Tasting The World: Examining Trends in Ethnic Cuisine


Canadians can’t get enough of ethnic foods. Sushi, spicy samosas and chicken shawarma have become mainstays in the majority of Canadians’ takeaway repertoire over the years.

Robert Carter, industry analyst and executive director of Foodservice with Toronto-based NPD Group, maintains there are several components that have contributed to the rise in popularity of ethnic cuisines in this country. “Canada is an ethnically diverse nation and a lot of our population growth comes from immigration,” he explains. “We have a continued increase in different cultures and this plays into the ethnic trends we see.” An example of this could be the exponential rise in popularity of beloved Filipino fast-casual chain Jollibee, whose business model includes opening locations where large groups of Filipinos have immigrated. As home to the largest Filipino population in Canada by percentage, Winnipeg was also home to the first two Jollibee restaurants in Canada in 2017. In 2018, a third location opened in Scarborough,followed by fourth in Mississauga, Ont.

At the opening of each Canadian Jollibee location, crowds — mostly Filipino — lined up overnight to be among the first to get a taste of home. Others, intrigued by the brand’s enormous reputation — featuring celebrities such as the late Anthony Bourdain singing its praises — wanted to try the food for themselves.

Jose Miñana, JFC North America group president, is genuinely delighted by Canada’s reaction to their restaurants. “We have been so thrilled by the level of excitement for Jollibee’s [Canadian]openings from Filipinos and locals alike,” he says. “Two months after our Scarborough opening, there were still lines forming outside the store with our customers waiting for over an hour just to get a taste of Jollibee.”

The frenzied success of the Jollibee franchise in Canada speaks to two major flavour trends — incorporating snack/street food and the more ethnically specific “island-cuisine” trend, which includes the flavours of the Asian Southeast and Pacific islands.

Filipino flavours such as vinegar and bay-laden adobo and ube (sweet purple yam) are significantly different in profile from other Southeast-Asian cuisines and, currently, North America can’t get enough of them. Popular menu items at Jollibee include its sweet-style ham-and-sausage spaghetti ($5.99); Palabok Fiesta — rice noodles with pork, shrimp and dried fish flakes ($6.99); Chickenjoy — fried chicken served with rice and savoury gravy ($7.99); and the peach-mango pie ($2.49).

There is a plan in place for Jollibee’s continued Canadian expansion, with an additional 100 restaurants slated to open over the next five years. Miñana maintains that Jollibee is very much committed to the Canadian market.

“Our aggressive expansion plan across Canada and North America is part of our overarching goal to be among the top-five restaurant brands globally,” he says.

“We are continually looking at expansion opportunities in Toronto and Ontario. Cities such as Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver are other areas we are exploring.”

While Jollibee’s Filipino-comfort-food model has been well received, other fast-casual chains are incorporating more exotic flavours into their everyday menus. Carter says Canadians, in particular, are motivated by food innovation, which has encouraged many larger brands to broaden their flavour-horizons.

“Now everybody’s trying to figure out the flavours to use to spice up some (existing) menu items,” he says. “It’s really a good-news story because these stronger flavour profiles are actually helping drive innovation in the foodservice industry.”

As Carter explains, it’s not just Canadian immigration that has made such an impact on ethnic-inspired food trends. He says Canadians from all walks of life are inspired by our diversity and, as a result, are more willing to try new foods and flavours. “A lot of the demand and growth is from the global-food awareness that’s taking place (in Canada),” he explains. “Consumers are more educated about the food they’re eating and they’re seeking out stronger flavour profiles.”

While millennials remain the largest percentage of the population to dine out, it’s not just this age group driving the need for stronger flavours and new dining experiences. Baby boomers are just as adventurous in their food preferences and shouldn’t be overlooked by food professionals.

“We have a much more exploratory demographic in the baby boomers,” Carter continues. “When they were younger, like the millennials today, they also changed the dynamic.”

When Yoshinori Kitahara opened the first Guu Izakaya location in 1997 on Thurlow St. in Vancouver, locals weren’t prepared for such an authentic Japanese food experience. Now, Guu is a household name throughout the city and boasts an additional location in Toronto. At any of the six Guu locations, the dining experience is loud and fun. The food, which was considered strange when Guu first opened, is true Japanese soul food — perfect for pairing with cold glasses of Sapporo beer and shots of sake. The menu changes regularly, but retains street food and regional specialties such as okonomiyaki (savoury cabbage pancake, $8) and takoyaki (fried octopus ball, $7).

Before 2000, izakaya-style dining in Canada wasn’t well known. Now, thanks largely to the Guu restaurant empire, izakaya — or bar-food-style Japanese dining — has become trendy and relatively common in urban Canada.

According to Guu’s head of Marketing, Yasumi Yajima, authentic Japanese izakaya flavours originally took time to catch on with the mainstream Canadian public. “In the beginning of Guu’s journey to spread izakaya culture, it was not easy to get customers to understand exactly what iakaya food and culture was,” she says. “It wasn’t just the food, either — it was the way Japanese people drink sake and beer by sharing otsumami (bar snacks) with another group of people, or the next table. It’s a bit different from the way people drink in North America.”

Yajima says Canadian multiculturalism and open-mindedness was a large reason why Guu eventually became so popular. “When we started, people knew what sushi, tempura and teriyaki were, but they had no idea about karaage or udon noodles,” she notes.

Guu’s popularity was the starting point for one of the major ethnic-food trends we see today. People are no longer looking for “Indian” food or “Japanese” food — they are interested in sub-categories of these and other types of ethnic cuisine, whether it’s a regional categorization (such as Southern-Chinese restaurants that specialize in Hainanese chicken rice) or a cultural categorization, such as izakaya-style bar foods.

Carter says this trend can be largely attributed to globalization and the fact that most Canadian citizens are now well-travelled. “The consumer’s understanding of regional cuisine is much broader than it used to be,” he explains. “Canadians, now, are much more educated and understanding [of new and different types of cuisine].”

In this light, he maintains foodservice operators have a unique opportunity to be more strategic in their output. “When you travel around the world, you begin to see exactly how young our country is,” he says. “With continued growth from immigration, so many people have now put their stamp on Canadian culture — and today, above all else, people want a story along with their food.”

For restaurateur Victor Bouzide, who founded Vancouver-based Lebanese restaurant, Nuba, in 2003, opening a restaurant was an attempt to celebrate his grandmother’s recipes. Middle-Eastern flavours, such as ras al hanout, tahini, rosewater and za’atar, are currently popular, but Middle-Eastern dishes also help maintain a healthy lifestyle through its largely plant-based ingredients. There are more vegan options for diners who eat out at Middle-Eastern restaurants; while the few meat options on offer are generally spit-roasted or grilled. At Nuba, the organic produce used is sourced as locally as possible, food is made fresh to order and the meats are all hormone-free and halal.

Michael Mann, Nuba’s head of PR and Marketing, believes the healthfulness and fresh, abundant flavours of Middle-Eastern cuisine is what makes it popular. “In addition to having a large, vibrant Middle-Eastern community in Vancouver, the people that live here lead very active and healthy lifestyles,” he explains. “Healthy eating is in the DNA of Middle-Eastern cuisine — many of our most popular dishes are vegan, vegetarian or gluten free — so regardless of age, taste, lifestyle, or dietary considerations, guests will always find something delicious to eat at Nuba.”

With fresh offerings such as traditional fattoush (chunky vegetable salad with chickpeas and pita, $13), chicken tawook (grilled chicken with traditional garlic sauce, $16.50) and malfouf (Lebanese cabbage rolls with minced lamb, $15.50), Nuba maintains a massive following of Vancouverites who not only care about their health, but about where the food on their plates came from. “There’s an abundance of great farms nearby, so it’s never a problem getting local ingredients to prepare our dishes,” Mann explains.

Even with its modern outlook on Lebanese food, Nuba still treasures its roots and the story its food tells. “The recipes on our menu come from the grandmother of our founder and date back to the 1800s,” Mann explains. “Over time, these recipes have travelled and changed to become a beautiful mix of traditional and contemporary cuisine. The spirit of tradition runs deep at Nuba — but not at the expense of our desire to provide guests with new and exciting dining experiences.”

Story by Janine Kennedy 

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