Ethnic Eats

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Canadians have long embraced ethnic eats, thanks to our ever-growing multiculturalism and taste for bold, adventurous flavours. However, as global fare becomes increasingly mainstream, restaurant-goers are getting hungry for new tastes.

“We’ll continue to have different ethnicities being represented [in foodservice], but the depth in which we go into those ethnicities is important as well,” says Andrew Waddington, senior consultant at fsStrategy in Toronto. “Even in ethnic cuisines that have been entrenched in our North-American culture for decades, we’re starting to see a deeper dive into those flavours.”

That fits well with what Aaron Jourden, managing editor and analyst at Chicago-based Technomic, observes in the foodservice industry. Two overarching themes in ethnic cuisine, he says, are authenticity and regionality. “We’re not just going out for Chinese food, we’re going out for this particular kind of Chinese dish that’s made in the traditional way,” he says. “We’re not just going out for Mexican food, we’re going out for Oaxacan food or food from the Baja Peninsula. There’s more experimentation on the consumer side with unfamiliar cuisine.”

At the same time, restaurants are using ethnic flavours in approachable ways, allowing consumers to test the waters with different cuisines. One example, says Jourden, is adding a condiment from North Africa to a sandwich. “Everything on that sandwich is familiar except that one ingredient. So, consumers can experiment with these ingredients, but they don’t have to commit to a whole dish from North Africa. They can see if they like these flavours first.”

With authenticity, regionality and approachability in mind, here’s a look at some of the ethnic foods and flavours spicing up the Canadian restaurant scene.

Korean Cuisine Wave
Korean flavours and ingredients are on the upward swing, according to Jourden. “Korean ingredients and preparations such as gochujang and kimchi offer big, pronounced and assertive flavours that are often less familiar than ingredients from Japan or China,” he says. “So, Korean is still somewhat exotic and exciting but, at the same time, very approachable.”

David Wong, Culinary Development chef at Vancouver-based Earls Kitchen + Bar, says interest in Korean food is on the rise simply because it’s so good. “The focus of Korean condiments and sauces is all things: it’s spicy, it’s sweet and it has a depth of flavour you don’t find in many other cultures,” he says.

On the menu at select Earls locations is Bibimbap — an authentic Korean crispy-rice dish made with fresh and pickled vegetables, soft-poached egg, sesame-chili sauce and soy-ginger vinaigrette, served up in a hot stone bowl ($15). “For me, Bibimbap is the pinnacle of excitement when it comes to Korean food,” says Wong. “It’s a textural thing with the crispy rice and we use gochujang in our sauce. There’s such a depth of flavour you can’t replicate with anything else besides this long fermented chili.”

Heui Jeong opened Vancouver’s Haru Korean Kitchen in November 2016, along with her mother, Jeong Im Lee, who does the cooking. The restaurant focuses on homemade-style, authentic Korean cuisine, which Jeong thought would be a great fit for the local food scene. “There’s more recognition of Korean culture and food, but there’s not many homemade-style Korean restaurants in Vancouver, or even North America,” she says.

Bibimbap is currently the most popular item, says Jeong. There are three varieties on the menu: Stone Bowl Bibimbap, rice topped with cooked vegetables and egg yolk; Namul Bibimbap, rice topped with cooked vegetables and a fried egg; and Fresh Green Bibimbap, rice topped with fresh greens and a fried egg ($11 to $13.50). For the Stone Bowl and Namul dishes, customers can choose either beef or vegetarian. The Fresh Green Bibimbap is offered with beef, chicken breast or vegetables. Customers can also choose one of three sauces: gochujang, Citron soy sauce, or gang doenjang, which is a fermented soy paste. While the restaurant does serve up authentic Korean dishes, Jeong says the flavours are a bit toned down to suit Canadian palates. “We wanted to be more approachable because fermented foods such as kimchi have strong flavours,” says Jeong.

More Mexican
Overall, in the foodservice industry, Mexican flavours remain strong and are likely to continue in popularity, according to Waddington. He points to McDonald’s Canada, which recently launched its limited-time Guacamole & Jalapeño Chicken Sandwich. “When guacamole and jalapeño are safe for McDonald’s, that’s an indication of a fairly accepted trend,” he says.

However, now that Mexican food is a mainstay in Canada, some restaurants are moving into deeper territory. “With Mexican, we’re seeing more authenticity and more regionality,” says Jourden. “Mexican is very much into the mainstream at this point, so people want to get more into it and know the more authentic flavours and dishes.” At Earls Kitchen + Bar, Wong agrees that Mexican food is becoming more regional. “Everyone is familiar with the flavour profile and combinations, so to get more regional is the next step,” he says. “We’re inspired by the importance of getting the right ingredients to make the proper regional cuisine.”

One example at Earls Kitchen + Bar is the Pibil Chicken Taco, which uses a preparation method from Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. The chicken is marinated with achiote, pasilla chile, cumin, chipotle, garlic and oil, and then slowly roasted. The chicken is served in two corn tortillas, along with queso blanco, avocado, cilantro and fresh pico ($11). Even when they’re not purely traditional, tacos continue to be a fan favourite. “For small plates and shareable items, tacos are always a good thing to have on the menu,” says Evan Robertson, executive chef at Market in Calgary. “They’re quick and easy for the customer, they like how it looks and the flavours in a taco are always fresh.”

Market features three varieties of tacos — Brome Lake duck confit, 4k Farms pulled pork and tuna poke ($16). The tacos all use the same base: coleslaw made with local cabbage, carrots and onions, as well as pickled Serrano peppers. To top it off, there’s a house-made smoked-onion salsa verde. “You get a rich, fresh flavour from smoking the onions and then we add herbs and purée it,” says Robertson. “It’s not super spicy, so we offer in-house hot sauce on the side so people can spice it up if they need to. But the flavour complements every single one of our tacos.”

Sauce it Up 
Ethnic condiments are hot, hot, hot. In Restaurants Canada’s 2017 Canadian Chef Survey, ethnic condiments (such as sriracha, chimichurri and sambal) and Asian twists on condiments (including sriracha ketchup and kimchi mayo) made the top 10 list of hot trends.

“Chefs need to win guests over with new tastes and flavours they don’t eat at home, while not straying far from what consumers are used to eating,” says Denis Hancock, director of Consumer Insights at Toronto-based BrandSpark International, which conducted the survey. “At the same time, they have to keep food costs reasonable, while also facing pressure to simplify and streamline menus and preparation times. It’s a very complex challenge.”  Ethnic condiments, says Hancock, help on all these fronts. “They’re typically a very cost- effective way to innovate and offer variety on the menu in a relatively simple way, while allowing guests to ‘dip their toes’ into the flavours of a particular region.” Jourden agrees. “It’s a way to provide new, exciting flavours but in ways that a lot of restaurants can bring in-house,” he says. “If you want to stay on trend and you’re a large sandwich chain, you might not be able to bring in a bánh mì sandwich from Vietnam, but you can bring in one or two ingredients.”Toronto-based South St. Burger is well-entrenched in the world of ethnic condiments. “For instance, we’ve had mango-chutney relish from the first day we opened [12 years ago] because we wanted to be more interesting and a cut above the massively competitive burger market,” says vice-president Thomas McNaughton. Today, ethnic-inspired toppings at South St. Burger include wasabi mayo, jalapeño-sour cream and hot-pepper relish. Two signature choices are also a nod to global flavours: the Nacho Burger, with aged cheddar, fresh tomato salsa, jalapeño-sour cream and guacamole; and Spicy Piri Piri, with piri piri chicken (a traditional Portuguese dish), pepper-jack cheese, Cajun onions, tomatoes, signature sauce and lettuce. “The new generation is looking for flavour and a little heat as well,” says McNaughton. “So, we designed the menu right off the bat to accommodate that and it’s only grown since.”

The ethnic-condiment trend is expected to continue to heat up, according to Hancock. “Sometimes chefs are excited about things guests have little interest in, and sometimes guests are interested in things chefs aren’t paying much attention to,” says Hancock. “We expect the ethnic-condiments ‘hot trend’ to continue for a long time, as it’s a case where chefs and restaurant-goers are totally on the same page.”

 Written by Rebecca Harris