Prepared Foods talks Asian flavor and food trends with Andrew Hunter, corporate executive chef for Kikkoman Sales USA, Inc. Chef Hunter also is head of culinary R&D for Wolfgang Puck Worldwide and executive chef for Niman Ranch. His Los Angeles culinary development agency focuses on restaurant and menu development, business development for agricultural products, and product commercialization for industrial clients. He maintains clients in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and the United States.
Prepared Foods: We’d like to talk about Asian cuisine trends and new tastes. Admittedly, though, we have to start by noting the pandemic’s terrible impact on the restaurant sector.
Chef Andrew Hunter: That’s exactly right. Restaurants are fighting for survival and it’s difficult to talk trends when so many restaurants have closed due to the COVID pandemic and restrictions. I live in California and even though it’s warm enough to eat outdoors, our lockdowns and restrictions have made that difficult. It’s clear, meanwhile, that consumers are responding by turning more to grocery as well as take-out and delivery. Finally, the other challenge for restaurants involves people because our situation here has been so crazy. It’s difficult to furlough employees and then try to bring them back—only potentially to be closed again later.
PF: In regard to overall Asian food trends, what’s perhaps new in regard to various regional cuisines?
Chef Andrew: For those of us in the business, I think that challenge relates to what we might see as a trend in inception or adoption. Actually, more often than not, the trend already is much further along.
For example, Korean food is something we’ve talked about for a while and it’s still very much on an upward trend line. In some ways for us, it’s a perfect cuisine that utilizes the barbecue grill at the center of many concepts. Many Korean foods have sweet, smoky or spicy flavors that already are quite familiar to US consumers.
In a similar regard, I’d say Japanese cuisine also is benefiting in many ways. There are comfort foods with clean flavors. When it comes to Japanese food, there might be some complexity in how the fish is cut and how the rice is made. However, when it comes to the presentation of a product like nigiri (sushi), there’s something very simple and understated about it. And when you add something like a traditionally brewed soy sauce—it’s perfection.
There’s a good chance we won’t get back to any sense of normalcy until 2022. I think that’s inspiring consumers to think about simplicity, traceability and supply chain integrity in the foods they cook and eat. This period already has shown that consumers believe in reputable brands, such as Kikkoman, which has been around for generations. These brands have established supply chains and clean ingredient decks.
PF: You’ve mentioned a few regional cuisines. Do you see any particular dishes trending up?
Chef Andrew: One of the hot items would be tonkatsu, a breaded pork cutlet. In the constellation of Japanese dishes, it’s a star and the granddaddy that lends itself to so many iterations. It can be highbrow or lowbrow.
Interestingly, Kikkoman has all the ingredients necessary and they are really best in class. One of these products is a panko breading that is tremendously authentic for katsu – Kikkoman Japanese Style Panko Bread Crumbs. Kikkoman’s panko breading is ideal for korokke, the Japanese version of a breaded croquette. And it’s readily available to manufacturers and foodservice operators.
To round out the full tonkatsu profile, Kikkoman also offers a katsu sauce that works well for manufacturers and for foodservice. You might think of it as an apple-based steak sauce. It’s friendly for those consumers looking for something a little edgy. Then again, older consumers will find it somewhat unique but still familiar.
And I’ll tell you something else especially suited to foodservice: A chef can dip a protein in Kikkoman Tempura Batter Mix and then in Kikkoman’s Panko before it goes into a par-fry system. So the protein then is cooked while everything else simplifies the breading process. The two dipping steps create an adhesive for the breading. Good food always is “layered” with textures and tastes. In this case, even the batter is delicious and it’s a kitchen-friendly preparation method.
One last thought about trends doesn’t involve a certain dish, per se. Rather, we certainly see more consumers turning to meal kits. They can’t go out for dinner so they’re turning to kits where—for example—you make your own pizza at home with dough, cheese, sauce and then you add your own toppings. These types of kits are evolving quickly to emulate restaurant-quality meals. Many are moving up to include more sophisticated sauces, which consumers typically would not have in their cupboards. This trend easily fits Kikkoman’s range of portion-controlled packet offerings, where a meal kit might call for a sriracha or an oyster sauce that’s pre-portioned, packaged and ready to use.
PF: Do you see certain Asian ingredients trending up?
Chef Andrew: I’d say soy sauce. Most consumers wouldn’t know this but there are distinctions within the world of soy sauce. Only Japanese-style traditionally brewed shoyu can be described in this way because it is distinct and carries a standard of identity. It relates to the way the Japanese brew it with four ingredients (water, soybeans, wheat, and salt) and no caramel color. That’s what gives Kikkoman Soy Sauce its own distinct originality and integrity, as well as the ability to create a clean ingredient deck that consumers appreciate.
When it comes to thinking of Asian cuisines and regional favorites, we tend to think more of China than Japan. But I see interest in regional Japanese cuisines continuing to trend upward. The only Japanese city most Americans know is Tokyo. Yet more and more chefs and media are exploring the cooking of other Japanese cities—including Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima—known for their own regional dishes. For example, okonomiyaki is a dish of savory pancakes with fish and mainly associated with the Kansai or Hiroshima areas.
PF: Do you think of anything trending downward in Asian cuisine?
Chef Andrew: Another way of looking at that briefly is to think of what’s trending up—which is anything that’s plant-based or plant-forward. So conversely, you could suggest that anything that’s animal based is trending down. You certainly see some meat processors responding by adding much more information about where particular animals come from and how they’re raised. Other companies are much less transparent and people are nervous about that.
When it comes to ingredients, you see that additives such as monosodium glutamate (MSG) are trending down. Most importantly here, you’re striving for ingredients that consumers can understand. “Clean” ingredient decks are trending up.
PF: Is there an Asian spice, sauce or ingredient you’re excited about at the moment?
Chef Andrew: I’d say five-spice powder, a seasoning blend. It’s very approachable, friendly, complex on the palate and really delicious. Although cinnamon and ginger are spices the American consumer won’t think of in conjunction with a pork roast, the overall combination of spices works and applications involving five-spice are unique and exciting.
I’m also excited about different sauces that use soy sauce as one of the base ingredients. These would include ponzu sauce and unagi sauce. I’d also want to talk about poke here. Specifically, not about the dish itself—but more, instead, around poke sauce. Here, I’ll give a shout out to Kikkoman, which just introduced a No Preservatives Added Poke Sauce that rocks. It features brewed soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, and a little sriracha chili. It’s very versatile, and it’s also gluten-free.
Personally, I’m not a fan of Szechuan peppercorn although many chefs are excited about it and think it’s awesome. Again, personally, I just don’t like that numbing flavor.
PF: In regard to Asian dishes, flavors or ingredients—what was something new you learned in 2020?
Chef Andrew: I learned more about simple, homestyle Japanese foods. One of them, for example, Butter Rice, just involves steamed rice, a nugget of butter and drizzle of soy sauce.
Let me back up a little. In the latter part of the ‘80s, I worked with Barbara Tropp, the author and restaurateur behind San Francisco’s China Moon Café. You could say she was the Julia Child of Asian cuisines. Now as I learn more about Japanese comfort foods, I think of her and it’s like seeing an old friend.
There’s always quite a bit to learn about Japanese cuisines, to become immersed in them and look at those ingredients in slightly different ways. The simple steamed rice dish with a little butter and soy is delicious and comforting without being a “gut bomb.” It satisfies without being overly heavy.
Finally, I’ll note that chefs have talked about umami for a long time and I hear the word quite often—even more than I used to. Now in the restaurant community there’s much more discussion about delivering take-out and how to make it taste delicious. I am hearing more chefs in different areas discussing umami more than in the past, in conjunction with boosting umami in take-out foods. It’s here, too, that traditionally brewed soy sauce can help. It’s not the only tool but it’s definitely one of the best.
Visit KikkomanUSA.com for more information about Kikkoman’s foodservice products, as well as industrial ingredients for manufacturers.
Learn more about Chef Andrew Hunter.