In a matter of only 15 years, Asian cuisine has gone from being a niche food obsession to one of the most popular around the world.
Global sales at Asian fast food restaurants have grown by nearly 500 per cent since 1999, the fastest growth seen in any fast-food category around the world, according to data from market research firm Euromonitor. Fast food here is defined as any restaurant that gets less than half its sales from sit-down meals.
Asian food has grown by roughly the same amount as the next four fast-food categories - Middle Eastern, chicken, pizza, and Latin - combined.
The world's fast growing appetite for Asian food has a lot to do with both population growth and economic development on the continent. Demand has soared in China, where GDP per capita has increased more than ten fold since 2000, and also in Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia.
But Asian food has also benefited from the emigration of Asians to other parts of the world, where people then fall in love with cuisines they might not have encountered otherwise. The United States, where the number of Asian immigrants has grown immensely, is perhaps the best example. Americans, especially younger ones, are deeply enamored with Asian food (and hot sauce, for that matter).
"They're looking for bolder and spicier flavors, and something different," Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a restaurant-research firm, told QSR Magazine.
Sales at Asian fast-food restaurants have grown by 135 per cent since 1999, well outpacing the growth seen in any other segment.
Fast-food sales only tell part of the story, but they're arguably one of the best indicators of global food trends.
Asian food in particular is unique in that the vast majority of fast-food restaurants that serve cuisine from the region, whether it's Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese or Malaysian, aren't chains but independent, small restaurants. Globally, only about 10 per cent of sales at Asian fast food restaurants come from chains. The remaining 90 per cent (which amounts to more than $135 billion annually) comes from family restaurants.
In the United States, the story is a bit different, but no less striking. Roughly half of all sales at Asian fast food restaurants came from chains in 2014. The viability of that model points to a certain level of demand. US chains like Panda Express, which reached nearly $2 billion in sales last year, have proven that there's a mass market interest in Chinese food.
Even Chipotle has responded to the demand with Shophouse, a fast-casual Thai noodle restaurant.
Asian food is so coveted today that even restaurants that are centered on cuisines that aren't even remotely Asian - like burgers, fried chicken and sandwiches - are increasingly offering Asian-inspired options. There are currently at least 550 items sold at fast food restaurants around the United States with either Asian names or an overt Asian influence, according to market research firm Mintel. Exhibit A: Teriyaki burgers, which can now, by the way, be found at Carl's Jr.