Globally Inspired Menus are Meeting the Demands of Well-Travelled Diners

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Unique, bold, authentic — these words surface repeatedly when discussing globally inspired cuisine in Canada. Changes to how chefs present global cuisines are underway, due largely to the demand for unique menu items that tell a story. While Canadian consumers are generally well travelled and educated on global flavours, each individual has their own idea of what makes an international dish authentic. It’s up to foodservice operators to provide a multi-faceted guest experience to meet these growing expectations.

Recent research from Chicago-based Technomic shows 62 per cent of diners are eating globally inspired cuisine at least once a month and demand is largely driven by younger diners.

“Younger generations are generally driving demand for innovation, including global cuisines,” Anne Mills, senior manager of Consumer Insights at Technomic explains. “They’re more diverse and have had greater exposure to different cuisines from a younger age — thanks to the Internet — so they’re more open to trying new foods and flavours.”

Ethics have become an important consideration when discussing globally inspired cuisine and many industry experts say we need to refer to it differently in a country as multicultural as Canada. Many within the industry are also concerned with issues surrounding cultural appropriation. Jo-Ann McArthur, president of Nourish Food Marketing in Toronto, says an entire generation of Canadians now exist who have never known anything other than multicultural restaurant offerings.

“We aren’t using the term “ethnic” anymore — especially not in Toronto, where Generation Z has grown up with these types of international cuisines as staples in their lives,” she explains. “They’re just multi-cultural food offerings — a true reflection of Toronto as a city.”

For those living outside Toronto, ethnic backgrounds vary considerably throughout Canada (First-Nations groups being considered the only true ethnic Canadians). Each ethnicity represented within Canada, as well as the distinct geography of each area, influences the food culture of that region.

“What we’re seeing now [in globally inspired food trends] is more regional cuisine,” McArthur continues. “People don’t want ‘Asian’ food anymore; they want to know what they eat in Taiwan. They’re going out for Vietnamese or Filipino food. There’s no blanket terminology anymore.”

Arlene Stein, founder and executive director of Toronto’s Terroir Symposium, agrees the terminology needs to change around this cuisine.

“Language is powerful and important in the way we frame things,” she says. “People are questioning why the differentiation of ‘ethnic’ to equate non-Western cuisines? By what we have learned and researched over the years, ‘ethnic’ is a racist term. By clinging to these [differentiations] we’re ignoring the beautiful multiculturalism we enjoy in Canada.”

With Technomic research indicating 36 per cent of Americans would like to explore regional varieties of mainstream global cuisines to try new foods and flavours, going hyper-regional with menu items is a safe bet — if you can do it authentically.

“It’s not just dinner Canadian diners are interested in now, either,” McArthur adds. “People want to know ‘what do they eat for breakfast, or dessert, in other countries?’ As a result, meal offerings are changing with this idea of regionality.”

Restaurants such as Toronto’s Maha’s Egyptian Brunch are driving innovation in this area. At Maha’s, you can dine on Egyptian breakfast staples, such as the Cairo Classic (fava bean foole with sliced boiled egg, falafel, tomato, feta, charred balady bread and salata balady, $16) or Egga, a savoury omelette, packed with fresh herbs ($15).

In Montreal, at Kaza Maza Restaurant, Fadi Sakr has been serving up authentic and regionally influenced Lebanese and Syrian foods for the past decade.

“We’re now celebrating our 10th anniversary,” Sakr says. “When we first opened, it didn’t take us long to start getting busy. About a month after we opened, we received a good review in the [Montreal] Gazette. About two weeks later, we were in another paper. It started picking up from there.”

Sakr credits the regional approach as one of the reasons it’s become one of Montreal’s most-popular Middle-Eastern restaurants with its Aleppo-specific menu options, such as Kefta Karaz ($20), which combines minced lamb with spices, walnuts and pistachios before cooking. The dish is then garnished with a sour-cherry sauce.

“This [type of kefta] is not typical of the general Syrian and Lebanese region,” he explains. “This is more of an Armenian specialty; it shows the Armenian influence on the region of Aleppo. Our idea was to bring something new [to the city]. Montrealers are familiar with Lebanese cuisine — there are a lot of fast-food restaurants here, but that’s not our style of cooking.”

In recent years, Syrian food offerings have been on the rise throughout Canada with the influx of refugees being welcomed to both rural and urban areas. Newcomers to Canada have started food businesses that have further enriched their regions’ food culture and contributed to the nation-wide demand for authentic menu items.

Plant-based and flexitarian lifestyles are becoming increasingly popular among Canadian consumers and globally inspired foodservice offerings are a natural way to help meet this demand. Spice-heavy, texturally diverse menu items inspired by the Middle East, India, Latin America or Southeast Asia pack vegan and vegetarian dishes with flavour and protein.

“We do get a lot of vegetarian guests and have a lot of vegetarian options on our menu,” Sakr continues. “Half of our menu is vegetarian. We didn’t have to invent any new dishes; this is what we’re eating back home — classic recipes.”

Traditionally, globally inspired foodservice options such as Thai, Chinese or Indian cuisines have been limited to QSR’s, takeout and casual eateries, but 25 years ago, Indian-born and European-trained chef Vikram Vij — together with his partner Meeru Dhalwala — challenged that idea by opening Vij’s Restaurant in Vancouver. They started a trend that combines high-end, classical technique with authentic food traditions; serving dishes such as classic Lamb Popsicles (marinated in wine and served with fenugreek-cream curry; $11 each) and sablefish in tomato, yogurt and garam-masala broth ($32.50).

“I studied in Austria, so you have to look at it from a different approach: a young boy who’s a French-trained chef, who felt his cuisine was not being represented properly,” he explains. “Even though Indian food is as complex as any cuisine in the world — it was always represented as cheap, all-you-can-eat buffets. I wanted my cuisine to receive the same love and respect as any other [high-end] cuisine in Canada.”

According to Vij, a shift has occurred in the way people want to enjoy globally inspired foods in Canada. Technological advancements within foodservice have made ordering a meal for delivery an easy task and has ultimately affected the way Canadians are dining out.

“If you have a 110-seat Indian restaurant [in Canada], you’ll struggle,” he says. “More diners are choosing larger, mid-range chains that offer a variety of globally inspired dishes than smaller, independent restaurants serving a specific type of cuisine. You’re better off opening a 45-seat restaurant and having to turn people away.”

In addition to Vij’s Restaurant, Vij and Dhalwala own and operate Vij’s Rangoli and My Shanti (both in Vancouver) and Vij’s Sutra, located in Victoria. Vij has recently expanded his business to supply other segments of foodservice. These offerings include a variety of quality Indian-inspired flash-frozen meals suitable for large-scale catering, which are sold in bulk (including several vegetarian options).

At McCormick Canada, adaptable variations of globally inspired dishes are the name of the game when it comes to modern menu design. Curries are found all over the world, but going with lesser-known recipes, such as its Mozambique Chicken and Shrimp Curry (made with coconut milk, tomatoes, cinnamon and a range of Club House spice blends) will pique the curiosity of diners and add a fresh punch of flavour to an otherwise common restaurant dish.

Executive corporate chef Juriaan Snellen says using the right spice blend in menu items can balance out the amount of salt or sugar that might otherwise be added to boost the flavour of a dish.

“Spice blends are a great and easy way to infuse global flavours into any recipe,” he says. “Today’s consumers are demanding more flavour, but still expect salt and sugar levels [in menu items] to be low.”

Snellen suggests bulking up the flavour of soup broths with deep spices or adding a dash of garam masala to shortbread-cookie dough to transform a classic comfort snack into a South Asian-inspired treat.

According to Toronto-based chef, food writer, educator and activist Joshna Maharaj, we shouldn’t be afraid to let our Canadian multiculturalism shine. While authenticity and avoiding cultural appropriation is important, these things shouldn’t discourage operators from incorporating more global flavour into their menu items.

“A great way to understand this [globally inspired food] trend is menus are starting to reflect the cultural diversity that exists among Canadians,” she says. “There’s an opportunity for chefs and restaurateurs to open up and connect to their communities by investing in diversifying their menus. This is less about chasing one specific cultural dish and more about embracing a more accurate idea of who Canadians are.”

Stein agrees. “How do we define ourselves in Canada? The reality is, we’re the second-largest country in the world, with many different people who have brought culinary traditions to our landscape. Sticking with one national food identity is a detriment — it holds us back from respecting and valuing all of the things that go into regional food systems.”

Written by Janine Kennedy

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