Diners are embracing new, global flavors atop familiar foods, like this Naga Dog, created by Los Angeles chef Jet Tila, garnished with kimchee, takuwan daikon, wasabi mayo, katsu sauce and takumi teriyaki. Photo courtesy of kikkoman sales usa inc.. As diners demand new flavors, fusion cuisine has found a home on chain menus
By Rita Negrete
A precarious balance has been struck in the restaurant industry, with prices held as low as possible to attract frugal consumers while rising commodity costs chip away at profit margins. There is only so much operators can do with pricing until profit margins disappear; now, they have to look at other ways to differentiate their brands.
Current market forces are making craveability and culinary expertise increasingly relevant to consumers, many of whom say they are more interested in experiencing new flavors as they dine out. Incorporating unique flavors into existing menus can be a low-cost and easy way to grow sales and attract new customers. In a recent Technomic study,
53 percent of consumers said they would be more likely to visit a restaurant that offers new or innovative flavors, up from 42 percent of those surveyed in a 2009 study. And 42 percent said they are more interested in trying new and unique flavors than they were a year ago. Clearly, keeping the focus on flavor is a powerful long-term strategy.
Authenticity is certainly a key theme of current menu innovation, often involving regional, rustic or artisan approaches to familiar ethnic cuisines. On the other hand, Technomic research shows that a substantial portion of today’s consumers also have a strong and growing interest in menu items that fuse flavors and techniques from more than one cuisine.
Citrus is a companion flavor to dishes with Latin, Mediterranean and Asian influences, like this Zesty Lemon Chicken. Photo courtesy of sunkist growers. FORMAT FUGUES
One of the easiest ways to bring the idea of culinary fusion onto a mainstream menu starts with a familiar food format such as pizza, sandwiches, tacos or chicken wings. These platforms offer tremendous versatility and innumerable options to incorporate ingredients and spices from cuisines not normally associated with that menu item. And because consumers are already comfortable with the basic format, they’re more apt to be adventurous about trying new flavors, at relatively little risk and no extra cost.
Pizza has long been a favorite base for topping creativity, and the trend seems to be accelerating. Hot, smoky, spicy and fruity flavor profiles have become top flavor varieties for pizza, and globally inspired pizzas are becoming more varied and creative. Some recent examples include:
> Brushfire Pizza — smoked peppery sausage, Cajun seasoning and a splash of Tabasco sauce — Pizza Ranch
> Pima Pizza — with black beans, jalapeños and cheddar, served with a side of pico de gallo — Naked Pizza
> Greek Thin-Crust Pizza — mozzarella, tomatoes, olives, banana peppers, onions and feta on a whole-wheat thin crust — Stevi B’s The Ultimate Pizza Buffet
> Thai Peanut Chicken Pizza — roasted chicken, red peppers, baby spinach, carrots and mozzarella with a Thai peanut sauce, drizzled with hoisin sauce and garnished with scallions, peanuts and wonton strips — Pandini’s
Sandwiches are another straightforward format now showing a stepped-up level of ethnic creativity. Asian cuisines and ingredients, particularly French-Vietnamese fusion banh mi sandwiches, are driving much of the ethnic sandwich trend. At Lee’s Sandwiches, adventurous diners can find banh mi prepared with such ingredients as grilled chicken, pâté, head cheese, sardines and shredded pork skin, all served on a fresh French baguette. Chipotle Mexican Grill’s new ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen concept makes banh mi sandwiches central to its menu positioning, and Flat Out Crazy Restaurant Group (parent of Stir Crazy Fresh Asian Grill and Flat Top Stir-Fry Grill) has launched SC Asian, a fast-casual concept that menus several versions of banh mi.
Other Asian influences are also finding their way to popular sandwich chains. Charley’s Grilled Subs, for instance, reprises a Spicy Asian BBQ sandwich featuring steak marinated in pears, green onions and Asian spices. Extending the ethnic sandwich trend even further: Indian naan sandwiches, pressed Cuban sandwiches and South American arepas are all coming into vogue.
The taco has become a marvel of multiculturalism in recent years. The food-truck craze led by the Korean taco has evolved into a larger Asian taco focus in recent chain menu items:
> Korean BBQ Tacos — Wild Wing Café
> Korean Steak Tacos — three corn tortillas with cubed Black Angus flat-iron steak marinated in soy and sugar, topped with cucumber chunks, bean sprouts, ginger-lime slaw, basil, cilantro and sriracha sauce, served with a side of jasmine rice — T.G.I. Friday’s
> Sesame Soy Fish Taco — beer-battered Alaska pollock, soy sauce, creamy wasabi dressing, avocado slices and spring mix served in a corn or flour tortilla — Rubio’s Fresh Mexican Grill
Meanwhile, chicken wings have moved way beyond the classic Buffalo recipe to become another favorite format for global flavor notes. Flavors imparted by spreads, sauces or condiments are appealing to six out of 10 consumers, according to Technomic research, indicating an opportunity for signature house-prepared sauces and spreads. The extent to which restaurants have created innovative sauces for wings is remarkable. Here are some creative adaptations on chain menus:
> Boneless Wings in Coconut Jerk Sauce — Buffalo’s Café
> Teriyaki Wings — Wingstop
> Spicy Wings Marinated in Lemon and Rosemary — Bertucci’s
ASIAN-LATIN: FLAVORED FUSION
One of the most popular iterations of fusion cuisine is the Latin American-Asian restaurant. Perhaps the reason the marriage has been so successful is because it draws on longstanding traditions. Most Latin American nations have had vibrant Asian communities — Chinese, Japanese and others — since the 19th century, and restaurateurs from these immigrant subcultures have made their culinary mark on Latin cultures.
In the United States, Asian-Latin fusion restaurants are still primarily upscale independents. For instance, Richard Sandoval Restaurants plans to open Raymi Peruvian Kitchen & Pisco Bar in New York City this summer, with a menu influenced by Spain, Japan and China as well as Peru. The multiconcept operator also oversees Zengo in Washington, D.C., offering a small-plates menu that ranges from ceviches to dim sum. In the chain world, the Asian-Latin niche is dominated by SushiSamba, whose menu items pair traditional ingredients from Japanese, Brazilian and Peruvian cuisines in surprising, creative ways. Examples include Crispy Taquitos — yellowtail, lemon grass, avocado, aji panca miso and fresh lime — as well as Samba-style Chicken Teriyaki, with aji amarillo, purple potato mash and crispy onions.
Nations of the Caribbean also have multi-ethnic food traditions, incorporating African, European, Latin American and South Asian influences — so Caribbean cuisine is another source for natural fusion recipes that work on today’s restaurant menus. Bahama Breeze Island Grille, for instance, introduced a collection of small plates late last year, including options such as white-bean hummus, steamed edamame, vine-ripened tomato salsa with chips, truffled yucca fries, sweet Peruvian corn cakes, ham-and-cheese croquettes, chicken empanadas and marinated pork with sweet plantains.
It’s a wide world from which to choose flavors, so restaurateurs can be excused for feeling unsure about what their customers will be seeking from fusion cuisine in the coming years. Technomic’s Flavor Consumer Trend Report predicts a collection of seven flavors most likely to emerge as popular profiles for limited-time, seasonal and year-round menu offerings — alone or in combination:
> KOREAN — With Korean barbecue preparations making inroads on menus, there could be a proliferation of Korean-style marinades for beef and chicken, featuring such ingredients as soy sauce, pear juice, chiles, sugar, garlic and onions.
> ASIAN SPICES & SAUCES — Beyond Korean, Japanese and Chinese cuisines, sweet/tart/tangy Filipino marinades, fiery Southeast Asian sriracha sauce and traditional Indian spices (such as paprika, coriander, cumin, curry and cardamom) may be the next waves of Asian flavors to wash across menus.
> CARIBBEAN — In particular, the consumer preference for spicy profiles is met with multilayered Jamaican jerk flavors, comprised of hot Scotch Bonnet peppers, allspice, thyme, garlic, salt and pepper.
> HAWAIIAN — From seafood to burgers, Hawaiian accents are appearing in tropical marinades and pineapple toppings.
> MEDITERRANEAN — Reflecting subtle flavors found in the cuisines of Greece, Spain and other countries rimming the Mediterranean, herbs like rosemary, thyme and chervil are moving beyond roasted meats to be included in sauces and as toppings for flatbreads and pizzas.
> MOROCCAN — The flavor profiles typically seen in Moroccan cooking (such as harissa, a spicy North African sauce) are making their way to mainstream menus in items like Moroccan meatballs and harissa ketchup.
> CITRUS — Trends toward Asian, Hispanic and Mediterranean cuisines all call for an increase in traditionally complementary citrus flavors. In addition to lemon and lime, orange — particularly blood orange — is notably trending.
The global market basket has become the new frontier of flavor innovation. So long as the culinary intent and approach is mindful and new introductions are rooted in the familiar, modern fusion cuisine will be met with appreciation among a new generation of flavor-seeking consumers.
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