American Regional Cuisines Make Their Way Across the Pond

The U.S. is home to numerous regional cuisines that are often thought of as “ethnic” by U.K. consumers. Among these are Creole, Tex-Mex and regional American barbecue—three American specialities that are all gaining traction in the U.K.

Technomic’s recent U.K. Ethnic Food & Beverage Consumer Trend Report found that more than four out of five consumers see Creole cuisine as “ethnic.” Louisiana’s Creole cuisine—dubbed “city cooking” in New Orleans—has its refined French roots. It’s a rich, indulgent style of cooking that incorporates plenty of butter, cream and tomatoes. Most consumers who think Creole is ethnic consider it to be an emerging ethnic cuisine.

More than seven out of 10 U.K. consumers see Tex-Mex fare as “ethnic.” Tex-Mex is Americanised Mexican cuisine, a twist on traditional Mexican fare. More than half of consumers consider Tex-Mex to be mainstream.

And one-third of consumers consider American cuisine to be “ethnic.” Familiar American staples include hot dogs, burgers, fried chicken and deli sandwiches. The vast majority of consumers who identify American fare as “ethnic” say it is mainstream.

ethnic_cuisine

Base: 1,000 consumers aged 18+
Percentages may not equal cumulative percentage due to rounding
Percentages do not add up to 100%. The remaining percentage of consumers do not consider the cuisine to be ethnic.
Source: The U.K. Ethnic Food & Beverage Consumer Trend Report, Technomic Inc., 2012

The United States is a melting pot of ethnicities. The foods Americans eat are deeply influenced by a vast mix of global cultures and traditions as divergent as European, Native American, Asian and West African, which have come together over centuries to represent something distinctly American. Different cooking styles abound from state to state, such as the regional barbecue methods that span the country. Other distinctive regional American influences are found in Creole cuisine as well as Tex-Mex fare. The following sections look at each of these cuisines and their influence on U.K. menus.

Creole Flavors Rose from the South

Born in the southern state of Louisiana, Creole cuisine is perhaps the first ethnic-fusion cuisine apparent in the United States. Creole cuisine combines Native American, French, Spanish, African, Caribbean, German and Italian influences. Certain elements of this cooking style reflect its refined French roots, resulting in rich and indulgent menu items that often incorporate butter, cream and tomatoes. A variation on this sophisticated cuisine is spicy country-style Cajun, also from Louisiana.

Once beloved only by those living in Louisiana and other parts of the South, Creole foods like gumbo (a traditional roux-based stew), jambalaya (a melange of rice, sausage, chicken and seafood, similar to Spanish paella) and étouffée (a thick and spicy stew served over white rice) now appear widely on restaurant-chain menus across the United States. So do traditional Cajun cooking methods and seasonings, like blackened proteins (meat, chicken or seafood that is heavily crusted with spices and cooked) and spice-rubbed barbecued meats.

The vast majority of American consumers consider these home-grown cuisines to be ethnic. Survey responses for Technomic’s U.S. Ethnic Food & Beverage Consumer Trend Report showed that 86% thought of Creole and Cajun cuisines as ethnic.

Louisiana-style regional American cuisine has a tiny niche on restaurant-chain menus in the U.K., suggesting that these cuisines may have room to grow on menus. According to MenuMonitor, Technomic’s exclusive menu database, most of these Louisiana-style items on U.K. menus simply call for Creole or Cajun spices incorporated as a rub for chicken or shrimp, a seasoning for burgers, a flavour for batter or breading, or an accent to mayonnaise or another condiment.

Going forward, the trends for regional Louisiana cuisine will include more experimentation by restaurant chefs in order to showcase not just spice blends, but actual Creole and Cajun specialities. Here are two examples of classic Louisiana-style main courses as seen on the menus of major restaurant chains:

  • Creole Gumbo—served with garlic bread (Bodean’s)
  • Louisiana Cajun Jambalaya—chicken, spicy chorizo, crayfish and rice, in an authentic Creole sauce with mushrooms, onions and tomatoes (Smollensky Bar & Grill)

Tex-Mex: Americanised Mexican

Another distinctive ethnic cuisine in the United States is Tex-Mex, which melds Mexican culinary traditions with the food ingredients and preparations of the Southwestern United States—specifically, the state of Texas. Sprung from the ranching culture of southern Texas and northern Mexico, Tex-Mex fare originated among Tejanos—Texans of Mexican descent. Traditional Mexican ways of cooking were incorporated with North American food products (such as yellow cheeses) that were affordable and readily available, leading to a blended cuisine that has become known as Tex-Mex or Southwestern.

Today, popular Tex-Mex foods include chilli con carne (diced or ground beef with chillies or chilli powder), fajitas (marinated, grilled steak or chicken, cut into strips and served with warm flour tortillas, grilled onions and peppers for diners to assemble into wraps) and nachos—crisp tortilla chips topped with melted cheese (typically cheddar), chopped jalapeño peppers and assorted components ranging from seasoned meat to tomatoes, lettuce and sour cream.

Tex-Mex preparations and flavours have thrived for decades in the U.S., and there are signs that this regional American cuisine has established itself as a menu favourite in the U.K. in recent years. For example, fajitas and nachos are fixtures on many full-service casual-dining menus, and there are even major chains in the U.K. that directly position menu offerings as “Tex-Mex.”

  • Artisserie offers Tex-Mex Chicken Soup
  • Hungry Horse offers a signature Tex-Mex Burger, as well as a Tex-Mex Combo, featuring ribs and chicken
  • Pizza GoGo offers a Tex-Mex starter sampler
  • Wacky Warehouse’s Tex-Mex Criss Cross Fries are topped with guacamole, Heinz tomato salsa and sour cream

American Barbecue Is Deeply Regionalised

In the U.S., barbecue (including smoked pork, beef, chicken, sausages and other proteins—and all of its sauces and accompaniments) is a regionalised cuisine. Ask Americans in one part of the U.S. to describe their favourite barbecue meal, and the answer will differ widely from that of Americans in another part of the country. The Southern-style barbecue in Memphis, Tennessee, differs from a style of barbecue that is beloved in the Midwestern city of St. Louis, which in turn will differ from the barbecue style and barbecue sauces that are traditional in Texas.

Promoting quality and skill of preparation for regional barbecue is a solid trend on North American restaurant menus. There are signs that both brick-and-mortar restaurants and food-truck operators in the U.K. are beginning to underscore regional differences in American barbecue as well. Regionalising barbecue means successfully executing the culinary nuances between “dry” (spice-rubbed, served with no sauce) and “wet” (drenched in barbecue sauce) barbecued meats, as well as distinguishing between sauces—from the thick, molasses-based, sticky barbecue sauces of St. Louis or Kansas City to the thinner, mustard- and vinegar-based sauces of the coastal Carolinas.

For most U.K. operators attempting to operate within this sphere, it is enough at the moment to simply position American barbecue offerings as “Southern,” while also playing up the decidedly British love of roast meat preparations. This positioning works for Pitt Cue, the Southern-inspired barbecue concept that first built a customer base off its food-truck operation before launching a standalone restaurant venture. Pitt Cue offers a British take on Southern-style American barbecue. “Our food is inspired by the Southern United States of America, but as Brits we love to make things our own,” the chain’s website proclaims. “We make all our own sauces and rubs and our meat is cooked low and slow, smoked in-house and finished over charcoal. Our produce is British, ethically sourced, and our menu changes with the British seasons.”

Here are a few examples of mainstream U.K. restaurant chains that are trying to emphasise regional qualities for American-style barbecue in order to build the perception of quality:

  • Bodean’s signature pulled pork shoulder is accompanied by a Carolina-style barbecue sauce
  • Miller & Carter’s St. Louis Ribs are served with an “authentic American barbecue sauce”
  • Tavern Table offers a Memphis Cherry BBQ sauce as a barbecue accent to various items, including rotisserie chicken

Key Takeaway

Consumer interest in and demand for ethnic foods at restaurants and other foodservice locations is on the rise. For operators seeking to differentiate their menus through globally influenced offerings to gain an increased share of consumers’ foodservice spending, American regional cuisines can be a flavourful tool in their arsenal.

Darren Tristano is Senior Managing Director of Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based foodservice consultancy and research firm. Since 1993, he has led the development of Technomic’s Information Services division and directed multiple aspects of the firm’s operations. For more information, visit http://www.technomic.com.

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