The authors describe the design and implementation of a large multiethnic cohort established to study diet and cancer in the United States. They detail the source of the subjects, sample size, questionnaire development, pilot work, and approaches to future analyses. The cohort consists of 215,251 adult men and women (age 45-75 years at baseline) living in Hawaii and in California (primarily Los Angeles County) with the following ethnic distribution: African-American (16.3%), Latino (22.0%), Japanese-American (26.4%), Native Hawaiian (6.5%), White (22.9%), and other ancestry (5.8%). From 1993 to 1996, participants entered the cohort by completing a 26-page, self-administered mail questionnaire that elicited a quantitative food frequency history, along with demographic and other information. Response rates ranged from 20% in Latinos to 49% in Japanese-Americans. As expected, both within and among ethnic groups, the questionnaire data show substantial variations in dietary intakes (nutrients as well as foods) and in the distributions of non-dietary risk factors (including smoking, alcohol consumption, obesity, and physical activity). When compared with corresponding ethnic-specific cancer incidence rates, the findings provide tentative support for several current dietary hypotheses. As sufficient numbers of cancer cases are identified through surveillance of the cohort, dietary and other hypotheses will be tested in prospective analyses.