Prepared Foods discusses ethnic fusion food trends with Christopher Koetke, CEC, CCE, HAAC , Vice President, School of Culinary Arts at Kendall College, Chicago.
Prepared Foods: How have ethnic and regional “fusion” trends evolved?
Christopher Koetke: Fusion is always a word that congers up lots of different thoughts among different people. Fusion in the ‘80s and ‘90s was a popular word for innovative cuisine that came from fusing (or sometimes colliding) two distinct culinary cultures. As this movement progressed though, the word often came to signify the unsuccessful, contrived, or forced combining of separate food cultures and traditions.
At the same time, the mixing of culinary ideas across borders is as old as humanity. Basically, people are curious and want to see what is different. These ideas then eventually get meshed into new societal conditions—and voila, fusion. The best ideas stay; the others simple die and go away.
Fusion continues to this day. There are recent examples like Mexican and Korean cuisine, Japanese and Peruvian cuisine, etc. But I believe that today’s fusion cuisine is a different animal. It is less about combining two different cuisines and more about the global pantry.
Thus, it is not a 1+1 equation, but something less predictable and more varied. It is the fact that information about culinary traditions, indigenous ingredients, and trends are instantly accessible on a wide range of communication devises. Thus, the type of fusion today is a whimsical and highly creative combining of many cultures onto one plate. Why not some traditional American BBQ with Mexican spices on a bao bun slathered with sriracha?
PF: So, what’s the key to getting it right in a product concept?
Koetke: Authenticity is crucial. People are looking for it—even if things are mashed up in unexpected ways. From a strategy standpoint, fusing one or more cultures together successfully first requires a firm understanding of the ingredients and preparations in their traditional context. Then, you need a point of departure—one ingredient or preparation that will be the canvas upon which creative twists will be painted.
This product is often something familiar to the customer or something that the chef is very comfortable with. This could be mashed potatoes, ramen or other noodle/pasta preparation, sausages, mac-n-cheese, various sandwiches, BBQ, poutine, etc. Part of the process is also analyzing the flavor profiles and potential of the base ingredient.
It also is imperative that the base preparation is the real thing. For example, a real, slow-smoked BBQ, perfectly mashed potatoes, really crispy fries made in clean oil, etc. What happens next could be a variation on a theme (i.e. Mexican or Asian inspired BBQ sauces/glazes), involve a new array of spices that are infused or topically applied, or be the addition of completely new ingredients that would normally be completely foreign to the base dish.
PF: What have been some of most interesting fusion foods of 2016?
Koetke: What I have been watching is the continuing variations on all types of Asian noodles across most foodservice segments (especially ramen). The bao bun—as a starchy, edible container for all kinds of foods—also continues to evolve. Lastly, I have seen more Vietnamese influences and a continued growth of assertive Korean flavors in 2016.
PF: What’s your prediction for new or interesting combinations in 2017?
Koetke: When I look into my crystal ball, I don’t see fusion but rather many different products and ethnicities that could be combined in a multitude of different ways. Based on the 2016 FABI awards, there were some hints as to what we might see more of—Peruvian sauces and quick marinating tandoori.
Products like this tell me that these flavors are moving more mainstream and will also be the target of chef and product designer creativity. I also see halal ingredients becoming more mainstream. Some other products to watch as great starting points for international creativity are soba noodles and the Indian Kati roll.