Ketchup, a tangy tomato sauce that Americans put on hamburgers and dip French fries into, has long been America’s favorite condiment, but an upstart with Asian roots is beginning to make inroads.
Sriracha, a hot sauce usually made from chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar and salt, probably originated in Thailand, but is increasingly showing up in American restaurants and kitchens. Evidence, says one food expert, of the great transformation currently taking place in American cuisine.
“About every 40 years, with each new cohort of immigrants coming into the United States, American cuisine changes dramatically,” said Krishnendu Ray, professor of food studies at New York University. “American food changes, American taste changes, which makes American cuisine and culture, in fact, a lot more dynamic and a lot more interesting.”
Ray says we’re in the middle of the third great transformation of American cuisine. The first occurred In the middle half of the nineteenth century, when about 20 million northern European immigrants, primarily from Germany, England, Ireland and Scotland, came to America, bringing a very distinctive palate with them.
Their preferences, including dairy, butter, cheese, lager, bread, pork, beef, and flavors like dill and butter, eventually came to be regarded as traditional American food. When we talk about Americans being “meat and potatoes” people, says Ray, we’re referring to this northern European influence.
The second transformation in American cuisine came with the arrival, from around 1880 to 1920, of immigrants who were mostly Mediterranean and Eastern European — Jews, Italians and Greeks — who dramatically altered American tastes.
“We get exposed to olive oil, for example,” said Ray. “The center of gravity in American cooking shifts from butter to olive oil, [and] herbs like mint and rosemary, fish and wine.”
The third mammoth shift began around 1965 and continues today with another 30 million immigrants from Asia, including China and India, as well as parts of Latin America. These new arrivals have influenced our taste for avocado, soy sauce, cilantro, chilis, mango, jicama, curry and, of course, sriracha.
The great Asian and Latin American transformation of American cuisine can be seen in upper-end restaurants where elite American chefs prepare dishes revolving around Mediterranean food with Asian and Hispanic inflections.
U.S. Census data dating back to 1850 — and probably before that although there is no data to support that assertion — shows that immigrants, especially those who didn’t speak English or whose educational qualifications or job skills did not transfer to the new world, have long dominated the U.S. food industry.
“Overall, immigrants have been way over-represented in the feeding occupations in American history. When we match the occupations and birthplace data, we see baker, butcher, green grocer, saloon keeper, tavern keeper, subsequently cook…they’re all foreign born,” Ray said, “meaning that 70, 80, 90 percent of bakers, butchers, saloon keepers in New York City [and] in the major cities, are foreign born and in the rest of the country, in the smaller towns, they add up almost to 50 percent.”
However, not all immigrant groups leave their mark on American cuisine, especially those who move up the social and economic ladder very quickly, or arrive in the United States and immediately enter the middle class. Ray says Filipinos on the East Coast are an example of an immigrant group that, for the most part, bypassed the food industry, by going straight to the middle class. And although Jews, many of them Germans, opened delis and brought us cream cheese bagels and pickled fishes, you don’t see as many Jewish-owned delis as you used to.
“They also move up so quickly, that there are hardly any Jewish restaurateurs left,” Ray said. “Today it’s tough to find a Jewish deli owner because Jews have moved basically into medicine, into law, and they have, in fact, become the greatest commentators and eaters commenting on food. In fact, if you look at restaurant critics, there’s a much stronger Jewish presence than [there are] owners of restaurants.”
He anticipates Indian professional elites will follow the Jewish example by becoming notable critics of food, but contributing less to the actual production and preparation of that food.
Meanwhile, with Latin and Asian cuisines moving to center stage, Ray expects to see evidence of increased internal differentiation with, for example, the opening of more Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Guatemalan and Salvadoran restaurants.
There’s evidence American food manufacturers aren’t about to be left behind as this latest transformation of U.S. cuisine occurs. Heinz, one of the leading makers of ketchup, recently decided to blend the old with the new with its introduction of a Sriracha-flavored ketchup.