Now that Thailand’s Sriracha has joined the condiment line-up on many restaurant tables, chefs are looking for other Southeast Asian flavor inspiration. According to the R&D team behind ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, a growing fast-casual created by Chipotle founder Steve Ells, it’s a winning combination of spicy, savory, sweet and tart flavors that makes the foods of Vietnam, Thailand and other Southeast Asian regions so appealing.
ShopHouse uses the build-your-own service line to offer “extraordinary ingredients in craveable combinations” of aromatic rice, rice noodles, salad greens, marinated proteins, loads of vegetables, spicy curries and other sauces, plus crunchy extras. The deceptively simple menu brings less familiar tastes— green papaya slaw, tamarind, toasted rice and Singapore-brined vegetables—to a wider audience.
While Korean flavors aren’t heavily represented on ShopHouse’s menu, dishes from that area have gained major momentum with help from concepts such as Roy Choi’s famous Los Angeles-based Kogi food trucks, which helped popularize burritos filled with Korean barbecue (bulgogi). Choi also gets credit for bringing the pungent flavors of fermented vegetables (kimchi) and gochujang, a thick paste of chile peppers, sticky rice, fermented soybeans and salt to the mainstream.
Unlike table-ready Sriracha, gochujang’s strong paste is meant to be used in the cooking process or diluted with vinegar, oils and other sauce-making ingredients. With spicy heat, saltiness, sour notes and some sweetness, it’s umami packed, and chefs aren’t limiting its use to Korean cuisine. At the popular Vedge restaurant in Philadelphia, vegan and vegetarian small plates take a global approach. The gochujang-glazed tofu is served with Pan-Asian extras such as edamame, roasted miso, yuba crackling and sea bean salad.
“Global appeal and pronounced flavors are important, and more chefs are applying these elements to local products, which is really important to consumers right now,” says Chicago-based Charlie Baggs, R&D expert and chief executive chef of Charlie Baggs Culinary Innovations. He sees the sweet, tangy flavors of bulgogi barbecue as familiar enough for U.S. diners, while the ample use of fresh vegetables and herbs in Southeast Asian cuisine provides a health halo. “These flavors work on multiple platforms and have high appeal,” he says.
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Robert Danhi, founder of Chef Danhi & Co., Inc., a culinary consulting firm based in Los Angeles and focused on the cuisines of Southeast Asia, sees no end to consumer interest in Southeast Asian foods. Thailand and Korea have led the way, while Vietnamese, Malaysian and Indonesian cuisines are not far behind.
Vietnam’s banh mi sandwich, in particular, is a fast-casual favorite. Yum! Brands recently debuted Banh Shop, a Dallas-based fast-casual concept with two locations, showcasing Saigon’s famous sandwiches of French bread, cured and grilled meats, fresh greens and pickled vegetables. And Lee's Sandwiches, billed as the World's Largest Bánh Mì Chain, with many U.S. shops throughout California and other points west, recently expanded to the East Coast as well.
Soup and noodle bowls are other popular platforms for bringing Southeast Asian flavors and ingredients to more fans. Google’s “Think with Google Food Trends 2016” shows Vietnamese pho, a beef-based broth with noodles, to be a top trending global food, growing at a consistent rate of 11 percent year-over-year since 2013.
More research from Rockville, Maryland-based Packaged Facts shows plenty of room for Asian noodle forms to grow. Its December 2015 “Asian Noodles: U.S. Market Trends and Opportunities” report found that most Americans have very little knowledge or understanding about Asian noodles—nearly a third say they don’t know anything about them, and 55 percent indicate only modest knowledge.
Like Sriracha, Thai curries and bulgogi, pho and other Southeast Asian soups can be heaped with the winning combination of spicy, savory, sweet and tart ingredients that U.S. consumers have come to crave. Once more diners get a whiff of these aromatic bowls of broth, noodles and fresh greens, they’ll want more.
This post is sponsored by Maggi Spicy Seasoning