Mintel: Canadians Getting More ‘Foreign Food’ Curious

canada-food-trends

A new report from the Mintel marketing intelligence organization says that as immigration continues to drive Canada’s population growth, the established population is increasing seeking to experience cultures beyond their own by sampling ‘foreign’ foods.

Many Canadians had an opportunity to do that multiple times in a single day, as I did, at Expo ’67 in Montreal. Some fine examples of the cuisines of a multitude of countries were there to be enjoyed, and may have something to do with the fact that, long before the recent Mintel survey, Canadians there and elsewhere in that country were able to find restaurants serving specialties from such countries as Italy, France, Greece and China.

Having had the ill fortune of experiencing Chinese food in both Montreal and Vancouver, even though I did so in both places some years ago, I would not encourage anyone who’s experienced that cuisine either in New York City or its homeland to ‘give it a go’ in Canada. (Nor would I recommend ordering lobster in a Montreal restaurant – but that’s a tale (no pun intended) for another day.)

England was for many years generally considered, by other-that-British folk, to offer little appealing in its ‘local’ cuisine (wherever in the country you ate), and many felt it offered little better in ‘foreign’ restaurants.

Since I resided in the Greater London area for six years in the 1970’s-‘80’s, and traveled widely around the country during that time, I have protested mightily that England does, in fact, offer up some amazing good food in various kinds of ‘domestic’ restaurants, from local workingman’s ‘caf’s to top-of-the-line places such as Claridge’s, where my friends and I sat once next to Michael Caine as he and his mother enjoyed lunch.  And London’s ‘foreign’ offerings, from some excellent Greek, Italian, French and Indian restaurants, rival their counterparts in their home countries – and the only one of the above-mentioned I haven’t visited is India.

(Yes, London does have some decent Chinese restaurants, and Thai ones, and no doubt many other types. But I don’t give high marks to many of the former, and haven’t sampled the latter. My best Chinese foods experiences in London were when I was in a party led by a Chinese woman. She not only knew where to go, but also what to order. Thanks, Linda, for introducing me to dim sum!)

I don’t mean to lump Canadians, as many tend to do regarding so-called Millennials, into an amorphous mass, but I’ve never thought of them – either of those ‘groups’, actually – as being particularly curious or adventurous, where food is concerned. Eating seems to almost be an afterthought, something that mixes well with the lively conversations Canadians clearly enjoy when seated around tables conveniently fitted out with food.

As for their recent trend to sample, to a greater or lesser degree, types of food enjoyed by people in far-flung parts of the world, I strongly encourage them to keep it up.

When I was in Kosovo, long before most of the world had heard of what then was an Autonomous Province of Serbia, even though my government-hosted party was being well feted twice a day (for a total of close to four hours, between lunch and dinner, and you don’t want to think about how much wine we were expected to consume!), I still made it a point to venture out and sample some ‘authentic, ethnic’ local food from a street-side vendor. That’s the kind of thing the locals tended to eat, as opposed to the ‘regional specialties’ provided (twice a day, for five days!) to a ‘distinguished group’ of foreign journalists traveling around a relatively small area, visiting vineyards and sampling wine. (It was a tough job, but somebody had to do it!)

I live in a small town in Virginia. There is one pretty-good restaurant here plus an assortment of fast feeders, a pitifully poor example of a Chinese eat-in/take-out place, an almost-as-bad Japanese place, and a few Mexican restaurants.

The chef-owner of the pretty-good place employs an Italian theme, and patterns his creations largely on Italian originals. But he is Moroccan, and confidently introduces something of his beyond-Italian self and training into many of his dishes. My wife and I dine there often, usually scoring at least one meal’s worth of take-home each time.

My cook-at-home options are ingredient-limited: Neither Walmart nor Food Lion, a southeast U.S. chain, enables an adventurous cook, which I sometimes try to be, to stretch much beyond the bare basics, ingredient-wise. For better fare, I need to drive close to 30 miles to an obscure ‘Oriental grocer’ or a Kroger store. The latter is, compared to what’s in my town, Food Heaven. But even there it’s hard to get a decent cut of lamb, or broccoli rabe, or some of the other items so readily available in at least some major U.S. cities.

Young Canadians are probably as or more adventurous than young Americans when it comes to trying to experience other cultures through travel. And I’ve admittedly not made a practice of observing what Canadian tourists eat when I encounter them. (Many for a long time were easily identifiable as Canadian through the Maple Leaf emblems on their backpacks!)

But I honestly can’t recall encountering any obviously-Canadian people in restaurants beyond their own country. Clearly, as tourists, they ate something, somewhere, and it’s more than likely that, as the Canadians I did encounter tended to be backpackers, their eating-out budgets were on a par with mine: Conservative, to say the least! So some of them more than likely sampled cuisines ‘foreign’ to them – and, a decade or two or so, which some of them may have come to long for, when back home. Alas, many of those ‘foreign’ tastes were locally unavailable across the width and breadth of that great country. Could that have helped spark the availability of ‘foreign’ foods for today’s Canadians to sample?

I think it’s great that, according to the Mintel study, three quarters (73 percent) of Canadian consumers like to experience other cultures through food. What’s more, nearly three in five (57 percent) Canadians are more open to trying ethnic foods now than they were a few years ago, as the majority (72 percent) of consumers turn to ethnic-inspired dishes to break the monotony at mealtime.

Ethnic-inspired foods such as Chinese (89 percent), Italian (84 percent) and Latin American/Mexican (82 percent) are the most commonly eaten by Canadians, however some less prominent dishes are also being sought out.

In fact, while just 20 percent of Canadians have tried African-inspired food, half (50 percent) are interested in doing so. Similarly, though just one third (32 percent) of consumers have eaten Southeast Asian food, 44 percent are interested in trying a Southeast Asian dish.

But the sad news is, a sizable minority of consumers are hesitant to create such dishes at home: 61 percent of consumers generally try ethnic-inspired foods at restaurants before preparing them at home. Further, more than one third (36 percent) of consumers agree that making ethnic foods is intimidating, with two in five (38 percent) agreeing that it is difficult finding ingredients to make ethnic inspired dishes.

Consider this, Canadians, Americans and others interested in trying to prepare ‘foreign’ foods you’ve experienced in a restaurant: Those places get their ingredients from somewhere – somewhere not a whole great distance from you.

My area is challenging, in this respect, yet I am able to find a good many of the raw materials I want when I set out to try creating a Thai dish, or an Indian one, for example. (The lamb issue continues to cause me consternation, though!)

And I cheat, when I want Indian food, which my wife finds too spicy: I stock up on prepared – boil-in-the-bag – Indian foods when we go visit her son or mother in North Carolina. These are, while a far cry from what you’d get in a good Indian restaurant – and the nearest one of those is 60 or more miles from here – it helps satisfy my cravings for the magical spice combinations Indians have developed for their dishes.

Anyone who is averse to sampling ‘different’ foods – domestic or foreign – is doing themselves a disservice.

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