It’s Time to Go Global
It’s no secret that consumers’ tastes have evolved to be more adventurous in the foods they eat, resulting in a demand for authentic flavors from around the world. While some ethnic cuisines have become mainstream on menus, certain international varieties are expected to make an even bigger splash in the coming years.
“Ethnic cuisines are a long-term trend on restaurant menus, with some being so common that they’re hardly considered ethnic anymore, while others are still relatively unknown. However, our research shows that consumers are exploring a range of international dishes these days,” said Annika Stensson, director of research communications, for the National Restaurant Association.1
African and Middle Eastern fare are two of the hottest global cuisines appearing in restaurants, especially fast casual eateries.
Relatively underexplored in the United States, African flavors and ingredients are increasingly popping up on menus across the country with an array of dishes rich in whole grains, beans, vegetables and exotic spices. Harissa, berbere, dukkah and ras el hanout are some of the most popular African spices being used by American chefs. Since Africa is the second-largest continent in the world, simply saying “African cuisine” may come across as vague. Take some time to explore the diverse regions throughout Africa—each region offers a variety of different techniques and rich, earthy flavors that can easily be incorporated into your existing menu.
In addition to meat and vegetarian dishes, tilapia can often be found in African cuisine. The mild white fish easily takes on the flavors and spices traditionally used in African cooking. For example, African Grill in Denver serves baked or fried tilapia with salad, plantains or jollof rice and fufu (a ball of dough made with cassava and green plantain flour) while Rainbow African Grill in Gaithersburg, Md., offers tilapia pepper soup with fufu or rice and plantains.
Desta Ethiopian Kitchen in Atlanta, Ga., devotes a section of the menu to defining different foods and even lists how to properly pronounce them. At Desta, customers can choose from a variety of specialty dishes or decide to customize their meals by selecting their protein, such as tilapia, salmon or lamb, along with sides and even level of spice. Letena, a fast casual restaurant in Washington, D.C., highlights classic Ethiopian-inspired meat and veggie dishes while Spatch Peri-Peri Chicken in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., brings the bold flavors of peri-peri chili sauce to popular American chicken dishes, bowls and salads.
Similar to African cuisine, Middle Eastern cuisine refers to a vast array of culinary traditions from Egypt in the west and Turkey in the north to Iran in the east and Yemen in the south. Therefore, there is plenty of inspiration to go around. With many Middle Eastern dishes becoming popular in recent years, there has been an increase in fast casual concepts. Chicken and lamb, chickpea-based hummus and falafel as well as warm earthy spices like turmeric, cumin and cardamom have started to become prominent on menus.
Mamoun and The Halal Guys—two NYC quick service restaurants—have become destinations for their authentic Middle Eastern cuisine, with highlights including shawarma, gyros and falafel. Naf Naf Grill is making Middle Eastern specialties more accessible to the Midwest and Northeast, serving freshly prepared customizable bowls and pitas. Even By Chloe co-founder Samantha Wasser and TV chef Eden Grinshpan, have teamed up to open a Middle Eastern–inspired fast casual concept called Dez. With the opening slated for 2018, Dez will feature mezze, bowls, pitas and shared plates.
Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine also share similarities and can often be found in the same restaurant. Fast casual eateries like The Chickpea, Roti Modern Mediterranean, CAVA and Garbanzo offer a modern interpretation of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors and ingredients. They also follow a similar customizable format, where customers select a base of grains or greens, followed by a choice of protein—fish, meat or tofu, topped with a selection of fresh veggies and flavorful sauces.
Driven by international travel and access to a wide variety of ethnic cuisines right here in the U.S., consumers will continue to seek out global foods,2 especially when dining away from home. As restaurants are the primary point of access for consumers to experience new cuisines,1 foodservice operators have an opportunity to attract customers and drive sales. It’s time to add some global flavor to your menu.
1 National Restaurant Association, Global Palates: Ethnic Cuisines and Flavors in America, 2015
2 National Restaurant Association, What’s Hot: Top 10 Food Trends for 2017, 12/8/16