This is the second installment of my report on the flavor and ingredient trends that currently present the greatest opportunity for sales building and menu differentiation, based on the most recent round of live research my team has conducted in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago. In this installment, I share with you further research on the newest meat alternative hitting the market, plus global flatbreads that are blurring boundaries, a savory Japanese comfort staple to watch, and the mindset of the next wave of “healthy” dining menu makers.
Green Jackfruit: Clarifying the Opportunity
In Part 1 of this report, I cited visits to several vegan restaurants that are serving cooked green jackfruit as a meat substitute. Our research team was highly impressed with its meat-like quality and ability to absorb and present savory flavors. We believe that green jackfruit has menu potential in virtually all foodservice segments, and provides a rare first-to-market opportunity for operators in most of the country.
However, some media coverage has created confusion regarding what the product actually is and how it is used. In short, green jackfruit is a cooked and processed product packed in either cans or shelf-stable vacuum-packed bags, and has nothing to do with the fresh, ripe fruit that is increasingly appearing in grocery stores and produce markets.
Native to India and Southeast Asia, jackfruit is a large tree fruit that can exceed 80 pounds when ripe. The internal seed pods are the edible part of the ripe fruit, which have a pungent floral aroma and sweet, melon-like flavor. The fruit may be eaten out of hand, or used in a variety of sweet and dessert applications. It cannot, however, be used to create a vegan meat substitute.
Green jackfruit is substantially smaller than ripe fruit, and is extremely hard and dense. The flesh is also very fibrous and takes on the appearance of pulled pork when it is cooked. In the case of the highest quality commercially processed products, its resemblance to braised meat is remarkable.
So, theoretically it would be possible to procure and cook fresh green jackfruit, but from a practical standpoint it is wholly unnecessary, akin to using fresh tuna loins to make your own canned tuna.
Quality levels vary widely from brand to brand, so finding the best requires comparative sampling. Some are quite pale, and more resemble hearts of palm than cooked meat, while others are packed in significant amounts of liquid, which reduces yield.
Finding the optimal product would be a worthy endeavor for any operator seeking an opportunity to create clear menu differentiation. At this point, the vast majority of restaurants offering green jackfruit-based dishes are either vegetarian or vegan, and the product is still largely unknown to the dining public. It has the potential to provide a unique and delicious meatless option for both commercial and non-commercial operations, and would only require adoption by one innovative chain concept to go completely mainstream.
Pulled Pork for Vegans
Green jackfruit is superior to any soy- or gluten-based meat analogue we have tasted, and can be used in any dish calling for braised and pulled meat, including sandwiches, tortilla or flatbread-based handhelds, noodle or rice bowls, salads, nachos and poutines.
And because it is a ready-to-use product, consistently high-quality dishes can be prepared with a minimum of labor.
Treat It Like Meat
Green jackfruit benefits from caramelizing just as meats do. Searing in a smoking-hot pan prior to saucing adds a savory layer of flavor and reduces the amount of moisture in the jackfruit, further increasing its meat-like taste and texture.
Where There’s BBQ, There’s Smoke
Green jackfruit served in barbecue sauce is currently the most popular treatment on today’s menus. Placing the jackfruit in a hot smoker for just a few minutes provides a boost of authentic barbecue flavor. If a dedicated smoker is not available, a stovetop unit can be easily assembled using stainless steel hotel pans.
Our street-level research of green jackfruit was closely followed by flavor development in our test kitchens. The resulting sauce treatments reflect a small number of the possible flavor variations:
- Sweet and smoky barbecue
- Carolina mustard barbecue
- Spicy Sichuan
- Tomato Bolognese
- Thai coconut curry
- Vegan pork carnitas
Paratha: Tacos, Kati & Kottu
Finding a unique ingredient such as green jackfruit is always a thrill, but in a culinary world where the discovery of a new food product is a very rare occurrence, chefs continue to mine the global pantry in search of existing ingredients that can be used in creative new ways.
Such is the case with paratha, an Indian flatbread that may be thought of as a cross between naan and puff pastry. It is a laminated dough, in that during fabrication it is rolled, brushed with oil, folded and rolled multiple times. The result is a flatbread that, when griddled, becomes a crispy, flaky, indulgently oily and truly craveable bread carrier.
One of the classic uses for paratha is the kati roll, a handheld wrap filled with Indian-spiced and char-grilled kebab meats, such as chicken, beef and lamb tikka, and various meatless versions including masala chickpeas and grilled paneer cheese.
While New York City has many street carts and full-service Indian restaurants serving kati rolls, The Kati Roll Company has cornered a lot of the market with its small chain of shops. The parathas are made with butter for extra richness, and high volume ensures the freshness of the ingredients. But these are simple, traditional rolls, and the only three garnishes served are grilled peppers and tomatoes, a lime-cilantro chutney and pickled red onions.
Far less traditional are the “New Wave Masala” kati rolls served at Sambar in Los Angeles, where Akasha Richmond fills her parathas with yogurt-marinated British Raj Chicken and pomegranate-peach chutney, Yellow Dal Falafel Fritters with raita and hemp seed chutney, and an over-the-top Vegetarian Kati filled with basmati rice, kidney beans and sambar-spiced guacamole. These rolls demonstrate how disparate ingredients may be incorporated into a classic menu item to produce new flavor combinations, while staying within the relative boundaries of the cuisine.
Moving beyond those boundaries is Goa Taco on New York’s Lower East Side, where Duvaldi Marneweck toasts paratha bread to crispy perfection in a Cuban sandwich press and folds them to create oversized “tacos” whose fillings have no relation to the Goa region of India or Indian cuisine in general.
Marneweck layers multiple ingredients in his tacos to create bold and complex flavor combinations, such as Housemade Chicken Chorizo with goat cheese, white beans and charred green onion chimichurri, Slow-Roasted Pork Belly with pickled red cabbage and chipotle mayo, Paneer cheese with spinach pesto, fried chickpeas and pickled tomatillo, and Five-Spice Duck Confit with sesame, sweet soy, hot mustard and radish.
These tacos were one of the most uniquely compelling discoveries of this year’s research, and while the fillings were delicious and inspiring, at the heart of their craveability was the flaky and fatty paratha.
Godamba roti, a light and flaky flatbread very similar to paratha, is the core ingredient of the Sri Lankan street food kottu, a stir-fried dish reminiscent of an Asian fried rice or Peruvian chaufa, but with finely chopped flatbread taking the place of rice.
Manhattanites are getting their first taste of the global snack at Kottu House, where Sri Lankan mother-and-son team Sandya De Silva and Chelaka Gunamuni serve a short menu of authentic kottus along with a few contemporary versions.
A typical kottu starts with stir frying a meat, poultry or seafood ingredient, along with minced garlic and ginger. A vegetable mix is then added, which usually includes onion and cabbage, but could also contain bell pepper, carrot or tomato. The chopped roti and a curry paste is added next, and then the mixture is stir-fried until the bread is crisp and the dish is nicely caramelized.
The resulting dish is colorful, fragrant and complexly flavored, with the texture of the crisp and flaky flatbread making for a truly unique eating experience.
Additional flavorings may include fresh chiles, cinnamon, cardamom, soy sauce and coconut milk. Housemade sambals—one with hot and spicy minced chiles, another with sweet and cooling chopped coconut—are served alongside. And any dish can be enhanced with the topping of a fried sunny-side egg.
Variations at Kottu House include Deviled Beef with peppers and tomato, Crispy Prawn with tomatoes and coconut curry, Classic Chicken cooked in black curry, and a meatless Garden version with tomato sauce, red chiles and fried eggplant.
Having sampled a wide variety of delicious paratha-based handhelds across the country, our research team agreed that any operation serving them could very easily cross-utilize the bread and add kottu dishes to the menu. Recipe development in our test kitchens confirmed that paratha performs flawlessly as a substitute for the traditional godamba roti.
Japanese Pub Grub: Silky, Savory Custard
Part 1 of this report included a profile of okonomiyaki, the savory cabbage-based pancake that is beloved by patrons of izakaya brewpubs, which specialize in homestyle, Japanese comfort food. The okonomiyaki’s fan base continues to expand, and chefs are now applying a wide range of non-Asian global flavors to the dish in increasingly creative mash-ups.
Another izakaya staple that continues to show menu growth and has strong potential for mainstream restaurants is chawanmushi, a silky smooth, savory custard usually served as an appetizer or snack.
Chawanmushi is a simple preparation, made by combining beaten eggs with dashi, the Japanese broth of simmered kombu seaweed and shaved bonito tuna flakes, and steaming or poaching the mixture in small cups.
The custard is usually garnished with bits of seafood or shellfish, chicken or vegetables. It is most often served warm, but can also be served at room temperature or chilled.
Depending on the whims of the chef, chawanmushi can be prepared with simple ingredients or embellished with more costly upscale elements.
At the New York City outpost of the Japanese chain restaurant Ootoya, chawanmushi is served at its most basic, either flavored with shiitake mushrooms or topped with plum sauce. Bryant Ng, co-owner and chef of Cassia in Santa Monica, Calif., incorporates premium local ingredients into his Chino Valley Egg Custard, blending in braised shimeji mushrooms and topping the finished dish with a lobe of Santa Barbara uni.
The chawanmushi at Izakaya Mita in Chicago features a bounty of flavors, the custard teeming with bits of shrimp, chicken, fish cake, spinach, shiitakes and orange zest. And a gloriously upscale version is offered at Chicago’s Momotaro, where Mark Hellyar, executive chef, blends generous amounts of shredded red king crab into the mix, and bathes the dish in a thick Asian-style ankake sauce studded with black truffle.
Flan with Umami
Most consumers think “sweet” when they hear the word custard, but chawanmushi quickly changes that perspective. The comfort aspect of its creamy texture, along with its potent dose of umami, combine to create a highly craveable dish that is a new eating experience for the majority of American diners.
- A Dash of Dashi
Although making dashi is not difficult, there are numerous value-added dashi bases and powders available that only require the addition of water. The custard can also be prepared using conventional chicken or seafood stock.
- Heat and Serve
Chawanmushi does not require à la minute preparation. It can be cooked in advance and warmed in a steamer or simmering bain-marie at service time.
- Lean on Your Larder
There is ample opportunity to incorporate signature flavor and ingredient combinations into the custard. Seasonal produce can play a key role, as can meat, poultry and seafood items already in inventory.
Healthy Dining: Chefs Create a Better Balance
Our annual research always includes visits to the newest restaurants specializing in healthy dining. Tracking the evolution of healthy dining trends in commercial foodservice provides an accurate indicator of consumer sentiment and demand for such fare, as concepts that fail to match that demand eventually fail in the market.
Achieving the right balance between nutrition and craveability is an ongoing challenge for this segment. Chicago-based fast-casual chain Protein Bar, whose quinoa-focused menu had a huge influence on moving the seed into the mainstream, recently launched a new concept called Thrive360 Eatery, with a strategy to attract a wider audience by easing the limits on the nutritional content of the menu items, thus allowing its chefs to bolster the flavor arsenal with richer, higher-calorie ingredients.
In a recent press release, Julie Saliba, Protein Bar marketing director, stated that “Protein Bar does an incredible job with very disciplined, hard-core healthy eaters who count every calorie and every gram of protein. Where Thrive360 exists is the big market in the middle where most consumers play.”
In an interview during our visit to the first Thrive360 store in Chicago, Jeff Basalik, the brand’s corporate chef who leads the menu development team, described the “better balance” strategy in this way: “The menu is quite chef-driven, with slightly less-strict nutritional guidelines that allow us to use a broader range of ingredients. Our recipes include potent flavor boosting ingredients such as butter, bacon, feta and Grana Padano. We believe that Thrive360 is our model for the future.”
The chef-driven aspect is evident in the plate presentations, which are some of the most carefully crafted and artfully arranged dishes we have ever seen served in a compostable bowl. And the judicious use of the richer ingredients has a noticeable effect on both the craveability of the food and the nutritional counts.
The “better balance” approach is exemplified in the Breakfast Chilaquiles, chia-seed-studded tortilla chips topped with scrambled egg, black beans, salsa roja and crumbled Cotija cheese—a truly delicious dish that derives 57 percent of its calories from fat. And the 360 Club, a highly flavorful wrap filled with grilled chicken, a modest sprinkle of crunchy bacon bits, avocado, assorted fresh vegetables and Greek yogurt ranch, with 45 percent of its calories coming from fat.
Some may claim that these fat levels are not “healthy,” but the increase in flavor and satiety levels are commensurate, and in the end, the cuisine at Thrive360 is still vastly more healthy than your typical QSR or fast-casual concept.
Another burgeoning chain that is redefining the perception of health is LocoL, the quick-serve brainchild of chefs Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson, who both believe that health is more about wholesomeness and flavor than ingredient or caloric restriction.
One of their stated goals is to provide “real, fresh nutrition for the kids, so they can strive in school.” So, the products used at LocoL contain no preservatives or artificial ingredients, and they are purchased fresh whenever possible. And while the menu features four deep-fried items and soft-serve ice cream, there are no machines dispensing sugary beverages; LocoL offers only housemade aguas frescas, coffee drinks and a green juice.
There are no nutrition counts posted in the restaurants or online, and this is likely intentional. The food served at LocoL is consistently delicious, but it is by no means “light” cuisine.
The “Burgs” are assembled and then finished on a hot griddle, giving the burger buns both a toothsome crunch and a sheen of oil. The Fried Chicken Sandwich is generously slathered with buttermilk mayo. “Foldies” are LocoL’s griddled version of a quesadilla, filled with a choice of pork carnitas, beef machaca, barbecue turkey or beans and cheese. They are a truly craveable treat, and they possess that same rich sheen of oil on the outside.
None of that should be problematic, as wholesomeness and flavor are the primary goals. The menu of $1 side dishes includes Messy Greens that are slowly braised and served in a smoky broth, and a Beef and Onion Gravy that is perfect when poured over rice or scooped up with spicy corn chips. These dishes reinvent both the concept of QSR sides and the “dollar menu.”
Choi and Patterson have created yet another path to a better balance. Food is not nutritious for a child if it goes uneaten. But considering the flavors of the food on offer at LocoL, that should certainly not be an issue.