Bubbling up: Fermented Foods on the Menu and in the Grocery Aisle

By Rick Zambrano, Foodable Industry Expert

Kimchi salad of Korean food traditional

Kimchi salad of Korean food traditional

Fermented foods are becoming a more appealing option to diners, as they become more exposed to them in restaurants and food retailers are also leveraging the trend. Experts are touting the benefits of eating fermented foods that have gone through fermentation because of their potential probiotic benefits. These types of foods include yogurt, drinkable yogurts, like kefir and skyr, naturally-fermented pickled vegetable and fruit, particularly kimchi, miso, and tempeh. Kimchi has seen a dramatic rise in its popularity and profile to the everyday consumer. Celebrity Korean-American chefs, including Roy Choi (Kogi BBQ Food Truck), David Chang (Momofuku), and Hooni Kim (Danji in Hell’s Kitchen), have pushed Korean cuisine forward. As an integral element of Korean cuisine, Kimchi has nearly 200 hundred varieties and has clearly benefited from this trend. 

Fermented foods find new popularity

Kimchi’s evolution has taken it from the tables of the independent Korean restaurant to casual and upscale Pan-Asian and American concepts, like Revel in Seattle, as well as national chains like Boston-based Legal Sea Foods. Revel features a Pork Belly Pancake, served with kimchi and bean sprout. At Legal Sea Foods, diners can enjoy the Beef Lettuce Wrap, served with kimchi and scallion ginger sauce. Kimchi is a revered topping for the Japanese fusion taco found in many Korean food trucks like Korilla BBQ in New York, which offers four types of kimchi, and has even become a pizza topping.

Pickled vegetables and fruit, prepared fresh and in-house, are surfacing in all segments and adding zest to dishes by complementing soups and proteins. Trade, an upscale restaurant located in Boston near the Seaport Innovation District, serves a seasonal Smooth Pumpkin Soup, with pickled apple and toasted pumpkin seeds, capturing the nostalgic flavors of the season. Customers of the 800 Degrees Neapolitan Pizzeria, a fast casual chain with locations in Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Las Vegas, can top their pizza with the peppadews option or small, pickled peppers described as “sweet and a little spicy.”

Fermentation brings out internationally-inspired flavors

A Bowl of Thick Miso Paste next to Dried Soybeans

A Bowl of Thick Miso Paste next to Dried Soybeans

Umami (also known as the fifth taste) is a popular salty-savory flavor, that is being sought after by chefs across the country. Umami flavor can be drawn from the naturally-occurring glutamate in many foods. Miso, which is made from fermented soybean, is a darling in the kitchen, with a lot of versatility and a favorite of Japanese and Asian time-honored preparations. Chefs are also taking a hard look at fish sauce as an emerging condiment and ingredient by incorporating it in their dishes. These umami flavors are universally appealing and aren’t relegated to Asian restaurant concepts.

Nearly a third of American Culinary Federation chefs, as reported by the National Restaurant Association, have voted miso as a top trend in 2014. According to culinary research published by Packaged Facts in Fermented Artisanal Foods, miso is a top ingredient and condiment that is fast-rising in culinary and retail circles. Miso has a pasty consistency and is sold refrigerated as an ingredient for cooking, but also appears as an ingredient in dressings and sauces. Miso sold from Hikari comes in a non-GMO, organic version, and is ideal for cooking. Miso is often the last ingredient added to dishes and simmered in a low-heat setting, not boiled, to preserve its probiotic benefits. As a dressing, miso is featured as an upscale offering in Delmonico’s Restaurant Sweet Miso Marinade.

Gordon Biersch, a German-style brewery and restaurant chain, part of CraftWorks and sister chain to Rock Bottom Brewery, serves a Miso Mahi. It is glazed with miso and plated with marinated shitake mushrooms and soy butter sauce. Boston’s Sonsie served Miso Braised Short Ribs with buckwheat, shitake and salsify root. Miso-based entrees are found on 5% of restaurant menus but steadily rising, according to data from the Datassential MenuTrends database. These ingredients enhance the flavor of dishes and provide differentiated taste experiences for the consumer. With the elevated palate of today’s consumer and their interest in probiotic benefits, naturally-fermented foods are finding favor with consumers. They are becoming more commonplace in the kitchen, just as much as they are in all restaurant segments.