For years, food-themed cable shows have successfully cooked up traditional American dishes to feed the appetites of viewers, but recently a new crop of ethnic and exotic food shows are piquing the interests and palates of foodies.
From Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern to Cooking Channel’s Unique Eats and Bravo’s Around the World in 80 Plates, viewers are getting a taste of different dishes from around the world that you won’t find on the menu at your local diner.
As the U.S. population becomes more diverse, food dishes and ingredients that were uncommon a decade ago are gaining popularity both in urban and rural America, network executives said.
DIVERSITY ON THE MENU
“The population is changing, particularly in the big cities, and people are now throwing words around like Sriracha and kimchi and things that weren’t part of the normal culinary vocabulary 10 years ago,” Dave Serwatka, vice president of current and cross-platform productions for Bravo, said.
Over the years, cooking shows have often experimented with new and unique dishes like Chinese or soul food. But Serwatka — who serves as producer of Bravo’s Emmy Award-winning series Top Chef, as well as freshman series Around the World in 80 Plates — said emerging multicultural personalities like Korean-American chef David Chang are bringing their own cultural influences to the forefront.
“Part of it is that chefs have emerged that have been influenced by their families, and what they cook is their everyday food,” Serwatka said. “These are the new stars of the culinary scene.”
That has led to a bunch of new cable series that celebrate ethnic cuisine. Cooking Channel has found success with shows like Unique Eats, which profiles ethnic restaurants, as well as cuisine-specific shows like Easy Chinese and Little Paris Kitchen, general manager Michael Smith said.
Another offering, Taste in Translation, takes popular U.S. dishes and adapts them into other cuisines from around the world.
“We’ve always believed that more exotic or ethnic cuisines were a big part of Cooking Channel’s DNA, in the sense that the network was created to target what I would call today’s new food lover — an emerging generation of foodies that are more diverse than in years past,” Smith said. “That’s had a double effect in that there are more diverse people from different parts of the world and different cultures in America, so there is more interest in exotic cuisine.
“As the more mainstream, indigenous population is surrounded by more diversity, the more they become exposed and open to it,” he said.
Travel’s popular Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern — now in its eighth season — has explored unique tastes from around the world. The show has featured such interesting culinary dishes around the country as baked muskrat and fried piglet testicles.
“There is clearly an appetite for people with a curiosity for these dishes,” Travel Channel president Laureen Ong said. “Maybe they don’t want to eat it themselves, but they are fascinated by it.”
FINDING A HOOK
The challenge in presenting and marketing such niche shows is to link exotic food dishes to traditional American fare, so that viewers will be receptive to new dishes in the midst of familiar content, Smith said.
“You have to anchor it in something that relatable to American [cuisine],” he said. “I don’t think viewers are going to watch an entire series about Turkish food, but if you can find a way to make it relevant to your own life and how it’s influencing American food, I think you can be successful.”
Several cable food shows are branching out beyond their cupboards to import some ethnic recipes and ingredients into their own shows. Smith pointed to popular series like Food Network’s Chopped and Bravo’s Top Chef as shows that have added some exotic food flavors to their competition-themed cooking format.
“Instead of the [ingredients] basket [on Chopped] having chicken, tomatoes and onions, it might be lychee, pomegranate and lamb, so I think that’s what we’re seeing,” he said. “I think you’ll see more mainstream American cuisine become broader.”
Bravo’s Serwatka said Top Chef’s seventh-season finale in 2010 was shot in Singapore, which introduced dishes from Taiwan, China, Indonesia and other cultures to the show, spicing up the competition between chefs. “Now, those [foods] are part of our everyday cuisine — it’s becoming more popularized,” Serwatka said.
Indeed, Cooking Channel’s Smith said that grocery store shelves are now offering ethnic flavored spices like pomegranate and ginger that a decade ago could only be found in specialty stores. Even ice-cream flavors have evolved from traditional chocolate and vanilla to Hispanic-influenced crème de lychee.
Or breast milk-flavored ice cream, according to Ong, who added that consumers have become more sophisticated and educated about food and are more accepting of flavors and dishes that would have made nearly everyone cringe a decade ago.
“There are a lot of foods that are unusual to the palette of many Americans that are not necessarily known and are still fascinating to viewers,” Ong said.
Added Serwatka: “Gas-station sushi says a lot about how far [exotic] cuisine has come — at one time eating raw fish was viewed as incredibly exotic and maybe weird, but now has become so normalized.”
The increasing cultural diversity of the U.S. has made viewers of TV food shows open to a more-exotic bill of fare.
R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.
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