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Your ticket to a world of cuisines

When it comes to food, your local supermarket is your free passport to the world. "Today" food editor Phil Lempert offers you a special view.

The nation’s palate is clearly skewing ethnic. A trip to Taco Bell for tacos, burritos and gorditas — with rice and beans on the side — can hardly be thought of as exotic today. And according to New American Dimensions, a Los Angeles-based firm specializing in monitoring ethnic trends in the U.S., there are more Chinese restaurants in the U.S. than McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King restaurants combined.

The melting pot that is America has had a natural effect on the menu preferences of American kids — and choices being made by young Americans have obvious implications on the grocery purchase behavior of American adults. According to ACNielsen Homescan data, families with children aged 12 and under account for 32 percent of all dollars spent on prepared Mexican dinners.

Although not nearly as popular with younger American consumers as Hispanic offerings, a similar trend can be seen among select Asian food products. Forty-four percent of the dollars spent on Ramen noodles, for instance, come from families with children 12 and under.

Indeed, the trend in supermarket ethnic food sales mirrors the United States’ changing ethnic makeup. In today’s America, the fastest-growing ethnic market is Hispanic. While Caucasians still make up the majority of the population (almost 68 percent), that number is down significantly from 1990 when it was slightly over 72 percent. In fact, three states — Hawaii, New Mexico and California, as well as the District of Columbia — have “majority minority” populations (that is, more minorities than single-race, non-Hispanic whites), and Texas is very close to joining that group.

It should come as no surprise, then, that tortillas are the nation’s second-largest bread product (behind white bread), and that salsa outsells ketchup. But it’s important to understand that the trend toward ethnic food is not just coming from ethnic consumers. According to New American Dimensions, 75 percent of ethnic food spending comes from the mainstream, not the ethnic group from which that food is derived.

So we decided to take a trip around the ethnic foods world:

Latin American cuisine:
It'sa super broad category that encompasses very different people of various racial backgrounds who are Native American, South American, Mexican, Central American and Caribbean. In South America, you'll often find quinoa, and a wide array of seafood. In Mexico, many dishes contain squash, maize, green peppers, chile peppers, sweet potatoes, papaya, and chocolate. Puerto Rican staples include rice, plantains, beans, tubers like yuca and malanga, and pork while the Dominican Republic's cuisine is heavily influenced by both its French and Spanish background. What we in the U.S. are most familiar with though are the fried beans-, meat-, and cheese-heavy dishes of Tex-Mex cuisine, a mixture of Mexican and the American southwest. Here's a familiar Tex-Mex product and one that might not be so familiar to us, but is popular in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti:

Real Mex Foods Natural Burritos with organic ingredients:Black Bean Burrito: Slow simmered black beans with herbs and spices layered with Monterey Jack Cheese wrapped in an organic flour tortilla.Bean & Cheese Burrito: Mild Red Chile sauce, slow simmered pinto beans, Monterey Jack and Cheddar Cheeses wrapped in an organic flour tortilla.Charbroiled Chicken Burrito:  Marinated flame grilled chicken meat with Mexican-style rice, Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses wrapped in an organic flour tortilla.Retail Prices: $ 2.99 to $ 3.25 for 10 oz. burritos. All are all natural with no preservatives.(realmexfoods.com)

Mabi (fermented Caribbean beverage made from tree bark):This beverage is loved by people who are from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. It has been made for generations, normally made at home and sold on local street corners. The bark from the mabi tree is boiled then sugar and other ingredients are added. Once the drink begins to ferment they drink it. It's supposed to lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol and even make men more virile! The mabi drink has never been commercially available until now.  Global Beverage realized that tens of millions of these ethnic customers could not get mabi here in the U.S., so after two years of research and development, they've reformulated the beverage, removing the alcohol and the fermentation odor, thus making it more enjoyable. Now even kids can have an ice cold mabi drink.Four-pack is $ 2.99. Single 12 fl oz bottles are .99 cents.Global Beverage Enterprises (drinkmabi.com)

AsianSimilar to the Latin American cuisine misunderstanding and confusion, Asian cuisine has a myriad of flavors, from Muslims in Indonesia and Mongolia, Christians in South Korea, Hindus in India, Buddhists in Vietnam to Shintoists in Japan. However, rice and vegetables are common staples in many of these regions, but not all. Central Asian cuisine is dominated by dairy and meat products. Here are a few examples of East Asian cuisine:

Kishibori Shoyu: We know salty Kikkoman, and this is a pure, wonderfully flavored shoyu with a clear reddish brown color and a floral aroma. Add to steamed vegetables, baked fish or chicken, stir-fry, on rice, etc. (You can visit: lamtc.com and nymtc.com)

Fish Maw Soup: This soup is consumed in Southern China and Southeast Asia. It's main ingredient is 'fish maw' — the fish's air bladder which allows them to regulate water and air flow so that they can ascend or descend in the water. It is considered an affordable luxury and is often an alternative to more expensive dishes like shark fin soup. The fish maw adds texture to the soup and absorbs many of the flavors of the ingredients it is cooked with. This soup also includes mushrooms, bamboo shoots and a variety of seasonings. Many Asians believe that fish maw also confers some health benefits such as improving circulation and complexion. Retails for $4.50-$5. Available in Asian grocery stores.For additional information, email inquiries to:  marketing@eastlandfood.com

Black Sesame Dumplings in Ginger Syrup: This is a wonderful dessert consumed in parts of China and Southeast Asia. It features dumplings filled with sweetened black sesame paste, in a light ginger syrup. Although you can eat it throughout the year, it is especially good for the fall and winter since it is served warm. The ginger serves as a balance to the sweetness of the rest of the ingredients.Retails for $2.50-$3. Available in Asian grocery stores. For additional info email inquiries to:  marketing@eastlandfood.com

Middle EasternMiddle Eastern refers to the foods of the Middle East as disparate as the various climates and religions of the area. The region varies depending on who you ask, but the region for Middle Eastern cuisine is said to stretch from Ethiopia, to Turkey and Armenia. Despite all the differences, commonly used ingredients include pita, honey, sesame seeds, sumac, chickpeas, mint and parsley. Falafels are seen as a pan-Middle Eastern dish that is popular now in the United States.

Falafel Paradise: All vegetable patties made with Chickpeas, onion, parsley, garlic, spices.  Comes frozen — 100 percent natural, high in fiber. 15 patties/pkg. (13 oz.) for  $3.59. daynasmarket.com

Alwadi Gourmet Young Okra in Tomato Sauce: Young okra, vegetable oil, onions, tomato paste, peeled tomatoes, salt, vinegar, parsley, garlic, red pepper, and black pepper. Comes ready-to-serve, 10oz. for $2.49. daynasmarket.com

South AfricanSouth African cuisine is mainly influenced by two things: The practices of indigenous peoples (the Khoisan, Xhosa- and Sotho-speakers), and the settler practices from the colonial period (the Afrikaner and British and their slaves and servants — from Malaysia and Java, as well as neighboring colonialists like the Portuguese of Mozambique). African bird's-eye chili, also called piri-piri, peri-peri or peli-peli, in various Portuguese and African languages is a pepper used in sauces and marinades for roasting and grilling.

Peri Peri Sauces: A heat that can only be found in Southern Africa. These traditional Nando's Peri-Peri Sauces deliver flavor first and then a warming afterglow! Use Nando's Peri-Peri as a condiment on your favorite prepared foods - or marinate your butterfly-cut flame-grilled chicken for that addictive Nando's taste. A characteristic of the Peri-Peri chili is that the heat creeps up on you, thus allowing you to first enjoy the taste and then ex-peri-peri-ence the African glow. Peri-peri grinders retail for $5.49 while sauces are $3.79. www.nandos.com

Kenkey: Accra (Ga) Kenkey is a specially fermented corn pudding using whole grain, stone ground, white corn meal. It is rich in fiber, and ready to eat. It is wrapped in the traditional corn husk to yield the characteristic kenkey flavor and color. Allow whole kenkey to boil in warm water for 10-15 minutes or warm in a microwave over for 2-4 minutes, cut kenkey into 4-5 slices. Serve with fried fish and shito (hot fried pepper), sauce, soup or stew. Retail $2.50/each.bafricanmarket.com

Jollof Rice Sengel & Gambia: A West African dish that combines rice, tangy spices and shrimp. In Senegal it's commonly prepared by the Wolof peoples, who also add other meats and vegetables. Retail $3.95 for 10 oz. shebafoods.com

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to phil.lempert@nbc.com or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .