MIAMI – Salsa overtaking ketchup as America’s No. 1 condiment was just the start.
These days, tortillas outsell burger and hot dog buns; sales of tortilla chips trump potato chips; and tacos and burritos have become so ubiquitously “American,” most people don’t even consider them ethnic. Welcome to the taste of American food in 2013.
As immigrant and minority populations rewrite American demographics, the nation’s collective menu is reflecting this flux, as it always has. And it goes beyond the mainstreaming of once-esoteric ethnic ingredients, something we’ve seen with everything from soy sauce to jalapenos.
This is a rewrite of the American menu at the macro level, an evolution of whole patterns of how people eat. The difference this time? The biggest culinary voting bloc is Hispanic. “When you think about pizza and spaghetti, it’s the same thing,” says Jim Kabbani, CEO of the Tortilla Industry Association. “People consider them American, not ethnic. It’s the same with tortillas.”
With Hispanics making up more than a quarter of the U.S. population today – and growing fast – experts say this change is dramatically flavoring the American culinary experience. Hispanic foods and beverages were an $8 billion market in the last year, according to consumer research firm Packaged Facts. By 2017, that number may reach $11 billion.
Even our choice of side dishes is feeling the influence. In general, Americans are eating fewer of them. Except white rice, a staple of Hispanic cuisines, says Darren Seifer, a food and beverage analyst for the NPD Group, a consumer marketing organization.
Americans ate rice on its own as a side dish (not counting as an ingredient in another dish) an average of 24 times in 2013, up from 20 servings in 2003, according to NPD’s National Eating Trend.
Why has rice resisted the death of the side dish? It’s one of the traditions millennial Hispanics have held onto, says Seifer.
And that’s just the start. Rice also was the top-rated side dish in a National Restaurant Association chefs survey of what’s hot. The same survey also found chefs touting taquitos as appetizers; ethnic-inspired breakfast items such as chorizo scrambled eggs; exotic fruits including guava; queso fresco as an ingredient; and Peruvian cuisine.
The influence goes deeper than the numbers. Like Italian food before it, Hispanic food enjoys broad adoption because it is easy for Americans to cook at home. Few Americans will roll their own sushi, but plenty are happy to slap together a quesadilla. Hispanic ingredients also are more common than those of Indian or other Asian cuisines. Ditto for the equipment. While nearly every American home has a skillet for sauteing (a common cooking method in Hispanic cuisines), only 28 percent of homes have a wok, according to NPD.
All of this has meant a near complete loss of ethnicity for many Hispanic foods. Americans now more closely associate tacos, tortilla chips and burritos with fast food than with Hispanic culture.
“The Hispanic market isn’t the only one driving that taste profile,” says Tom Dempsey, CEO of the Snack Food Association. “As manufacturers become more innovative on how to use tortilla chips, that will continue to take a larger share of the snack marketplace.”