. Indian, Japanese, and Korean came in at 5,6,7, rounded off by Greek, Vietnamese, and Korean at 8,9,10.

Mexican food topping the list is understandable given the country’s proximity and US demographics; Chinese at # 2 also makes sense given the country’s size and long history of immigration, as does Italy at #3. But how did Thailand get so far ahead of many countries with greater proximity and closer ties to the US – including the much larger India or the more influential Japan?

Clearly, immigration or ethnic population does not explain this. According to one study, there are more than 5,000 Thai restaurants in the US -- for a Thai-American population of only around 250,000. For an Indian population of five million in the US that is 20x of Thais, the number of Indian restaurants is around the same (5,000). This trend is evident in many other countries too -- Thai restaurants in numbers disproportionate to its ethnic population. What gives?

Well, it turns out that for the past two decades, successive Thai governments have been quietly encouraging, supporting, and even funding the setting up of Thai restaurants abroad in what has been dubbed pad thai diplomacy. In doing so Thailand has become a pioneer in what is more formally known as Gastrodiplomacy, a term first used prominently by public diplomacy scholar Paul Rockower, who wrote that it is “predicated on the notion that the easiest way to win hearts and minds is through the stomach.”

How ethnic cuisines and restaurants promote a country’s interests is hard to get one’s head -- or stomach -- around. There is little evidence to suggest that the surfeit of Mexican and Chinese restaurants or the popularity of their cuisine in the US have in any way served to influence Americans’ view of the countries. Russia’s association with vodka (the most popular hard liquor in America) or vodka’s association with Russia did not exactly help Moscow.

Still, nations (and their ethnic loyalists) are increasingly becoming adept at playing the food card, never missing an opportunity to buttress their claims over a particular product or cuisine. Countries continue to duke it out over products such as baklava and samosa, which have cross-border, transnational origins.

In a recent episode in the US, an Indian-American entrepreneur has taken on the grocery chain Trader Joe’s for ostensibly copying her brand of roasted garlic achar. Chitra Agrawal, 42, has been plying 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 US is now keen to hawk popular ethnic cuisine. At some point, talks about Trader Joe’s carrying her products broke off, and before she knew it the grocery chain was selling its own “Indian Style Garlic Achaar Sauce,” which she says is uncannily similar to her product, the only one of its kind in the market till TJ’s muscled in.

Such proprietary awareness and claims are becoming increasingly common as globalisation and immigration ushers in cuisine from the far corners of the planet into the world’s biggest foodie haven. In fact, award winning chefs are increasingly invoking family recipes and grandmother’s memories to spin out long forgotten or much-disdained dishes to a new and eager audience.

Earlier this week, the James Beard award – the Oscars of the culinary world – for the most outstanding restaurant in America went to ChaiPani, an Indian street food eatery in Asheville, North Carolina. Its menu includes bhelpuri, chaat, vada pav, and pav bhaji, among other Indian street foods. Indeed, many ethnic cuisines have long spilled out of restaurants into food trucks and food carts, demonstrating there are many routes to a country’s stomach if not heart.

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