Asian food is the fastest growing cuisine in the United States.
Between 1999 and 2015, sales of Asian fast food soared 135 percent, far outpacing Latin and Middle Eastern cuisines, according to the market research firm Euromonitor.
There are several factors driving the growth, according to author Andrew Coe who wrote the 2009 book Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States.
“A big change began in 1965 with the passage of the [Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965]. That opened the door for a lot of immigrants from Asian countries,” he said. “There are a lot more Asians from different countries, and they brought their food with them.”
According to the Pew Research Center, there were 20 million Asian-Americans in 2017. That was up 72 percent since 2000, making Asians the fastest-growing immigrant group in the country.
Coe said globalization also has been the reason for Asian cuisine’s surge in popularity.
“American business is involved with every country in the world, and we’re very aware of other countries and cultures,” he said. “We’re interested in the things they eat — a lot more interested than we used to be.”
He added that younger people are more willing to try new foods.
“Look at Korean. No one thought it would be hip. Now, it’s hip,” he said, adding that with immigration, “we have those people here who can prepare the food correctly.”
Globally, the majority, about 90 percent, of Asian restaurants are small, independent restaurants. But in the U.S., larger chains make up about 50 percent of sales of Asian cuisine. Panda Express, a large chain of Chinese fast food, had $2 billion in sales in 2014, according to The Washington Post.
J. Sullivan, Director of Culinary Innovation for Pei Wei Asian Kitchen, a fast casual restaurant that makes Asian food to order, echoed Coe about younger people driving an interest in Asian food. He has seen the growth firsthand. The first Pei Wei opened in 2000, and there are now over 200 locations nationwide.
He said Chinese food has been around long enough that people, especially younger people, are familiar with it.
“I got my first glimpse into Asian, pan-Asian 18 years ago,” he said. “I remember being blown away by not only unlocking the mysteries of Chinese food, but also exposure to Southeast Asian cuisine.”
He added that people now want to eat healthier, and Asian food is perceived to be more healthy because of the freshness of ingredients and quantity of vegetables. He noted that the reality is many Asian dishes are packed with calories, something he said he’s trying to “clean up.”
“[American cuisine is] one-dimensional, with very large portions and heavy on protein and starch,” he said. “Asian food brings veggies to the forefront. It’s not boiled and soggy.”
He said there are other factors making Asian food popular.
The Internet has made access to Asian recipes nearly universal. And now, with the growth in Asian immigration, there are many more stores selling what were once hard-to-find ingredients. Even if there’s not an Asian market near you, many ingredients are available online.
Sullivan also noted how Asian influences are affecting non-Asian food.
He said more and more homes, for example, are multicultural, so mixing and mashing cuisines is normal. He noted the popularity of Korean tacos as an example.
“You can now go to any neighborhood pub and find something Asian-influenced,” he said. “If you put Sriracha sauce on a burger, does it make it Asian?”
Maybe. Or maybe not, but there’s a growing market. According to a 2015 survey of fast food restaurants in the U.S., there were 550 items for sale with Asian names or Asian influence, The Washington Post reported.