Diners’ quest for flavor discovery continues its relentless march, informing menu development at every turn. But there’s no drudgery here—the momentum is quick-moving and enthusiastic. Certainly, global flavors have now been folded into the melting pot of American cookery, making them an expectation rather than a novelty.
In his keynote at this year’s Flavor Experience in Newport Beach, Calif., chef Jet Tila reminded the audience that “fusion” has been firmly supplanted by “mash-up.” So rather than the refined technique of Renoir, chefs are tapping the unbridled passion of Pollock. Global mash-up, applied to protein applications, has given us craveable items like Korean tacos, fajita burgers and adobo chicken wings. But the quest continues, with diners looking for the next flavor adventure.
Here are five flavor-forward global protein dishes that show great potential for menu translation. There’s the key word—translation. Replication won’t fly here. Instead, it’s about the interpretation of these unique flavor systems, making them work within the friendly confines of a concept’s brand. We asked four industry experts to discuss the opportunities created by these protein-centric dishes: Chinese char siu, South American ceviche, Middle Eastern shawarma, Mediterranean octopus, and Korean fried chicken.
1: Char Siu
Char siu, translated to “fork roast,” is essentially Chinese barbecue, which makes it easy for American diners to embrace. Traditionally, it consists of strips of boneless pork (often from the shoulder) skewered with long forks and roasted over fire. The meat is usually seasoned with five-spice powder, honey, red fermented bean curd, dark soy sauce, hoisin sauce, sherry or red wine, and sometimes maltose. Char siu is juicy, savory, tender, sticky and crispy.
“The flavors are the pure essence of authentic Chinese food with caramelized flavor, where you’re balancing funk with honey and five-spice,” says Eric Stangarone, creative director for The Culinary Edge consultancy based in San Francisco as well as chef-owner of Mexican restaurant En Su Boca in Richmond, Va. “It can be executed very well, taking the flavor system and creatively placing it on your menu.”
The opportunity with char siu lies within the global mash-up of its profile. “I don’t think there’s an emergence of Cantonese food, but char siu is getting play because of the Americanization of it,” says John Csukor, president of KOR Food Innovation, based in Ashland, Va. Maybe it’s a char siu pulled pork quesadilla, like the one served at La Snackeria in Oakland, Calif. Or perhaps it’s the Char Siu Sausage, found at Banyan Bar + Refuse in Boston. Tacos, of course, make a happy home for the big flavors of Chinese barbecue. At Citizen Public House in Scottsdale, Ariz., Char Siu Short Rib Tacos are served with pickled red onion, carrot, watermelon radish, crème fraîche and roasted corn.
“There’s great potential for char siu—it’s a succulent pork roast with a beautiful lacquer,” says Andrew Hunter, a Los Angeles-based R&D chef-consultant. “I don’t think it would work as a knife-and-fork dish; it’s better in a carrier or as a component of a dish.”
Beyond just bringing another flavorful pork-centric item to the table, char siu’s flavor build invites local interpretation. “Maybe it’s replacing the sherry or wine with a local cider or beer, so it’s Cider Char Siu, for instance, so you’re giving them authentic flavors with localized familiarity,” says Csukor. You can also look beyond the pork shoulder, he says. “Maybe it’s a Tomahawk pork chop that’s been marinated in char siu ingredients, grilled and then finished with those flavors.” Stangarone suggests potential beyond pork, too. “There’s opportunity to take the flavor system and put it on other things, like a Char Siu Burger. Then you’ve got a ball game.”
Shrimp Ceviche showcases bold flavors with pineapple-coconut sauce, red onion, Fresno chile, basil and chile oil at Wynwood Kitchen & Bar in Miami.
The opportunity for ceviche is growing on U.S. menus. Sushi has opened the door, giving guests familiarity with raw seafood dishes. A perfect shareable item that expresses the ultimate in freshness cues, ceviche inspired by the coastal cities of Latin America is leading the charge here. “It’s definitely pushed along by feel-good eating, along with protein-centric and gluten-free interests,” says Stangarone.
The world of ceviche is rich with cultural influence and local tradition. “In Ecuador, every city has a different ceviche,” says Chris Koetke, vice president of Kendall College’s School of Culinary Arts. “Some put beans in the mix. Some serve the ceviche with a side of toasted corn kernels or fried plantains.” In Mexico City, he says, ceviche is commonly made with a purée of chiles and cilantro, along with tomatoes. Chile’s ceviche features halibut, lime and grapefruit juices, chile pepper, garlic, mint and cilantro. “But for the average American diner, the opportunity lies with starter ceviches, maybe with cooked fish or crabmeat,” says Koetke. “Throw in citrus, chile and onion and you get that fresh, bright flavor profile.”
Indeed, the challenge with ceviche is trust. “Raw seafood is a bridge too far for a lot of consumers. If you’re going to run a ceviche, maybe start with salmon or tuna—they’re more familiar—or carefully manage how you prepare it,” he says. At En Su Boca, Stangarone poaches the seafood featured in the seasonal ceviche. He then marinates it, combines it with diced avocado, Fresno chiles and lime juice, then dresses it in Mason jars.
Csukor also advocates Americanizing ceviche for menu success. “You’ve got the amazing Peruvian influence with ceviche—bold flavors with both tart and spicy—but to make it work here, maybe use salmon or shrimp,” he says. “I suggest tiptoeing into ceviche—start with cooked lump crab, then go to charred shrimp, then seared salmon, then raw sea bass.”
Credibility with ceviche also needs to be considered. “Frying or baking fish is one thing, but when you introduce raw fish, you introduce a whole new level of trust,” says Hunter. “You have to be really smart with your marketing initiative to make it work. The ultimate indicator of success here is: fresh, fresh, fresh.”
Shawarma is the new gyro. It’s whole-muscle meat cooked on a spit after marinating in tart, salty, garlicky, spicy flavors. Calling a few Middle Eastern countries home, it’s similar to Turkish döner kebab or Lebanon’s shish taouk. Typically lamb, but often beef or chicken, shawarma is usually tucked into some kind of flatbread, like pita, then topped with savory yogurt, maybe tahini, and a vibrant, herbaceous, spicy sauce called skhug.
“There’s a fuzzy, but direct line between Middle Eastern shawarma and Mexican tacos al pastor,” says Hunter. That familiarity with al pastor, which also slow-roasts on a spit, along with the long-ago Americanization of Greek gyros, makes shawarma primed for menu adaptation here. “You can quickly get into the street food sensibility with shawarma—it’s portable, it’s got nice theater to it, and it’s got big flavors that diners here are looking for,” he says.
Concepts like Chipotle help position shawarma as the next global meat, says Csukor. “Chipotle has made guests feel comfortable watching meat being cooked in front of them. Its visual presentation now helps illustrate big, fresh flavors.” And shawarma’s familiar-but-bold flavors help move it forward. “The flavor profile is understood enough that you can play with it,” he says. “Maybe it’s a skewer with a dipping sauce of garlicky yogurt and skhug. Or maybe a chicken shawarma salad with tahini dressing.”
Places like Spitz in Los Angeles illustrate the versatility of Eastern Mediterranean-style, spit-roasted meats and accompanying ingredients beyond the expected pita pocket. The concept’s Döquitos mashes up döner kebab with taquitos, lavash bread rolled with feta, onion and aïoli and deep-fried, then topped with more feta, aïoli, onion, pepperoncini, green pepper, tomato and olive.
“Of all the meat concepts, this is the biggest,” says Koetke. “Putting meat on a stick is international. Cooking it on a spit is universal. You can divorce it from the Mediterranean and play with Indian flavors, putting it in naan. There’s theater, there’s big flavor. Shawarma is a concept waiting to be had.”
Chef Michelle Bernstein serves Spanish Octopus a la Plancha with squid ink crackers and orange-gochujang sauce at Seagrape in Miami Beach.
4: Mediterranean-Style Octopus
At first blush, this might look like a bridge too far, but really, it’s just a step beyond the ubiquitous fried calamari. And octopus works perfectly in the growing section of small plates. “If you don’t do pork belly and octopus in a bar bite or small plate, you’re not hitting the mark,” says Csukor. “If you sous vide octopus, it’s fool-proof: oil, garlic, herbs, seasoning, sous vide for three hours, chill it, char it, serve with a great romesco or salsa verde.” Like calamari, you can take it anywhere, but it seems to be gaining the most traction with Mediterranean flavors. At Nico Osteria in Chicago, a Grilled Octopus Panzanella is served with potato purée, cherry and Castelvetrano olives. At Sarma in Somerville, Mass., it’s served with a grapefruit chermoula, avocado, beet, black garlic and urfa (Turkish chile pepper).
For that adventurous diner, octopus thrills. “When you put octopus on the menu, it’s kind of exotic, but thanks to calamari’s broad appeal, it’s not too out there,” says Koetke. It’s inexpensive, but the challenge lies in the cooking method. “Cooking it properly is critical, so if someone can do that for you, then there are a million ways to use it.” He says opportunities include tucking grilled octopus into a sandwich or taco, topping a salad with it, or deep-frying it and serving it with marinara, like the more familiar calamari fritti. “Serve up octopus bites where you cut the tentacles into one-inch segments, then bread and fry them for a unique small bite.”
At En Su Boca, Stangarone marinates octopus in oil and herbs, then poaches it and chars it à la minute. “You can also take the whole tentacle, slice it thin, put the slices on a stick, marinate, grill and serve,” he says.
5: Korean Fried Chicken
Fried chicken is still having a moment in this country, and Korean fried chicken, with its crackly and delicate skin, is where twice-fried golden opportunity lies. It’s that double frying that makes the crust so wickedly crisp. But the flavors hiding under the skin are arguably what make Korean fried chicken so craveable. Gochujang (a savory, fermented Korean sweet chile paste) leads the flavor charge, with support from ginger, garlic and soy sauce. Dark brown sugar makes the sauce sticky and delicious.
“The marketplace is seeing an abundance of fried chicken, and a lot of innovative ways to segment that business,” says Stangarone. “There’s great potential with Korean fried chicken. Gochujang is the interesting thing here—unctuous, kind of funky, craveable. Aside from the sauce, you could put dried gochujang in a fried-chicken batter, or you could use the paste in a dip for the wings.”
American diners are definitely responding to Korean fried chicken. The Korean chain Bonchon has 40 locations in this country, while KyoChon, largely credited with starting the craze here, is now up to four units (two in California, two in New York). Turntable in New York serves twice-fried crispy chicken wings in either a mild soy-garlic or spicy sauce, and Crisp in Chicago serves its Korean chicken wings in four distinct styles, including Korean BBQ, which melds Korean and American barbecue flavors.
“It’s hitting all the right notes,” says Csukor. “With the rice flour and tapioca flour, it’s insanely crunchy. It has this great spicy-sweet flavor profile. Korean fried chicken has made fried chicken more exotic, more refined. As an operator, you can get away with putting a drumstick on the menu—it gives you the feeling that you’ve had a sit-down meal rather than a fast-food experience.”
And there’s menu potential for Korean fried chicken outside of a plate of shareable wings or drumsticks. The next wave of this trend just might be the sandwich. David Chang’s new concept Fuku is definitely counting on the fried chicken sandwich as a key to craveable menu buzz. His features spicy fried chicken (thighs marinated in a habanero purée, coated in buttermilk, dredged in a proprietary spice blend) sandwiched in a steamed potato roll and finished with pickles and butter.
Offering an elevated, but familiar eating experience is what drives global flavor exploration. “The potential with these dishes is that they’re not so enigmatic that they alienate diners,” says Csukor. “But they have big flavor and an edge of exotic that is welcome on today’s menus.”