The American restaurant menu has been “zenspired” by Asian cuisine. Asia’s size and population allows Asian menus to have a wide range of possibilities, ranging from the spicy curried dishes of the southern regions to fresh, artistic sushi from the Far East. Asian food was introduced to the U.S. in the mid-1800s; it rose in popularity due to its exotic appeal. The same appeal still attracts consumers today, and it has contributed to the mass popularity and evolving innovation of Asian cuisine.

Growing Popularity

There is no denying that Asian cuisine has now become as popular as a burger and fries. According to Mintel Menu Insights, Asian cuisine is the third most popular cuisine type on the restaurant menu, comprising close to 900 menu items and found on 30% of the country’s leading chain restaurant menus. Asian cuisine is at an all-time high in popularity, and it shows no signs of slowing down!

Asian cuisine has seen continuous growth on restaurant menus. Mintel reveals that every type of dining segment experienced growth in Asian cuisine last year. Quick service restaurants (QSR) had the most growth with the addition of almost 200 Asian menu items. McDonald’s is just one of the QSRs that expanded its menu with the flavors of Asia. In 2006, the company added the Asian Chicken Salad made of crisp greens, warm orange-glazed chicken, snow peas, edamame, Mandarin oranges and toasted almonds with Newman's Own Low-Fat Sesame Ginger dressing. The QSR market is closely followed by fine dining, casual dining, family/midscale and fast casual markets in overall new Asian menu introductions.

The appetizer menu category displayed the most growth in Asian dishes in the past two years. While lettuce wraps and spring rolls have become appetizer staples, some restaurants are getting a little “Zenspiration” from innovative Asian creations. T.G.I. Friday’s added Zen Chicken Potstickers stuffed with minced chicken and vegetables, served with a sweet and tangy Szechwan dipping sauce. Claim Jumper offers premium Center-cut Sashimi Grade Seared Ahi served with ginger-onion Mirin dressing and Japanese slaw. In the same vein, New World Grill offers Korean BBQ Sticks with sweet roasted onions.

Fresh Surprises

Japanese cuisine has been identified as the segment that experienced the most growth of any Asian cuisine type. Who would have thought that the American palate would accept eating raw seafood? Sushi was mainly the item that contributed to the growth of Japanese cuisine.  Surprisingly, sushi has grown into one of the nation’s favorite Asian foods. Its popularity stems from its healthy reputation, high level of freshness, perception of sophistication and exoticness. All of these claims are now extremely popular with American consumers. This could mean increased growth in this arena. Sushi’s appeal also led to more sushi-inspired dishes such as seafood carpaccio and sashimi-grade seafood to appear on menus. 

 Sushi’s growth is attributed to restaurants such as L&L Hawaiian Barbeque and Upstream; both added sushi menus to their restaurants. Roy’s, McCormick and Schmick’s, and Bonefish Grill are just a few restaurants that also contributed to the growth of the item by adding both sushi and sushi-inspired items like Ahi Tuna Sashimi, Peppered Tuna Sashimi, Green Dragon Roll and Salmon Skin to their menus. Sushi has tapped into Americans’ growing taste for fresher, diverse and more creative Asian food.

Sake It to Me!

The popularity of Japanese cuisine also heightened the use of sake in food and beverages. Sake is an emerging ingredient in Asian cuisine and is quickly gaining popularity. Mintel reveals that sake is being used in sauces and as a marinade in a host of new Asian dishes. Upstream combined several traditional Asian flavors in its Sake Marinated South American Sea Bass with lobster dumplings, bok choy, shiitake mushrooms and shiso-mirin broth. Legal Seafood marinated its Alaskan Butterfish in a mixture of sake and soy sauce, drizzled with wasabi cream and ponzu soy garnished with seaweed salad. Roy’s has used sake in its Shiso Green Tea Seared Kona Kampachi Sashimi served with sake-marinated grapefruit and plum wine sauce.

The cocktail menu also has been inspired by sake, as it appears more and more. Mixologists are taking advantage of the clean, cool taste of sake and creatively combining it with Asian flavors to create irresistible cocktails. Sake is being combined with the refreshing flavors of cucumber, ginger, watermelon, raspberry and lychee, among other fresh fruits. Basil’s serves a Sakitini with Nigori sake and lychee puree. Hawthorne Lane created a Sake Mist made of cucumber-infused vodka muddled with ginger, shaken with sake and served up with fresh cucumber. For a sweeter flavor, P.F. Chang’s mixed a Red Dawn Martini by combining Cointreau and raspberry sake with a splash of cranberry.

Deeper Exploration

With Asian cuisine at the height of popularity, analysts predict that Latin food will be the next big thing. As consumers look to satisfy their adventurous palates, restaurants may need to explore new Asian flavors and cultures in order to offer fresh American menu items.

 Offering new and exotic flavors is one way for Asian cuisine to stay innovative. New flavors will provide a renewed level of glamour to Asian cuisine. Mintel’s research shows that Asian menu items are using more lemongrass, curry, plum, shiso and yuzu. Menus also are being peppered with traditional Asian spice blends of sambal, tamari and togarashi. The Cheesecake Factory offers an Ahi Carpaccio—thin slices of raw Ahi tuna, wasabi pesto, creamy avocado and Togarashi aioli. Roy’s created a Shiso Leaf Crusted Day Boat Sea Scallop dish accented with a yuzu-soy vinaigrette. Roly Poly added a Thai Hot Tuna Wrap filled with tuna salad, cheddar cheese, spicy Thai sauce, avocado, lettuce, tomato, sprouts and mango chutney.

In order to present colorful new flavors on the menu, restaurants may need to break typical expectations of Asian cuisine and explore more traditional and regional Asian flavors. Japanese and Thai flavors became popular in 2006. However, new Asian varieties such as Indian, Vietnamese and Korean are waiting to be expanded on national menus. California Pizza Kitchen recently added an Indian-inspired Mango Tandoori Chicken Pizza made with grilled Tandoori chicken, mango, mild onions, red peppers and mozzarella cheese on a spicy golden curry sauce, topped with fresh cilantro and a sweet mango chili sauce. The Cheesecake Factory offers a glimpse into the potential of Vietnamese cuisine with its chilled Vietnamese Shrimp Summer Rolls made of delicate rice paper rolled around asparagus, shiitake mushrooms, carrots, rice noodles, green onion, cilantro and shrimp. Korean food is currently the least explored Asian cuisine across all menus, but there is room for the growth of innovative Korean dishes on mainstream menus. New Asian cuisine introduces diners to unfamiliar parts of Asia, tapping into the consumer’s sense of adventure.

Mintel Menu Insights, a part of Mintel International Group, is a key resource for analyzing trends in the U.S. restaurant industry. The database tracks menu trends and innovations from the 350 largest chain restaurants and 150 independent restaurants, also featuring the nation's top 50 chefs. Trends are reported quarterly, offering insight into pricing, menu items, ingredients, preparations and entirely new menus. For more information, visitwww.menuinsights.comor contact Mintel International at 312-932-0600.