FROM Mediterranean to Cuban, Thai to Indian, event guests are clamoring for exotic ethnic menus. Creative takes on global fare add authenticity to event themes and transport guests to exotic destinations without leaving the dining room.
While the broad appeal of ethnic cuisines makes them favorites at many types of events, “We've found that weddings are great for ethnic menus,” explains Judith Williams, owner of Catered Creations in Miami. “Couples are looking for unique ways to celebrate their wedding, and with an ethnic menu they can honor their culture, their community and any special interests.”
For an April wedding, Williams created an Indian menu that reflected the bridal couple's heritage. “The theme was Indian; however, the couple also wanted the menu to reflect our [Miami] culture,” she explains. Guests sipped mango mojitos and sampled hors d'oeuvre such as vegetable samosas with coriander yogurt, and sips of curried pumpkin soup. The family-style dinner included jicama, green mango and papaya slaw, coconut-and-lemongrass poached yellowtail snapper, and mango risotto. “Most ethnic cultures eat ‘family-style,’ and we've embraced that tradition by [using] custom-designed oversized Lazy Susans on each table,” Williams explains. Decadent desserts of dulce de leche panna cotta, ginger thins and miniature guava cheesecakes finished the meal.
While Indian cuisine is a top trend at events, Williams also is seeing requests for “Nuevo Latino” and island food, “which can be anything from the Pacific Islands to the Caribbean Islands.” She adds, “For more conservative guests, we usually ‘Americanize’ our menus, making sure that nothing is overly spicy and that we have some ‘safe’ menu options.”
Even traditional fund-raising events are embracing ethnic menus. When Moshe Aelyon, owner of Moshe Aelyon Studio in Westport, Conn., began planning the Boogie for Breast Cancer fund-raiser in April — the third time his company has produced the biennial gala — he wanted to move away from what he calls the usual “highbrow, black-tie charity event.” Previously, “We did ‘Manhattan Club’ and ‘South Beach’ themes, and this year we wanted to contrast the minimalist look of the last few years with something richer,” he explains. “We thought that a ‘Turkish Spice Bazaar’ would be a great contrast to previous years.”
Naturally, the exotic Istanbul setting required a similarly exotic menu. Aelyon, who was born in Turkey, designed a Mediterranean-Turkish menu to enhance the event's theme. Fabulous Foods, the preferred caterer of event venue the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y., created the cuisine.
During the cocktail hour, stations designed to look like Turkish street scene vignettes served dishes such as hummus and haydari — yogurt dip with walnuts and fresh dill. Tray-passed hors d'oeuvre including stuffed vine leaves, zucchini pancakes and spinach pies made the rounds before guests moved into the theater's main space for a meal of authentic fare that included baked shrimp, mushroom and tomato casserole, tagine — chicken stew — and swordfish served with lemon and olive oil sauce. Mosquito net tents adorned with fresh fruit and grains, gilded candelabras and hand-embroidered linen added to the Eastern allure.
The attention to authenticity paid off, Aelyon says. “This was the first time with this group that we got so many compliments on the food,” he notes. “In past years we had different agendas because we were going for more of a club vibe, but in this case we wanted something really authentic and hearty.”
Ethnic fare may have global appeal, but “sometimes ethnic menus are more expensive to produce; sourcing and shipping ingredients can add up quickly,” Williams warns. “We usually try to keep costs down by writing global menus with ingredients that can be sourced locally.” Creative resources can help caterers stay within budgets, she says: “We often shop in local ethnic ‘mom and pop’ markets and also utilize online specialty retailers.”
Rolando Rosales, executive chef at Port Chester, N.Y.-based Fabulous Foods, agrees that with the breadth of flavors needed, sourcing ingredients for ethnic menus can be challenging. “We're doing menus from everywhere — India, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Mexico, South America. When somebody wants Mexican or Greek food, we often have to go out and find special ingredients,” he explains. “When we catered the Boogie for Breast Cancer event, I went to a Mediterranean store — ethnic stores have all the necessary herbs and spices.”
Another reason ethnic menus are so appealing to event guests: “I think people love events that are like a mini trip that doesn't require a passport,” Aelyon says. “Ethnic cuisine helps us transport our guests to an exotic spot — food is very much a part of setting the mood.” Creating ethnic menus also is fun for planners and caterers, he adds. “Just have fun with it and stay true to the authenticity of the cuisine and the way it's served.”
Catered Creations, 305/762-6363; Fabulous Foods, 914/934-1313; Moshe Aelyon Studio, 203/259-7505