Despite the near ubiquity of sushi—and when you can pick sushi up at convenience stores, it’s safe to consider it ubiquitous—most Americans remain distinctly unfamiliar with Japanese cuisine. Like Korean cuisine, elements of Japanese have moved faster through the trend cycle than the cuisine as a whole, and, as a result, patrons’ understanding and awareness is lacking. That is changing, thanks to the impact of Asian foods and the proliferation of new Japanese cuisine elements, including furikake and togarashi, two unique seasonings that deliver huge flavor impact.
Furikake is a Japanese seasoning meant for savory applications. The base of furikake is typically dried, ground fish combined with any number of ingredients, including but not limited to sesame seeds, seaweed, sugar, salt, MSG, bonito, shiso, powdered miso and dried vegetables.
Togarashi—more specifically known as shichimi togarashi or just shichimi in Japan—is a seven-ingredient spice blend including two types of peppers, roasted orange peel, black and white sesame seeds, hemp seed, ginger and seaweed. Other ingredients may be used, including poppy seeds, yuzu peel, rapeseed or shiso, but the focus is on a complex heat that’s not meant to burn your tongue and make you sweat, but rather to elevate the overall profile of a dish.
There’s no escaping or denying the influence of Asian cuisine. This goes well beyond egg rolls or soy sauce. It is fundamentally shifting the way many Americans look at food and what they expect. It is the fast-growing focus of many fast casuals, particularly those making a significant splash, and is at the heart of many if not most of the fusion cuisine specialists.
This may seem intuitive for culinarians, but it is actually a rather significant trend. Consider, for a moment, what the last U.S. Census in 2010 found: Less than 6 percent of the U.S. population is Asian, and only a quarter of immigrants come from Asia. But with approximately two-thirds of Asians in the United States being foreign-born, it makes sense that the Asian food that’s increasingly driving culinary innovation tends to be authentic rather than very Americanized.
The rise of furikake and togarashi is not driven solely by demographics. Operators looking for simple flavor differentiation are reaching for new and unique flavor-enhancing items. Also, Americans are becoming increasingly familiar with exotic dry spices, such as za’atar and dukkah. Both are used as finishes to a dish, and as ingredients and toppings incorporated during preparation. It’s the use of these types of blends that has shifted how consumers may consider the role of spices and blends in overall flavor experience.
Two Potential Stars
This focus on authentic over Americanized has allowed for new formats, ingredients and spices to impact both foodservice menus and retail shelves. Japanese cuisine is no exception. Yes, sushi is ubiquitous. So is soy sauce. Now, however, Americans are being introduced to new-to-us elements of Japanese cuisine, like furikake and togarashi. Both incorporate a combination of familiar as well as exotic ingredients, and both can be applied to an almost limitless array of dishes and beverages—whether those dishes are or are not Asian in nature.
When comparing the current usage of furikake and togarashi, togarashi is the current “leader,” with penetration three times greater than that of furikake, according to Datassential’s MenuTrends database. The penetration of both is still extremely small. Togarashi is used by 1.5 percent of restaurants, while furikake is used by approximately 0.5 percent. The small penetration and primary use within the fine-dining segment—as well as the consistent and, in the case of togarashi, significant growth in the past four years—suggests that each is at the beginning of its trend cycle.
The versatility of each makes them incredibly attractive ingredients to operators. Not only will the focus on Asian cuisine certainly buoy each seasoning, but the degree to which these seasonings can either shine as primary flavor profile drivers or step back and act more supportively in a dish also makes them extremely useful.
Furikake, given its primary ingredient of dried fish, tends to deliver a slightly funky flavoring and can be spicy, depending on the dried vegetables added. The most traditional application of furikake is as a seasoning on rice, vegetables and fish dishes. Given its very small penetration on American menus, most applications of furikake continue to be fairly traditional, but some operators are experimenting. Teddy’s Bigger Burgers, a fast-casual chain based in Hawaii, and The Hook & Plow in Hermosa Beach, Calif., both season their fries with furikake. The pork burger at Old Major in Denver features furikake as a seasoning. There’s a lot more potential for furikake to leverage its savory profile and amp up the craveability of a dish. It could impact the design of pasta dishes, egg dishes, bagel seasonings, pizza, popcorn, snacks and the popular bowl-based cuisine.
Togarashi is being used somewhat more widely, thanks in large part to its higher penetration and, therefore, broader reach across a variety of operators. In Japanese cuisine, togarashi is traditionally used on dishes like tempura, noodles or yakitori. Nontraditional applications of togarashi span the savory gamut from appetizers to salads to entrées. As with furikake, togarashi has been used on fries and burgers by a variety of operators. Ace in Denver features togarashi on crispy Brussels sprouts, while Benjy’s in Houston serves it on Korean fried chicken wings. Other unexpected applications include the Ahi Tuna Tartare Tostados at Common Grill in Chelsea, Mich., where togarashi is mixed into an accompanying aïoli, the Smoked Ribs at Miami’s Gigi, which features a togarashi honey, or the radishes at Ink in Los Angeles, which see a garnish of togarashi and miso butter. Diners may also find togarashi incorporated into avocado toast, guacamole and chips, and calamari—all far from traditional applications. As with any dry seasoning, togarashi can be used almost anywhere a complex heat is required, and can blend into the background or bring the Asian influence to the forefront. Americans have a nearly insatiable appetite for spicy heat, which should help drive continued use and experimentation.
Interestingly, the Internet may be ahead of operators in the broader application of both spices. One can easily find recipes featuring togarashi or furikake cheesecake, chocolate truffles, caramel, and ice cream as well as sprinkled over hot dogs.
Beverage Flavor Boost
With both spices, there’s also unique opportunity in the beverage category. Given the ongoing trend toward cocktails with a culinary bent, focused on kitchen-forward techniques and sensibilities, either seasoning would lend itself well to signature nonalcoholic, mocktail and alcoholic beverages. The relevance for both furikake and togarashi in beverages is augmented by the growth of spirits from Asia, including shochu (Japanese distilled alcohol similar to vodka), soju (Korean distilled rice liquor) and baijiu (Chinese sorghum wine). Using the spices as a rimmer may be the most obvious application, but each could work well sprinkled over a beverage, infused into a spirit, shaken into a cocktail or as a spice on a garnish. Consider the Seven Spice Sour at Má Pêche in New York, in which togarashi is infused into high-alcohol sake.
The versatility of both furikake and togarashi within and beyond Asian applications should make them extremely appealing to any operator looking for back-of-house efficiencies—or to a consumer searching for one or two spice blends that can create new experiences within familiar categories.