Ethnic eateries: the melting pot's aboil. The new immigrants bring new flair in pleasing America's tastes

At first glance, the Indiana Sweet Shop is a piece of Americana: The two plate-glass windows, the tiger-striped floor, the nine stools along the L-shaped counter, the portly old popcorn maker, the Coca-Cola menu on the wall. But look again. The loyal lunchtime crowd that bellies up to the counter is eating fried rice and kimchi, a pungent spicy cabbage dish as Korean as cheeseburgers are American.

``We sell more egg rolls than egg sandwiches,'' says Sophia Kim, a gentle Korean woman who runs the shop with her three children.

The Indiana Sweet Shop is a vivid example of the way interdependence with developing countries transforms American culture and the way business caters to these new tastes.

A quarter of a century ago, eating out in this Midwestern town meant ``steak, 'taters, and salad,'' says Kevin Brennan, president of the Bloomington Area Restaurant Association.

Today, Bloomington dines on Lebanese, Chinese, Korean, Ethiopian, Afghan, Yugoslav, and Mexican food. Altogether, 20 to 25 percent of the formal restaurants in town serve other than American and Western European fare, Mr. Brennan figures. Many local restaurants have broadened their menus to include Mexican and other third-world foods.

Bloomington has a special link with the third world. It is the home of Indiana University (IU), which attracts students from all over the world.

Sophia Kim came in 1961 with her Korean husband, who studied for a year at IU and settled in the community. Nine years ago she bought the Indiana Sweet Shop, which has stood next to the Indiana Theater in the heart of Bloomington since 1932.

But exotic eating habits are not confined to university towns. The number of Oriental restaurants in the United States increased about 23 percent between 1983 and '85, says Marilyn Goler of the Restaurant Consulting Group in Evanston, Ill.

After pizza, says Warren Spangler, executive vice-president of the Indiana Restaurant Association Inc., ``our growth [in the state] has been Mexican No. 1 and Chinese No. 2.''

Restaurants are ideal businesses for immigrants from developing nations. They require low initial capital and provide work for entire families, who often have sketchy command of English at first. Moreover, ethnic restaurants have, by definition, a niche in the market, says Morton J. Marcus, director of IU's Indiana Business Research Center.

``The same thing applied 50 years ago for Italian restaurants when you had large numbers of Italian immigrants,'' Mr. Marcus says.

Immigration from developing countries, however, only partly explains the increase in restaurants with third-world menus. The recent takeoff of such restaurants is primarily a consequence of strictly domestic cultural shifts, Marcus says.

With more single-person households, more women working, and more disposable income, people eat out more. No longer limited to the dishes they know how to cook, Americans can sample a wider variety of food.

Coupled with these changes is concern, among some people, about health. Food from developing countries makes liberal use of fresh vegetables and fish. Kidan Hagos, an Ethiopian who opened her second restaurant here in February, takes pride in serving no canned or frozen food.

There's also the price. A lunch of egg rolls, fried rice, and sweet and sour chicken costs $2.98 at Mrs. Kim's.

Greater ease of travel has whetted American appetites for new foods, says Brennan, who is a food manager at the university union. ``As we have become more able to eat food in other lands,'' he says, ``we have brought them back.''

Capitalizing on these new eating habits, Bill Ben, a Korean-American, has started A-Ri-Rang, a fast-food Oriental restaurant in Bloomington. ``The next McDonald's in the business will be the one who puts together a successful concept and operation for Oriental fast food,'' he says.

Mr. Ben, a smooth, corporate-savvy executive and the son of a Korean restaurateur in Omaha, Neb., started three Oriental fast-food restaurants in his hometown and launched an egg roll company that sells to delicatessens and restaurants. He recently joined forces with Wharfside Restaurants Inc., a multi-franchise company based in Indiana.

The Bloomington A-Ri-Rang is their first joint effort. Ben is working to perfect the operation, which uses computerized cooking times and pre-measured ingredients. The staff doesn't do anything more complicated than cut vegetables.

Ben's next move is into Indianapolis. He says a study shows that city can support 12 of his fast-food restaurants.

Although Americans may have found it easier to try new foods because they eat out more, they are now experimenting at home. Robert Haft, president of Crown Books, a large retailer, says his sales of Oriental cookbooks are up 50 percent since 1983.

Beaumont Hung, who operates the Lung Cheung, one of the more successful Chinese restaurants in town, has appeared on public television to teach cooking. He is thinking about doing a video on preparing Chinese food.

Majid Matus, a Libyan, opened the Sahara Mart three years ago. At first most customers were foreign students; today 15 to 20 percent of the people who pick from the shelves of canned curry cuttlefish and fresh tamarind are Americans.

Mr. Matus quickly ran out of the 600 copies of the Middle Eastern recipe book he put together. People call him up regularly for cooking advice.

Bloomington has two other Middle Eastern and two Oriental food stores.

Two American chefs have gone to work for Ms. Hagos to learn to cook Ethiopian food. They make less money than in their previous jobs but wanted to widen their skills and, she says, grow with her business.

Ms. Hagos, who has plans to expand to Indianapolis, is determined to prepare only authentic food from Ethiopia and other developing countries. Other third-world restaurateurs have found it necessary to compromise.

Recognizing that many people are concerned about such things, Mrs. Kim does not use monosodium glutamate in her food, she says. She tried twice to serve native ginseng tea to her customers. ``Sometimes I just let them taste, but they didn't like it.''

Mr. Hung stopped serving chicken the way the Chinese eat it, with the skin still on. He doesn't bother with shark's fin soup or abalone, Chinese favorites. His lunchtime buffet includes mashed potatoes.

``If I write prelave [on the menu], people don't eat,'' says Akram Azam, an Afghani who opened a meat market/restaurant in January. ``If I write `sirloin strip in onion sauce on rice and salad plate,' people eat it.''

Of course, cultural interchange is a two-way street. Says Hong Kong-born Mr. Hung: ``There's nothing better than New York strip and baked potato.''

This is the seventh in a series looking at US business and economic ties to the developing world. Nancy Simpson Bidlack and Gwen Richards contributed to this story.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Ethnic eateries: the melting pot's aboil. The new immigrants bring new flair in pleasing America's tastes
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today