The story of the American melting pot is getting richer, with a plot that moves at a quickening pace. Just as people from around the world are contributing to the diversity of our nation in increasing numbers, so are their cuisines. We now adopt multicultural foods as fast as you can look up a recipe online. Yesterday’s Sriracha is today’s gochujang. No surprise, then, that chefs are playing with a number of lesser-known global flavor treatments that star protein, reaching beyond their traditional profiles and translating them into menu-ready interpretations. Here, we highlight five of these emerging global flavor profiles, with a salute to why they are so compelling in their traditional forms, as well as a look at how their familiar flavors can be moved into more innovative versions of themselves.
Vadouvan represents a seamless cultural evolution. This spice-blend mash-up came to be after the French colonized Pondicherry in southeast India. The French took a liking to the spices they encountered and brought them back home. What started as an Indian curry blend made its way into French cuisine and became vadouvan—pronounced vah-doo-von and alternately known as vadavam, vadagam and other fun-to-say variations. Vadouvan typically includes spices from its Indian origins, such as curry, coriander, turmeric and cumin. But the French version tends to augment these with shallots, onion and garlic, as well as any number of add-ins, from mustard or fenugreek seeds to red peppers. Traditionally used as any curry spice might be—with meat, seafood or vegetables—the spice blend now makes appearances in everything from bar snacks like olives tossed in vadouvan to comfort foods such as vadouvan fried chicken.
“Anything along the ancient spice trail has strong allure to the American palate today,” says John Csukor, president and CEO of KOR Food Innovation, a culinary marketing agency based in Ashland, Va. “We’ve increased our sense of adventure with some of these newer uses of spice and heat.” He says vadouvan’s combination of complexity and approachability makes it work well in any number of applications.
The spice blend makes an impact in the chicken salad sandwich at Fooq’s in Miami, where pulled chicken is combined with vadouvan, apples, golden raisins, toasted almonds, Greek yogurt and mustard greens, served on warm naan. Vadouvan is beautifully incorporated at Sbraga in Philadelphia: Seared salmon is layered with a vadouvan-parsnip purée and paired with roasted cauliflower.
Csukor points out that the alliums in vadouvan give it a texture that sets it apart from other ground spice blends. “That interesting textural significance would make vadouvan a unique chicken wing finisher, adding crunch and flavor at the same time,” he says.
Jonathan Dearden, executive chef at Radiator in Washington, D.C., loves to find new ways to use vadouvan. The version he likes includes fermented, sun-dried garlic and shallots. “It’s one of those complex spices that works with any protein—scallops, pork, chicken,” he says. He has used it with great success on red snapper, served with sweet corn succotash. “We take the vadouvan and use it to flash-cure the fish before letting it dry under refrigeration—that way it sears up beautifully.” Other applications include combining some fat—melted duck fat or bacon fat—with vadouvan to make a flavored butter. That, in turn, can be turned into a powder using maltodextrin, says Dearden. “You can use the powder as a garnish on a scallop dish, for example. You get all the essence that way.” Dearden says he encourages diners to try the spice by describing it as a fancier curry powder. “People know curry, and this is just an elevated version.”
Pho for All
Pho was the focus of some recent cultural controversy when Bon Appétit put out a video describing the best way to eat the iconic Vietnamese soup noodle—as explained by a Caucasian chef. The video came down, apologies went out, but not before the Asian community (and others) cried “foul.” Why the outcry? Because pho is such a central dish to the Vietnamese identity, and the way it’s prepared and eaten would best be explained by someone for whom the dish has deeper significance.
Pho is thought to originate in the early 1900s, during the period of French colonization in Vietnam, according to research by cookbook author Andrea Nguyen. Vietnamese butchers who provided beef to the French were faced with finding a use for the cow’s bones and scraps. Street vendors who sold noodle soups found a way to make broth from these castaways—and early versions of pho were born. Before long, the dish surged in popularity, becoming the version that’s known today—with regional variations, of course. Poetry about pho even surfaced, including one with the line: “Living in this world without eating pho is foolish.”
The traditional pho consists, most importantly, of a clear broth usually made from beef bones and fish sauce, plus spices like cloves, cinnamon or star anise. Into the broth go rice noodles, thin slices of beef, and cilantro and green onions. Optional add-ins include bean sprouts, lime, chiles and herbs.
While eating pho has much to do with the experience of dipping into a hot bowl of noodle soup, that doesn’t preclude its irresistible flavor system from being reinterpreted in different forms. True to its own origins, pho is making its way into other street foods. The Pho Burger in Anaheim, Calif., is a pop-up operation with a playful mash-up concept: a big, high-quality burger on a brioche bun featuring pho herbs and vegetables, plus fried noodles for crunch, all enhanced with a pho-flavored sauce.
Similarly, the Pho Burrito (or “phorrito”) served at Komodo’s two Los Angeles locations, takes the best of traditional pho and reconstructs it in burrito form. Inside a tortilla: thinly-sliced beef, bean sprouts, and the signature flavors of pho—including cilantro, onions, lime, Thai basil and jalapeño. Cooked pho noodles take the place of rice in the burrito. Another possible application of pho flavors in a popular format: pho chicken wings. Whether improvising on Buffalo wings or Korean fried chicken, adding pho-inspired spices is a natural flavor translation.
The fundamental ragout involves cooking meat, low and slow, often incorporating vegetables and spices to create a stew-like dish. Granted, this is a technique rather than a flavor profile—but the simple, slow cooking of meats is done universally and evokes comfort across cultures. Simplicity invites innovation, so it’s no wonder ragout is showing up in a variety of forward-thinking ways. In fact, the term ragout comes from the French word ragoûter, which means “to revive the taste.” Ragout itself is being revived in ways that maximize flavor.
“Ragouts promise depth of flavor, complexity and texture only achieved through slow cooking or pressure cooking,” says Csukor. “Ragout is the original one-pot meal, although it takes many forms—from soup to center-of-plate to an appetizer topping for a crisp, goat cheese crostini.”
Seafood is coming to the forefront with ragout. Luisa Silvia, chef de cuisine of Merlo on Maple in Chicago features a ragout of rockfish and red shrimp to differentiate a ravioli dish. Squid-ink ravioli is filled with sheep’s milk ricotta with lemon, then tossed with the seafood ragout and served over saffron sauce.
Chef Jonathan Dearden finds ragout the perfect treatment for underutilized meats. He makes a lamb neck ragout for pasta. “It’s actually the best part of the animal, with the most flavor. I use it as a filling for ravioli.”
Ragout’s heartiness makes it a natural choice for down-to-earth applications. The Big Ragout sandwich at Blue Collar in Miami combines pork and veal shoulder, brisket, provolone and Parmesan. Chef Daniel Serfer says the creativity comes in making ragout into a different format. “We make a huge sandwich out of it. We hollow out a crusty seeded hoagie roll and stuff it with the meaty concoction, and then top that with sharp Provolone and bake it. The end result is kind of like a Parmigiana sandwich, except instead of chicken, veal or eggplant, we have Parm and a variety of slow-cooked meats.”
Elsewhere on the menu, Serfer makes the most of ragout’s traditional appeal. “Our ragout is very similar to a ‘Sunday gravy’ in Italian cooking,” he says. “It has all the elements of slow-cooked meats—pancetta, great tomatoes and sausage. During dinner, we serve it fresh over pasta.” He says the newfound popularity of ragout can be attributed to today’s embrace of classic techniques. But he also envisions more unconventional ways to use ragout. “Considering how popular shakshuka has become recently, I think using ragout as a meaty base for poaching eggs could be terrific,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, I love classic ’shuka, but I also like runny eggs on anything.”
Dearden suggests other ways to take ragout to the next level: “I use fresh juices to fortify ragouts. I’ve been playing with juicing vegetables instead of chicken stock, or I make coconut broth, or I juice ginger to add to the ragout.” Other fun global mash-up interpretations could include: turkey ragout tacos, Peking duck ragout, and pork ragout served in lettuce wraps.
Red Hot Chile Colorado
A beloved Mexican staple, chile colorado is sometimes misunderstood, starting with the name. “Chile,” meaning it is made from chile peppers—not that it’s a chili-like stew (although it is often spelled “chili colorado”); and “colorado,” not referring to the state, but to the translation of colorado as “colored” or “colored red.”
“Chile colorado is a traditional dish from northern Mexico,” says Miles Landrem, executive chef at Aarón Sánchez’s restaurant, Johnny Sánchez, in New Orleans. “The dish consists of diced, pan-fried pork [or beef] which is then stewed down in a purée of dried chiles—typically a combination of pasilla, ancho and guajillo—and chicken stock, seasoned with a little cumin and bay leaf. Once the dish has cooked down, it is usually served like a stew with tortillas. I like to garnish it with diced onion, cilantro and serve with fresh warm tortillas.”
The distinctive element of chile colorado’s flavor profile comes from the combination of chiles—a deep, earthy heat that can make its way into other interpretations. Which chiles are used varies from chef to chef—Csukor recalls a memorable version from early in his career that used smoked chiles: Hatch, jalapeño and poblano.
He says variations on chile colorado can also come from use of different meats, whether beef, pork or chicken—or whether grass-fed for premiumization, or hardwood-smoked for added aroma. “This is one dish where I see the preparation technique and ingredients resonate more than what meat is used.”
Other chile colorado applications include as a filling for an empanada, egg roll or stuffed pepper. “The flavors are distinct enough that one could also use it as a descriptor in other applications: Chile Colorado Braised Short Ribs—or crossover dishes like Chile Colorado Chicken Rice Bowl, or Chile Colorado Tossed Crunchy Korean-Style Fried Chicken,” suggests Csukor.
Landrem also sees a world of possibilities. “A variation of chile colorado we like to use at the restaurant is to make the base sauce of that traditional dish by taking the chiles and cooking them down with roasted tomato, roasted tomatillo, roasted garlic, the stock and purée,” he says. “This makes an amazing marinade for any cooked meats, as well as a sauce to toss and season roasted lamb or pork with to make enchiladas or tacos. You could also use the chile colorado sauce to dress chilaquiles—our fun take on that dish is Crispy Pig Ear Chilaquiles.”
Landrem’s mentor, Aarón Sánchez, makes a pozole rojo, where tender, shredded pork butt and hominy are combined in bowls with chile colorado sauce, then garnished with fried tortilla strips. Diners can customize by topping with onion, radish slices, lime wedges, queso fresco and oregano.
Elsewhere, chile colorado crosses over to the breakfast menu at Squatters in Salt Lake City, where the Huevos Rancheros come with corn tortillas, refried black beans, scrambled eggs, pork chile colorado, and Jack and cheddar cheese.
Tikka Takes Over
Like many global restaurant dishes, the historic origins of chicken tikka masala are a bit muddled. The use of a tandoori clay oven to cook chicken “tikka” (meaning small chunks) dates back some 5,000 years, when a Mughal emperor is said to have ordered that chicken bones be removed so he wouldn’t choke—resulting in the bite-sized “tikka” chicken. Fast-forward to modern times, and no one is quite sure who first served the chicken in its current flavorful gravy—but there is certainly mixed British-Indian cultural influence in making the dish what it is today. In fact, the ubiquitous Indian restaurant staple is considered by some to be Britain’s national dish.
What is agreed upon: The combination of boneless chicken swathed in a vibrantly colored and flavored gravy made from yogurt, chiles and Indian spices is an international hit.
“What is most appealing about chicken tikka masala is its completeness and well-rounded flavor,” says Csukor. “This makes it extremely approachable as well as memorable. It’s flavorful enough to stand alone, but the sauce itself is prominent enough that it could be used as a condiment as well.” He suggests adding “pop” across the menu with applications of the dish. “The meatball movement could use this awakening in flavor as an alternative to barbecue and red sauce applications. Anything rotisserie—chicken to lamb to beef tri-tip—can be greatly enhanced with this flavor profile in a rub or a sauce.”
Csukor says that while yogurt is usually used as the thickening agent, he has tasted a Persian-style version enriched with cashew cream; similarly, other nut creams or coconut cream can serve as an interesting substitute.
Ruchi Khanna is chef/owner at Elm St. Grill in Greensboro, N.C., where she enjoys improvising with clever mash-ups, such as her Chicken Tikka Tacos. “I keep trying out new things,” she says. The dish blends traditional Indian spices with Mexican tacos; the char-grilled chicken is topped with onion, tomatoes, a splash of Sriracha and ranch. “American taste buds have changed; people don’t go for bland food anymore,” says Khanna. “With spices like turmeric and cayenne—people want to try all these international flavors.”
Other operators are riffing on this distinctive flavor profile as well. San Francisco Soup Company offers a Chicken Tikka Masala Soup at its 16 Bay Area locations. Described as “a classic entrée from India in soup form,” the dish combines grilled chicken breast with cauliflower, zucchini and peas in zesty curry with tomatoes, coconut milk and a dash of cream.
Badmaash in Los Angeles is doubly on-trend with a Chicken Tikka Poutine that includes Masala Fries topped with cheese curds in hot beef gravy, topped with tandoor chicken tikka and cilantro.
“Chicken tikka masala seems to suit everyone’s palate,” says Csukor. “Operators would be mistaken to not capitalize on its creamy, identifiable flavors and distinct color.” Operators, in fact, would be wise to make the most of all five of these melting-pot flavor profiles when innovating on the menu.