The World on Ice

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Once upon a time in America, lasagna was considered ethnic, garlic was an exotic ingredient, and the only foreign foods in the freezer section were egg rolls. Now look at us – popping a frozen tray of Dal Makhani into the office microwave and calling it lunch.

It’s certainly not news that Americans adore frozen dinners. According to the American Food Institute, we spent more than $5.9 billion on them last year. But now more than a third of that – $2.2 billion – is being spent on what is described as “ethnic food,” with more Indian, Thai and other East Asian entrees crowding out the fish sticks in the freezer case.

Chalk up the changing American palate to new travel patterns, increased immigration and general health consciousness.

We’re taking off for Saigon and Bangkok with the kind of passion that once drew us to Paris and Rome. At the same time, increasing numbers of immigrants from Korea, India and other Asian countries are coming to America, bringing with them native foodways and flavors to their new home.

In fact, the number of Asian and Pacific Islanders here grew by 48 percent during the 1990s, according to the latest census data. And the more we’re exposed to new cultures and cuisines – Chinatowns have expanded their aromatic borders to include Vietnamese and Malaysian restaurants – the more we want to sample those dishes when we dine out and replicate them at home. We’ve learned to love lemongrass and bok choy. Cardamom and tamarind.

Generation Xers and their children, the first to grow up amid such ethnic and culinary diversity, now take sushi and pad Thai for granted, along with spring rolls and tamales. The food court at the mall offers stir-fried tofu, enchiladas, and sashimi – right in there with the pizza and the sandwiches.

Even cable and network programming have more diverse lineups, featuring cooking shows devoted to helping us re-create once-exotic dishes at home. No wonder ethnic dishes are heating up the frozen-food aisle.

When a grocery store has a no-frills version of its Thai fish sauce, that’s amazing. For years, food-industry giants such as Nestle, ConAgra and General Mills stocked specialty brands only in small grocery stores in neighborhoods where immigrant populations settled. General Mills’ La Saltena brand, for example, offered “a taste of Argentina,” but it was marketed primarily to Argentinians far from home. But now those same companies are marketing their frozen Indian, Asian, Cuban and Caribbean dishes in the friendly neighborhood Wal-Mart, alongside brands such as Ethnic Gourmet, Green Guru and Kahiki. And they’re right next to the Lean Cuisine (now flavored with teriyaki, Mandarin, Hunan and sesame). Even the Pillsbury Doughboy is hawking three kinds of Indian flat bread – paratha, roti and naan.

Kosher companies are offering international specialties, as well.

Acme carries Mon Cuisine, which features vegan Moroccan couscous. And Kineret, another glatt kosher line, now includes Jeff Nathan Creations, such as chicken teriyaki and arroz con pollo. None of this would be happening, of course, if the food didn’t taste good.

And it’s delicious – stews and chilis of India, Asia and Africa that are hearty and filling, high in protein, and, if you skip the rice, low in carbs. There’s so much variety that a friend of mine and her teenage daughter pack them every day for lunch.

Tamarind Tree’s Alu Chole, for example, a dish from northern India, mixes potatoes, garbanzo beans, onions, tomatoes and ginger. And its Dhingri Mutter combines peas and mushrooms with ginger and garlic in a tomato sauce with a touch of cumin and cilantro.

Ethnic Gourmet’s Cuban entree, picadillo, is a tasty stew of seasoned beef in a cinnamon-clove tomato sauce, mixed with onions, tomatoes, carrots, raisins, green olives and almonds. It comes with long-grain cilantro rice.

Ginger? Clove? Cumin? Cilantro? This is an enormous improvement over the frozen TV dinners I grew up with – Salisbury steak, watery mashed potatoes, and gelatinous gravy.

The more you start eating vegetable and plant foods, the higher the seasoning goes. And when you discover a cuisine, you discover its seasoning. Now, it seems, we all want to up our seasoning ante.

Of course, for seniors and aging baby boomers, the appeal of spicier foods and bolder tastes may be physiological. The older you get, the more taste buds you lose.

New technology has also helped make frozen foods tastier than their freezer-burned predecessors. Flash-freezing techniques allow for a less soggy product – and allows Kahiki, for example, to claim bragging rights to the perfect frozen egg roll.

Ashoka, an Indian-based firm, sells its curried chickpeas in a new, shelf-stable foil packet that’s microwavable. “Shelf-stable” means no refrigeration is necessary, which means lower shipping costs as well as greater convenience for consumers. Who could ask for anything more? You.

If the market researchers at Mintel are right, ethnic-food sales will grow by 21 percent by 2006. Some cuisines have yet to be fully explored here, and Mintel predicts we’ll see more African, Malaysian and Indonesian frozen dinners. Still, Singapore noodles won’t appeal to everybody. And lasagna will likely remain an easier sell than lentil curry. They are not yet at the popularity level of Italian food in America.

But they’re getting there.


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