Asian and Latin-American Food Win Attention Among Canadians


By: Mary Luz Mejia

It used to be that if you craved Italian food, you’d likely get a heaping plate of spaghetti with meatballs slathered in tomato sauce and a side of garlic bread. Today, that same dish might be dubbed “Italian-Canadian” and wouldn’t have the same culinary cred as a plate of Northern Italian wild boar ragu served over pappardelle. Canadians’ growing fondness for “ethnic” cuisines continues to extend beyond the better known, regional borders of Italy, France and parts of China. Today, Canada’s shifting demographics mean we’re enjoying waves of new flavours from around the globe, especially from Asia and Latin America.

According to Joel Gregoire, account manager, Foodservice at the NPD Group’s Toronto offices (until recently), Canada’s increasingly diverse population means regardless of their postal code, consumers will likely come into contact with ethnic dishes. Ethnic-inspired food is now a standard part of consumers’ diets, as it’s something they’ve grown accustomed to, says Gregoire, referencing NPD’s Eating Patterns in Canada (EPIC) report, which examines Canadian eating habits in and outside the home. The report reveals that 82 per cent of Canadians surveyed said they are game to try ethnic-inspired foods outside of the home, while 77 per cent of Canadians said they’d consider making it at home themselves.

But, there’s more. Consumers who live in regions containing large, densely populated cities purchase ethnic food away from home more often than consumers who live in characteristically rural territories, says Anne Mills, a consumer research manager with the Chicago-based research firm, Technomic. Further to Mills’ point, NPD’s Gregoire notes that one of the largest-growing ethnic groups in Canada is from Asia; a fact largely noticeable in provinces such as British Columbia and Ontario. What does this mean for the food on our collective dinner tables? The more diverse the population, the greater the demand for adventurous eating experiences. As our cultural mosaic changes, our palates become more accepting, explains Gregoire.

Awesome Asian

The cumulative culinary effect of the influx of Asian immigrants, from China to Pakistan, proves the EPIC report’s observations are spot on. Chinese food, for example, is no longer limited to chop suey or sweet-and-sour chicken balls. Offerings now include regional specialties such as northern bao or hand-pulled noodles. For his part, Hemant Bhagwani brought modern Indian fare to the Greater Toronto Area via his Amaya Group of Restaurants (which includes a higher-end establishment, a sit-down restaurant, express take-out spots and fast-casual eateries, with 15 units in total).

While the ubiquitous and number-1 selling menu item, butter chicken cooked in a tomato fenugreek sauce, reigns supreme ($7.63 to $11.95, depending on the Amaya concept), other lesser-known dishes are also big hits. Amaya’s Kathi rolls, which are egg-washed layered paratha (whole-wheat flatbread) stuffed with the customer’s choice of meat or paneer (Indian cheese), pickled onions and chutneys ($4.99 each) and the Kale and Paneer Masala ($10.95, Amaya Express), are fan favourites.

When I first opened Amaya, the main demographic was mainstream Canadian. Over the last few years, other ethnicities have started to trust Amaya as their restaurants of choice. Because we are in food courts, and have street-side locations as well, the visibility has helped us gain acceptance. Now, we are also seeing a lot of [other] Asian guests as well, says Bhagwani. His core demographic tends to be the 30-plus crowd with 20-somethings mixed in as well.

This mirrors Mills’ findings that Ethnic food consumption is driven by millennials and generation-X consumers. Moving forward, the preferences of an increasingly diverse, globally aware, millennial population will lead the industry to focus more on the authenticity of ethnic foods, explains the Technomic consumer research manager.

All sectors of the foodservice industry are keeping a close eye on ethnic food trends, and the street-food movement is no exception, with pop-up markets and restaurants, Asian-style night hawker markets, festivals and food trucks continuing to feed the country’s appetite for global flavours. In Western Canada, Browns Restaurant Group, franchisor of 31 Browns Socialhouse restaurants, including three in Washington State, is keen to offer its own spin on global favourites.

Jason Labahn, executive chef, notes Browns Socialhouses are located in neighbourhoods that cater to everyone from the business lunch crowd and young families out for an early supper, to the after-work dinner and drinks set. The chain’s overall menu bestsellers are the Pad Thai noodles ($15.95), with 140 to 180 orders per week, alongside the Asian-inflected Dragon Bowl ($15.95), which includes a bed of coconut rice topped with teriyaki chicken or tofu and stir-fried vegetables with a spicy yogurt. It doesn’t surprise me that these options beat out burgers here, because they’re comforting and familiar in their own way. And people feel like they’re eating lighter and healthier, says Labahn. Once you eat the Dragon Bowl, you’ll come back for it again and again. It’s well-rounded and balanced.

Southern Comforts

Canadians with Latin-American origins make up one of the largest non-European ethnic groups in Canada, according to Statistics Canada’s website. This, coupled with the notion of finding comfort in ethnic dishes, which have become part of Canadian culture, has led to interest in Latin-American food, especially from the up-and-coming culinary giant, Peru. The country is known throughout Latin America as having one of the best culinary legacies that melds indigenous Incan traditions with immigrant European and Asian cuisines. The result is a stunning array of dishes that we’re just now starting to get a taste for in Canada.

Toronto’s Celestin Restaurant owner and chef, Ivan Tarazona, was born in Peru and dedicates approximately 40 per cent of his French bistro menu to Peruvian/Latin-influenced dishes, most of which have that cosy comfort his diners prefer.

The trend in Canada when it comes to Peruvian and Latin food is comfort food. We don’t push the envelope as much as our neighbours in the U.S. What we consider street or party food is still new to a lot of Canadians, and they seem to enjoy it. I’m talking about churros, tamales, tacos and empanadas, says Tarazona.

Empanadas are the bestseller at Hamilton, Ont.’s Culantro Peruvian Cookery, owned and operated by chef Juan Castillo. His empanada special, which includes a choice of two empanadas and a side ($9), is as big a hit as Culantro’s Peruvian-style Rotisserie Quarter Chicken marinated with Peruvian spices overnight and served with two sides ($10). Back home, there’s a rostiseria on every street corner. My brother Martin has one called Limon in San Francisco  the chicken and all of my recipes are our family’s recipes, says Castillo.

At Celestin, the hands-down most popular Peruvian item is another classic, ceviche. Tarazona offers a rotating roster that’s citrus-juice cured, fresh and flavourful. The ceviche appetizer has included a three-fish version with sea bass, fluke and red snapper topped with native cancha (Peruvian toasted corn), lime juice, garlic, and aji amarillo (yellow chili), for $16. He also serves Aji de Gallina, a shredded chicken simmered in a nut, garlic and aji amarillo chili sauce. Traditionally, this dish is served with rice and/or potatoes, but Celestin’s version refines the dish by sauteing potato gnocchi with the aji amarillo sauce and mushrooms ($12.50, appetizer). We open people to the flavours of Peru in a new, modern way. Peruvian chefs combine European techniques and ingredients with traditional comfort foods. You’ll see Italian Peruvian and French Peruvian fusions all the time, and it works, says Tarazona.

Both restaurateurs believe travel to South America and exposure to its vast flavours has opened a world of gustatory possibilities for Canadian diners (and, Brazil’s World Cup fever doesn’t hurt). Castillo adds that Andean ingredients such as quinoa, purple corn and amaranth are just being fully discovered by the rest of the world. There are so many health benefits that some of our Peruvian food has and with people being more health-conscious these days, it’s a natural fit.

At Browns, Labahn and his team are keeping an eye on Peruvian food trends to see how they’ll play out. No matter what level of service you’re in casual to high-end  the amount of attention that well-known, prominent chefs are giving Peru has trickled down through the industry and has made us all look, he says. The chain offers a spate of fish and meat tacos with its house-made pico de gallo and jalape–o lime dressing ($10, two per order) and quesadillas ($12.95, appetizer) to satisfy Latin food lovers.

Meanwhile, Labahn sees regional Vietnamese and Thai also gaining attention on Canadian plates. It’s food he loves for its balanced sweet, salty, bitter, sour, spicy philosophies. Castillo constantly gets requests for Colombian and Venezuelan arepas, a corn masa (cornmeal dough) that can be stuffed like a sandwich or griddle-cooked and served alongside anything from steak to eggs. But Tarazona sees another hot cuisine on the rise. The next hot thing  finding our own Canadian cuisine. It can be First Nations and creating a Canadian cuisine like Noma did that’s something that will be big throughout Canada. He adds: I’d love to be a part of that movement, because we take so much time to study everyone else’s cuisines that we forget about our own. Tarazona would like to see more chefs using products that are purely Canadian with farmers pushing the envelope and growing heritage breeds of Canadian produce. For him, it’s about putting Canada on the map and celebrating our rich culinary heritage.

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