According to the January issue of HomeWorld Business magazine, a housewares-industry trade publication, the ethnic cookware category is on fire, with increased demand in 2012 despite an economy still on low simmer. Ethnic-cookware sales have gone from $100.9 million in 2008 to $110.5 million in 2012, with spiking growth in products used to prepare Hispanic and Asian foods.
Asian- and Italian-oriented cookware continues to dominate the market, with the increasing Hispanic population fueling growth for tools like fajita pans and tortilla presses.
Ethnic-style cookware is often based on old culinary traditions. The IMUSA brand lava rock molcajete used for grinding up a party-size batch of guacamole, for example, is patterned after a tool used by the Maya and Incan peoples thousands of years ago.
"People see cooking shows and celebrity chefs using these items and want to try them in their own kitchen," said Manny Gaunaurd, the Cuban-American president of IMUSA, a cookware line founded in Colombia in 1934 and the first manufacturer of aluminum pots and pans in that country.
Mom & pop to mainstream
Gaunaurd became IMUSA's U.S. distributor in the late '90s, selling to mom-and-pop bodegas and ethnic supermarkets because "the mainstream stores just weren't ready for us then."
They are now.
Target, Macy's, Bed Bath & Beyond and other big-boxers distribute the smart-looking, functional line that includes Hispanic favorites like the caldero or Dutch oven, tortilla warmer, citrus squeezers and quesadilla pan, along with Asian specialty items from bamboo steamers to carbon steel and nonstick woks.
And business is good, said Gaunaurd: "We've had incremental growth in the 30- to 40-percent range every year in the past three years. We're selling to way beyond a niche market now."
Let's go for a wok
American-born Chinese chef Ken Hom is the spokesman for his own line of Asian cookware, a division of the European Diethelm Keller Brands.
Hom, now based in France, started cooking at his uncle's Chinese restaurant in Chicago. Now a TV celebrity chef on the BBC, he created his own line in 1984, pioneering the idea of cooking over high heat with little fat as both a time- and calorie-saving initiative that could go mainstream. His name is on nonstick and carbon-steel woks, grills, steamers, various kinds of cleavers and more.
Hom's woks have been top sellers in the U.K. ethnic cookware market for more than 20 years, but entered the U.S. market only in 2010. They're sold at stores such as Bed Bath & Beyond and Publix.
"A wok is a given in my kitchen," said Belmont Hills resident and Asian cook extraordinaire Lauren Steltzer. Her favorite is a cast-iron version that she purchased on a trip to San Francisco specialty store The Wok Shop.
"I've been cooking with woks for almost 30 years, but I feel like I just got a Rolls-Royce, and for less than $20," she said. "Every time I cook with it, I find myself admiring it - the shape, the balance, the finish."
Steltzer was late to the Chinese table. Although she left her childhood home in Kennett Square to travel and live in places as exotic as Turkey, she hadn't been exposed to Chinese food beyond canned chow mein. "I thought Chinese food was limp bean sprouts and celery in a thick cornstarch sauce over crisp noodles."
She discovered the real thing in college and never looked back, cultivating a love for eating and cooking all over the Asian food map. Her wok spatula, Shun-brand santoku knife and three-tiered stainless Chinese steamer are always close at hand in her kitchen.
As with just about everything in her cabinets, each specialty item does double duty. In addition to steam-cooking Chinese dishes, she uses the steamer on veggies before finishing them in a pan or the oven. She boils pasta and dumplings in the steamer because "the lightweight, wide pot lets the water heat up quickly."
From pasta to pho
At Fante's in South Philly's Italian Market, co-owner Mariella Esposito proffers a wide range of specialty ethnic cookware. Beyond the de rigueur pasta machines, pizzelle irons and panini presses that herald the family-owned shop's Italian roots, Fante's offers tagines for Moroccan stews and couscous, tortilla presses for making homemade rounds of maize and flour, and even Mongolian hotpots for everything from Vietnamese pho to Japanese shabu-shabu.
"Paella pans are a growing market for sure," she said. Fante's has them in stainless steel and terra-cotta.
Fante's, which opened in 1906 when South Philly was primarily an Italian neighborhood, has been a constant while the demographics in the area have shifted, as immigrants from Southeast Asia and Mexico have joined the merchants and the customers in the Italian Market.
"That's what makes this neighborhood so interesting," said Esposito, who recently attended the International Housewares Show in Chicago.
And Fante's biggest seller these days? "It will always be the pasta maker," she said. "That's probably never going to change."
Beth D'Addono has been writing about the Philadelphia and national restaurant scene for more than 17 years. Read more at unchainedtravel.com.