It takes awhile for American consumers to take a shine to new food, but when they do, they often do it with gusto. Take a look at the popularity of hummus, Greek yogurt and chipotle peppers as examples of how quickly ingredients can go from obscure to mainstream.
Three cuisines in particular that remain comparatively obscure in the United States show potential as sources for newly popular menu items as they begin to grow in influence.
Quinoa, from Peru, is already showing its potential for big-time success, and Korean kimchi is appearing on more and more menus these days. And while Vietnamese food is shrinking in popularity according to recent data from online ordering company GrubHub, two dishes — bánh mì and pho —may be poised for growth.
NRN takes a look at these three emerging cuisines and what they might be able to offer U.S. restaurateurs.
The foodways of the Incas and their predecessors, Spanish colonizers, African slaves and large populations of Chinese and Japanese immigrants have been combined to create what many people in Latin America regard as one of the region’s finest and most complex cuisines.
Citrus-cured seafood, in the form of ceviche and sashimi-like tiraditos; stir-fried dishes called saltados; corn with giant kernels called choclo; potato-based, protein-topped appetizers called causas; skewers of beef heart or veal heart called anticuchos; rice dishes reminiscent of paella, and others more like fried rice, are all hallmarks of Peruvian cuisine, as are their distinctive chile varieties, called aji.
Quinoa, a high-protein grain from high, dry sections of Peru and Bolivia is going mainstream and is available at chain restaurants such as First Watch, Seasons 52 and Pret à Manger, as well as at many independent restaurants.
The United Nations has even declared 2013 “International Year of Quinoa.”
Ceviche is already widely recognized because Mexicans make it, too. Peruvian ceviche is distinguished by the use of aji limo or other indigenous chiles, as well as leche de tigre, or “tiger’s milk,” which is a combination of citrus, chile and other flavorings.
The preparation is simple, but the presentation can be dramatic. At Herringbone in La Jolla, Calif., loup de mer ceviche is made by slicing the fillets and laying them between the head and tail in the shape of a fish. The fish is then seasoned with fleur de sell, lime segments, sliced Fresno chiles, shaved shallots and olive oil.
Ceviche has even made it to some chains. It’s a big hit at Sushi Samba, a seven-unit fine dining chain that features the cuisines of Japan, Brazil and Peru. It was also recently added to the menu of 11-unit Lazy Dog Restaurant & Bar, which has a ceviche of shrimp and white fish marinated in citrus juice, papers, onions, tomatoes and micro cilantro.
Though traditionally made from beef or veal heart, Peruvian restaurants in the U.S. call virtually anything on a skewer and anticucho, including chicken liver at Seviche, a pan-Latin restaurant in Louisville, Ky.; fish, chicken or beef at New York City-based Sushi Samba; and octopus at La Mar, which has locations in San Francisco and New York City.
Spicy Grilled meats and garlicky pickled vegetables are the outward-facing hallmarks of this cuisine, although Korea’s kitchen also includes subtle soups, chewy noodles and a rich culinary heritage that you would expect from a peninsula that has for centuries been influenced by its Japanese and Chinese neighbors. It’s distinctive spicy bean paste, gojuchang, is a signature flavor of the cuisine, and banchan, the array of cold side dishes served as part of a meal, is one of its most distinctive characteristics.
Korean food in the United States stayed mostly quietly confined to ethnic neighborhoods until 2008, when Roy Choi introduced his Kogi truck to Los Angeles, serving “Korean tacos” made with kalbi — marinated Korean short ribs — served in tortillas.
Although kalbi was what won over Angelenos, it’s Korean pickles, or kimchi, that have gone mainstream. Usually made with cabbage, kimchi actually can be made with virtually any vegetable, and New York celebrity chef David Chang has even made it with green apples.
Kimchi possibly has benefited from the pickle trend that has swept the country in recent years. Independent restaurateurs put it on sandwiches and in cocktails, and a number of chains have introduced kimchi to their menu in the past year.
Mama Fu’s added Korean Street Tacos to its menu earlier this year, made with flour tortillas filled with a choice of pork tenderloin, chicken, beef, shrimp or tofu and topped with kimchi, pickled carrots, daikon and scallions.
In April, California Pizza Kitchen introduced a Spicy Korean Barbecue Pizza, made with charred Korean barbecue, slivered scallions, sesame seeds and mozzarella, and garnished with a “nontraditional” cool, spicy kimchi made with Napa cabbage, cilantro, carrots and cucumber tossed in Sriracha vinaigrette — a sauce that originated in Thailand.
But don’t count out kalbi or other Korean barbecue. CPK and Mama Fu’s items also rely on the zesty flavor of those dishes for its success.
And Soju, the Korean spirit about half the strength of vodka — known in Japanese as shochu — has proven to be a popular spirit for cocktails. It takes easily to infusions and because of its relatively low alcohol content, can, depending on local liquor laws, be used in some restaurants that are only licensed to serve beer and wine.
This Southeast Asian country was long a part of China, although not for the past 1,000 years. Still, its cuisine has more influence from China than the other mainland Southeast Asian countries of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar. More recently, in the 19th and 20th centuries, Vietnam was a colony of France, whose culinary influence can be seen in its bánh mì baguette sandwiches and, some argue, its pho noodle soup, which is pronounced like the French word “feu,” or fire, and possibly refers to France’s version of pot roast, pot au feu, although others argue that the dish’s origins are Chinese.
Vietnamese cuisine features the aromatics of the region, including lemon grass and cilantro, and more mint than its Southeast Asian neighbors. The generally light nature of the cuisine was part of the inspiration for Asian Box, a San Francisco Bay Area chain that unabashedly calls its food Vietnamese, rather than Asian or Southeast Asian.
Restaurants specializing in pho have operated in ethnic enclaves across the country for years.
More recently — over the past decade or so — specialists in bánh mì have opened, serving grilled meats or pâtés with Vietnamese herbs and vegetables dressed in tangy sauce sandwiched in baguettes.
Although The Cheesecake Factory’s Saigon Chicken Sandwich — its version of bánh mì that it introduced several years ago — failed to resonate with customers, and ShopHouse, Chipotle’s Southeast-Asian-themed concept, ended up dropping bánh mì from its menu, the sandwich has seen success at Mama Fu’s Asian House, a 13-unit chain based in Austin, Texas with fast-casual service at lunch and full service at dinner.
Pho-inspired soup can be found at 100-unit fast-casual chain Freshii and Tom’s Urban 24, the single-unit restaurant opened last year by Smashburger founder and former McDonald’s executive Tom Ryan also has pho on its lunch rotation.