Restaurants, immigrants, and the popularity of various cuisines

A little off-topic exercise conducted in the “eye of the storm”, when Ilenia and Helen were still in the hospital:

A post on Seth Robert’s blog brings up the idea that many Chinese restaurants were opened as a way to go into business without competing with native male workers. The post made the rounds of several other online journals.

That was the push I needed to get up and go collect a few statistics of my own, regarding an idea I’ve been kicking around for a while. My theory is that the number of restaurants of a given type, divided by the number of immigrants from that country might be an interesting way of guaging the popularity of the cuisine in question.

In order to simplify things just a bit, I actually used data from Italy, for the following reasons:

  • Most immigration to Italy is pretty recent, so it’s not necessary to account for the length of time different immigrant groups have been present, and the effects that may have had on the diffusion of a given cuisine.

  • Immigration statistics were readily available: http://demo.istat.it/str2006/index.html

  • Italian the language almost completely corresponds to Italy the country (outside of a chunk of Switzerland, San Marino, and the Vatican), something that makes things that much easier.

  • I speak Italian, so it was easy to find out all the information I needed

Unfortunately, finding out the number of restaurants of various types is far from an exact measurement, and since this is a quick fun project, I just went for Yahoo search (they deserve credit for keeping their search API open when Google’s was closed) results on terms like “Ristorante Turco” (Turkish), “Ristorante Messicano” (Mexican), and so on. This was the most expedient means of gathering information quickly, but this approach does present a number of obvious problems, listed here in the hope that someone without diapers to change and a business to run might come up with some good answers:

  • Some hits likely come from people talking about a restaurant that happens to be in a country, like “ristorante americano”. “Nel tipico ristorante americano, ….” or in other words, “In a typical American restaurant”, rather than an American-style restaurant in Italy, which is what we were looking for in the first place. This is probably also true of countries close to Italy, where people go on vacation and thus have occasion to write about their experiences in a “ristorante tedesco” (German), rather than going to eat in a German restaurant in Italy. Perhaps the search query could be improved in an attempt to eliminate this sort of false positive.

  • Some restaurants probably are not known as, nor brand themselves with a country name, but instead utilize titles like “Middle Eastern”, “Arab”, “South American”, “African”, or others that do not correspond with any one country in particular. It would be possible to group countries together with other adjectives, and get statistics for these clusters as well.

  • Measuring hits is measuring what people are talking about, rather than simply restaurants that exist, so if restaurants from a certain country are more talked about than others, that would muddy the statistics a bit. However, it seems reasonable that people would mostly talk about restaurants in proportion to their popularity, and I don’t see a particular reason why there would be more talk of Vietnamese restaurants, say, than Thai restaurants, compared to the actual numbers.

That said, for a quick project, this approach seemed to work out ok, and the results appear credible. Obviously, the results also reflect people discussing certain cuisines, rather than an actual number of restaurants, but since it does reflect interest, we’ll use the number in any case.

Since the number of restaurants/interest in a type of restaurant was clearly not correlated directly with the number of immigrants, other factors must come into play. For instance, “ristorante giapponese” turns up 125,000 hits, but the stats say only 6873 Japanese nationals live in Italy. As above, hits don’t mean actual restaurants, but clearly Japanese cuisine is not being popularized through immigration.

Here’s my guess: these statistics show, to some degree, what people in the host country actually like to eat. Food that tastes good means more restaurants. Things that aren’t that popular mean few restaurants, even if there are many immigrants. To pick on one country, there are many Philippino immigrants in Italy, but very few search hits – and anecdotally, I’ve never seen a Philippino restaurant in Italy either, whereas even smaller towns like Padova have Chinese, Mexican (well, it’s called that, even if it’s a shadow of the real thing), Japanese, various Arab and middle eastern restaurants, and even a few less common things like Eritrean. And I know that many native and foreign restaurants employ Philippino cooks.

Below is the chart I whipped up showing the number of Yahoo hits per immigrant. The Italian names shouldn’t be too hard to figure out. A few tricky ones: Giordano-Jordanian, Giamaicano-Jamaican, Spagnolo-Spanish. If you’re interested in numbers or source code, contact me.

Immigrants and Restaurants

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