Four International Cuisines That Have Gone Mainstream in the US

by Caitlin Browne
CulinaryEd Columnist
June 18, 2013

Americans are crazy about food, and when it comes to the dinner table, we tend to be pretty adventurous about trying new things. We're fortunate, then, that a long history of immigration and multicultural influences have left us with access to a wide variety of international cuisines. While some cuisines remain in the realm of the exotic in most parts of the country, other ethnic cuisines have become integral components of America's diverse foodscape. Tacos and sushi have become as commonplace as hamburgers and apple pie.

The following are four major ethnic cuisines that have gone mainstream in the U.S.

1. Mexican

It's only natural that food from our southern neighbor should become one of the most widespread ethnic cuisines in the U.S. Mexican cuisine can trace its origins back to the maize, beans, chilies, and fruit that were the mainstays of the early civilization's diet. After Europeans introduced wheat, rice, pigs, sheep, onions, garlic and other foods, the cuisine that emerged was a blend of indigenous and foreign gastronomic influences.

In the U.S., "authentic" Mexican food may seem somewhat unfamiliar to most. Americanized Mexican food leans heavily on tacos, nachos and overstuffed burritos, while examples of food traditionally served in Mexico following the conquest include tamales, mole poblano and pozole (a stew of corn, meat, and spices) . In a sign of Mexican food's popularity, different regions of the U.S. have put their own spin on Mexican food: in addition to nationwide chains such as Taco Bell and Chipotle, other restaurants such as Tex-Mex and Aqui Cal-Mex offer their own distinct takes on the ancient cuisine.

2. Italian

Unlike our next door neighbor, Italy is an ocean apart, halfway across the globe. In Italy, diet varies greatly by region. Milan is famous for its risotto, Bologna for its tortellini and Naples for its pizza. The cuisine of coastal regions is more centered on seafood. Southern Italy's proximity to other continents has influenced its food, as well. For example, Arab's food culture is reflected in the sweets and spices used in the region, and much of Sicilians' cooking has Northern African qualities.

As with Mexican food, Americans have put their stamp on Italian food, recreating geo-specific traditions here in the U.S. with regular debates occurring over the taste of New York- and Chicago-style pizza. Pizza chains are ubiquitous across the country, and restaurants such as Olive Garden and Macaroni Grill dominate the Italian food market in many areas.

3. Japanese

Japanese cuisine's crashing of the American food scene is more recent. Foods such as sushi and ramen are as accepted as burritos and ravioli. Traditional Japanese food relies heavily on rice; noodle dishes, such as ramen, udon and soba; and a variety of seafood. Meat didn't enter the Japanese diet in significant quantities until the second half of the nineteenth century.

In the U.S., sushi is perhaps the most recognizable staple of Japanese cuisine. Japanese cuisine continues to make inroads in the U.S. According to the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), the number of Japanese restaurants in the U.S. increased by about 50 percent between 2005 and 2010, from 9,128 to 14,129.

4. Chinese

Chinese Restaurant News reports that there are currently over 41,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S. - almost three times the number of McDonald's restaurants. This number should come as no surprise, as Chinese has been a delivery favorite in the U.S. since the 1920s. In addition to the local Chinese establishments, P.F. Chang's, Panda Express and similar chains have brought Chinese cuisine to the masses. Items such as chow mein, fried rice, sweet and sour pork, pot stickers and fortune cookies are all treasured favorites to American eaters. In China, however, the culinary landscape is slightly more complex: China is a vast, diverse nation with significant regional variation in its cuisine. For example, red pepper, chili paste, and hot oil are prominent in Szechwan cuisine, while Cantonese cuisine is known for the freshness of its ingredients. Some of these differences get lost in the shuffle when translated for an American palate; however, Chinese flavors are so treasured in the U.S. that it's difficult to imagine the American culinary landscape without them.


EthnoMed, "Chinese Food Cultural Profile, 11/1/2000, http://ethnomed.org/clinical/nutrition/chinese_food_cultural_profile

Japan-Guide, Japanese Dishes, http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2035.html

JETRO, JETRO Japanese Restaurants Trend 2010, http://www.jetro.org/trends/japanese_restaurants_2010.pdf

Napa Valley Register, "Japanese cuisine has increasing appeal for American palates", 11/30/2010, http://napavalleyregister.com/lifestyles/food-and-cooking/japanese-cuisine-has-increasing-appeal-for-american-palates/article_922c990e-fc16-11df-8451-001cc4c002e0.html

Southern California Public Radio, "How Mexican food conquered America", 4/3/2012, http://www.scpr.org/programs/airtalk/2012/04/03/25865/taco-usa/

The Cambridge World History of Food, Edited by Kenneth F. Kiple, http://www.cambridge.org/us/books/kiple/mexico.htm

Travel and Leisure, "Best Chinese Restaurants in the U.S.", 2/2013, http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/best-chinese-restaurants-in-the-us

Your Guide to Italy, History of Italian Food, http://www.yourguidetoitaly.com/history-of-italian-food-cuisine.html

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