Beyond the Trend: How to Get More Ethnic Flavors on to Your Menu

Restaurants are closing in on ethnic flavors to inject interest - and sales - into their dishes. Why? There is a real demise of many single ethnicity spots; broad strokes of ethnic colors up and down menus are, in part, responsible and, in part, a response. How many purely Italian restaurants are left in your city’s little Italy neighborhood?

How many straight-up Chinese restaurants are lingering in nearby Chinatown? Moving beyond the trend, ethnocentric menus are fading across many segments, while diversity blossoms.

Three asian pork tacos |   Shutterstock

Three asian pork tacos | Shutterstock

One great, big tossed salad of colors and flavors

Course by course, there are flavor swirls that excite interest and broaden customers’ addiction to lessening boredom. Arbitrarily mixing two, seemingly unpaired cuisines is not the plan. Rather, plays on conventional constructs that are grounded in, well, sense is a starting point. Remember when the cronut was a novel idea? Start there. Or here:

In Philly’s red hot glow of a burgeoning food scene, Cheu’s matzah ball ramen is a favorite. How does Japanese and kosher fare get to the front of the rope line? Carefully.  

The Nashville-hot tofu taco in Texas at Velvet Taco is a confetti of flavors that hail from all parts. We can argue that tacos are a likely vessel for about as many flavor combinations as a sandwich. To doodle with so many elements is exactly the stimulant for food sales and to pluck customers’ strings.

Paneer tacos aren’t that far off from the cheese’s comfort zone. Typically eaten with some form of bread, jamming the cheese of Persian origin into a flour or corn tortilla is practical. Dressing the paneer in Latin flavor, as they do at Roxie’s Tacos in Boulder, Colorado elevates and excites the omnipresent dish.

Chicago’s Saucy Porka wraps a puffed pillow of a traditional Japanese bao around taco fillings. The endgame? A baco. A Latin-Asian sparkle isn’t too far-reaching and makes sense for diners looking at mash-ups to keep up with interesting flavor adventures.

Fusion vs Confusion

What pre-dates the drive to embed co-mingled ethnic flavors? Remember fusion in the 1990’s? That glittery dive into rubbing together two - or more - obviously unrelated ethnicities in an effort to intrigue. What happened? Just whacked-out combinations that were strings of ingredients in non-sequiturs that did more to confuse customers then it did to make things attractive. Restraint lacked and diners fled the scene. Chose wisely, young Jedi!

Case Study: Brooklyn’s Shalom Japan

In Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood, Shalom Japan is the litmus test for what can work when a (literal) marriage of cultures blooms. Japanese and kosher is an ethnic food unpredicted intersection. So what’s the appeal? Deliberate combinations boost flavor opportunities, like the restaurant’s Sake Kasu Challah French Toast, as well as offer guests traveling in a pack to not settle for one profile. The Sesame Temomi Mazemen and Lox Bowl live on the same menu. Not every meal needs to be an adventure into some nether region of whacked-out foodisms. Instead, well planned and expertly executed flourishes provide growth opportunities, for guests to get excited and operators to cast off the same ol’, same ol’.

The key to not being locked into one ethnicity? Research, flexibility, and testing. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that Sriracha was a head-scratching mystery of an ingredient. Now? Sriracha ketchup to dip your cheesesteak rolls. That’s what we are talking about.

If we want absolutely geographic authenticity, then we need to travel. But being out front doesn’t mean mixing all the colors together. Avoid a grey abyss of confusion by doing homework. Put flavors together and pull them apart.

The grace is gone from trying to hide mash-ups. Maybe fusion was ahead of its time. Rather than startling customers now, echoing ethnic specialties throughout a menu is now good business sense. Fearless dining isn’t quite as terrifying. Maybe it’s because we have come of age. We understand tempura and shwarma. Maybe not on the same plate, but on the same menu? Not unheard of. We are rather smitten by food that is thought-provoking. Ethnic embellishing is yet another element of a well-engineered menu to give guests an opportunity to wander.

Want more tips from Chef Berman? Listen to the latest episode of The Barron Report where Host Paul Barrons finds out what Chef Berman thinks about food. You also get a sneak peek into what to expect from the first season of Chef AF, a new podcast with Berman as the host.