As a kid growing up in my small, suburban town, it’s fair to say I didn’t have a broad sense of the world of food. Long before large restaurant franchises offering tastes of other nations or big name grocery stores that regularly stocked Sriracha and 12 kinds of Tamari sauce, the most exotic meal I encountered eating out with my parents was tostadas at the local big chain Mexican restaurant.
In fact, I was a sophomore in college before I even experienced the joys of pad Thai — an experience that I’d later impart to my niece at a much younger age, lest history repeat itself.
Today, Mexican, Chinese, and Thai food are as ubiquitous in the popular restaurant landscape as Italian and American cuisine. No longer relegated to small, out-of-the-way restaurants you’d have to be in-the-know to find, what Americans consider “ethnic” food is everywhere: at restaurants large and small — from fast food to fine dining — and even influencing typically classic American menus with new and exciting flavors.
But what do you do if you want to dine out with someone still uninitiated but not scare them off from the experience (or ruin your evening with… um… spirited commentary)? Here’s a look at four ethnic cuisine types gaining popularity from table to store and what you can recommend to the finicky eater to get them on board fast.
The last time I took a group of out-of-town guests to a Japanese restaurant, there was clear excitement in the air. Fresh eel, octopus, yellowtail – so many delicious possibilities. One friend kept repeating “Uni. Uni. Uni.” in a trance. And then there was one person in the group, noticeably silent, huddled at the far edge of the table, just looking over the menu in bewilderment (and a tad bit of queasiness). Fish, it seemed, was not his thing. And as soon as he looked up in a panic, the chorus of recommendations rang out from the rest of the table, like a Siren song:
Closest cousin to American barbecue chicken you’ll find in Japanese cuisine, teriyaki chicken is grilled with a sweet glaze made from soy sauce, mirin, and sugar (or honey). It’s a safe bet for ichthyophobes and anyone who otherwise needs a more tempered option on a Japanese (or Japanese-inspired) menu.
If your companion feels like they’re missing out on the fun of soy-dipping and wasabi rush, odds are a California roll is not going to be too far off the map. A well-known sushi roll (otherwise known as maki), the California roll is crab, cucumber, and avocado held together by seaweed. This roll is wrapped on the outside in rice, making it a more palatable experience for any hesitant sushi adventurer. And if your companion doesn’t eat shellfish, places like Bai Plu Thai and Aki Sushi Bar always have inventive vegetarian rolls, with ingredients like sweet potato and mango, to please.
If there was ever a picture-perfect version of “chicken soup for the soul,” it’s pho. A delicate dish consisting of broth, rice noodles, herbs, and your choice of meat, pho is an extremely popular street food in Vietnam — and that popularity is definitely on the rise these days in the United States.
In more authentic settings, restaurant guests actually construct their own pho from a selection of ingredients, taking care to pour steamy rich broth over the herbs and noodles to fully activate their flavors with the heat of the liquid. Different greens like Thai basil, green onions, bean sprouts, and cilantro can be added, and a selection of chili peppers and Sriracha is an option if you like your soup spicy. Some squeezed lime juice as a finishing touch helps balance out the pho with acidity.
No matter how you build it, one thing is very important to know about pho. If you want to save your friends some embarrassment, make sure they know it’s not pronounced like it looks. Say it with me: FUH, not FO.
But if your skeptical companions are still not convinced by the warm delights of this Eastern comfort food, do not fear. A báhn mì is the way to go. Served on a small, crusty baguette (not unlike a French loaf in lightness and crunch), the báhn mì is essentially a Vietnamese hoagie. Like pho, its contents can be customized as well: grilled chicken, brisket, pork belly, sausages of all types — the sky is the limit.
Got Bánh Mì and Pho? in Houston, TX even has a meatball báhn mì. Typically, the sandwich will also then be accented by pickled carrots and shredded daikon radishes, fresh cucumber, cilantro, and any amount of chili sauce to your taste.
Speaking of chilies, this is the cuisine type my mother was most reluctant about when joining my family out for dinner. For an Eastern cuisine, the traditional food of India is quite distinctive from that of relative neighbors China, Japan, Thailand, Korea, and Vietnam. And because it hasn’t been embraced in American quick serve restaurants to the same extent as these others, it still holds a bit of mystique and intimidation for the uninitiated diner.
Worry not. An easy transition for most timid eaters is biryani, basmati rice flavored by a variety of aromatics and spices common to Indian cuisine (but not necessarily spicy in themselves). Every biryani is going to be a little different, but common ingredients include garlic, ginger, onion, nutmeg, cardamon, cinnamon, mint, cloves, and cilantro.
The dish can be vegetarian with peas, carrots, and potatoes as common fillers, but there will likely be meat options available as well: chicken, lamb, or shrimp. Don’t expect to find beef on Indian restaurant menus, though! A large part of the Indian population consider cattle to be sacred animals, protected from being eaten.
If your guest is just a tad more adventurous, recommending the murgh makhani (otherwise known as butter chicken) might be the way to go. Butter chicken is the ultimate combination of richly decadent and mildly spiced, with a sauce base heavily flavored by tomato and… you guessed it… butter. It’s also the perfect dish to have with a side of plain basmati rice and naan, the flatbread baked in tandoori ovens, served hot and brushed with a little more butter. Even the most reluctant friend or family member will light up at this wonderfully indulgent plate, like at Royal Khyber in Santa Ana, California.
This final cuisine is likely one of the hardest sells to adults who are about to experience its fun deliciousness for the first time, but it is definitely the easiest one to convince kids to try. Why? Because utensils are optional.
That’s right. Ethiopian cuisine is designed to be eaten with your hands (specifically the right hand). It’s a fact that may alarm germaphobes, but will delight anyone under the age of 12 who is used to hearing the dinnertime refrain, “Don’t eat with your hands!” My eight-year-old niece took to the food at Ethiopian Diamond in Chicago immediately. While she chose items to try with careful consideration, the excitement driven by the out-of-the-ordinary experience was something she still talks about to this day.
The typical platter, shared with all guests across the table, consists of three types of food: wat, tibs, and injera. Wat is a thick stew-like dish that comes in a wide variety of types, some meat-based (beef, chicken, goat, or fish) and some vegetarian. Lentils are common, but first time visitors might respond best to simple potato, carrot, and chard wats, as they are generally less spicy (and more immediately recognizable!).
Tibs is sautéed meat, usually beef or chicken, cut in bite-sized strips and often served with sautéed onions. Both of these items will rest on top of the injera, the sourdough-flavored soft flatbread that serves to get food from the plate to your mouth. If you’re not used to sharing a large plate with a bevy of strangers, you may want to try it out with a smaller group first.
But if you’re anything like me, you’ll be begging friends to go out for a night of laughter, conversation, and joy over a platter at every available opportunity.
Want to take that next big foodie step — and maybe raise a few eyebrows along the way? Check out our look at 7 foods that sound like one thing (but are actually another):