Don’t chicken out of offering diners new and exciting food for the year of the rooster – with the nation now consuming as much soy sauce as it does apple sauce, they’re looking for the authentic experience, says Richard McComb
It’s the perfect antidote to the January blues and the post-Christmas lull, and best of all, British consumers have an insatiable appetite for the food at the heart of the celebration. What’s not to love about Chinese New Year?
Chinese New Year is dictated by the lunar cycle and falls on 28 January for 2017, and the food industry is knocking at an open door when it comes to luring diners. Chinese food is eaten by one in 10 Britons at least once a week, according to Mintel. The nation now consumes as much soy sauce as apple and mint sauce.
Brian Yip, director of Chinese food giant Wing Yip, says: “Chinese New Year is increasingly acknowledged worldwide, with many British consumers looking to enjoy the festivities and experience the traditions. This encourages consumers to open their minds, and tastebuds, to new dishes, providing operators with a platform to introduce an Oriental offering.”
Yip suggests laying on one or two additional dishes to an established menu or opting for an entire Chinese-themed offering. “January is a cold and dreary month, so it’s a great time to trial Oriental dishes as people look for warming, flavoursome dishes,” adds Yip, whose stores sell more than 4,500 ingredients.
Wing Yip’s own food research suggests restaurants are driving the boom in Oriental cuisine; Mintel found one in five Brits who have used an ethnic restaurant or takeaway say special menus celebrating cultural events are appealing. It makes a compelling argument.
Yip says: “The best strategy in trialling a new menu for Chinese New Year is to keep everything simple. Wing Yip stir-in sauces can be used to make speedy, delicious and authentic-tasting dishes, without the hassle and cost of creating equivalent flavours from scratch.”
Michelin-starred HKK in London is leading the way with high-end menu innovation, introducing solar menus that change every two months. The dishes are linked to the seasons and satisfy customer demands for nutritious foods and the promotion of wellbeing.
Executive head chef Tong Chee Hwee explains: “We wanted to create something that was authentic and true to our roots, but at the same time contemporary and interesting. This relates to the ancient Chinese philosophy of yin and yang, which extends to seasonal ingredients whereby natural harmony is achieved by eating or drinking foods that are similar in nature to the environment.
“These certain foods and ingredients can have increased benefits to the body’s health and spirit during the specific seasons. In winter, people prefer to select ingredients and dishes that are rich in protein and vitamins and easy to digest. In summer, it is more beneficial to eat lighter foods and avoid oily foods.”
The solar menus are designed to give regular customers new and unexpected flavours. Tong says: “We have used lots of authentic Chinese ingredients that guests may be tasting for the first time, such as sea cucumber. Sea ginseng [sea cucumber in broth] is a dish that challenges the Western diet. Most people either love it or hate it, but we have been really happy to see that most guests that haven’t eaten it before have really enjoyed it. We are taking guests on a culinary journey.”
The ‘shock of the new’ is balanced with familiarity, so the most popular reoccurring dish on the solar menus is HKK’s signature cherry wood-roasted Peking duck.
Dish innovation is also promoted at the Royal China Group, which has six restaurants in London, including the Royal China Club. The latter is creating new dishes to mark the Year of the Rooster and general manager Mr Lok says its kitchen team will be building on its success at the Championship of Chinese Cuisine, where it won four gold medals, two silver medals and one silver cup medal for creations including a cooled gammon cube with caviar, smoked Wagyu with black garlic sauce and a poached pear in Chinese rice wine.
“The key to staying relevant is not repeating the same dishes you find at a local takeaway, but instead creating dishes that you will struggle to find elsewhere in London,” says Lok.
“We are keen to use unusual Chinese ingredients to give our diners something unlike anything they have ever had before. Each of the restaurants launch their Chef’s Special Dim Sum menus every two months, which allows the chefs the freedom to produce a selection of their own seasonal dishes.”
At Chinese Cricket Club, which focuses on Sichuan and dim sum in the City of London, executive chef Ken Wang champions meals that celebrate different flavours or regional cuisines. And Chinese food and street food collide at Mama Lan, where founder Ning Ma celebrates the Beijing street food she fell in love with at her family’s dumpling and snack stall in the Chinese capital. The food has proved so popular that Ning’s business has grown from a supper club to a group with six outlets.
Authenticity is key, says Ning: “Mama Lan has kept its family recipes and hasn’t Westernised its dishes too much. It’s got strong, hearty flavours, rather than the bog-standard spring onion, ginger, sweet and sour sauce. Our customers love the simple set-up of the restaurants, which is why they keep coming back.”
Will Matier, managing director at food distributor Vegetarian Express, says operators need to be proactive in using Chinese New Year to drive profits. It has a range of recipes developed by Paul Gayler, including Chinese edamame and bamboo shoot noodle salad and Sichuan stir-fried Chinese greens with Asian mushrooms and water chestnuts.
Matier adds: “From an operational perspective, the beauty of Chinese cuisine is that once you’ve done the prep, many dishes are incredibly quick to cook, allowing chefs to serve large numbers of customers with ease. As well as this, many Asian ingredients are ambient and easy to store with a long shelf life.”
One to watch
The growing importance of Chinese cuisine is being recognised by the University Caterers Organisation (TUCO) in the publication of a new cookery book for Chinese New Year. The practical recipe guide follows the organisation’s study tour of China in 2015.
TUCO believes one way of keeping ahead of the competition is to offer authentic oriental menus and to commit time to researching key ingredients to entice both international and UK consumers. Dim sum, for example, is a great option as there are good choices for vegetarians and variations can be produced for relatively little cost, minimising overheads.
Matt White, chair of TUCO, urges operators to look at 2016 trends in China that may spread to the UK in 2017: “Herbs and health foods, as well as the rejection of additives and alcohol, will continue to be a preference for more people. With the popularity of more nutritious meals on the rise, caterers can look at adding lighter options to the menu.
“People are now more receptive to oriental foods at an early age and products such as rice and noodles are part of the staple diet. According to the largest ever global eating trends study carried out by TUCO, only 5% of UK university students actually want to eat British food – 84% want to eat a ‘mix of foods from home and elsewhere.’”
Oriental cuisine is flagged up in Bidvest Foodservice’s latest Trends Report as one to watch for 2017. The company’s insights manager Lucy Pedrick says: “Broths are a firm favourite, with similarities to the traditional English hotpot. Chicken dishes are often infused with chilli and peanuts and menus are increasingly showcasing pickled or fermented vegetables for a distinct Oriental punch.
“Chinese bakeries are popping up in the UK too, offering a fusion of British and Asian heritage, with pâtisserie options such as matcha-based cakes and black sesame brioche.”
Bidvest Foodservice offers menu development, access to themed-day posters and menu templates to help customers create authentic recipes for Chinese New Year.
Pedrick says: “Oriental cuisine has been a key focus in our menu development sessions, with dishes such as Sichuan chicken and chicken katsu curry proving a hit. We offer a range of specialist ingredients to help caterers add these authentic flavours to their dishes as well as ready-made sauces and pastes. These include white miso, pickled pink ginger, wasabi paste, sriracha sauce and mirin.”
It’s time to think outside the “rice and a main” box, according to Rhodri Morgan, Unilever marketing manager for Unilever Food Solutions. “From jiaozi [Chinese dumplings] to hong shao rou [red braised pork], Chinese street food dishes are a great way to make your menu pop,” he says.
“The challenge is finding recipes that will work well as practical concepts. That’s why Knorr has teamed up with food journalist Victoria Stewart and chef Mark Sargeant to launch ‘Hello World’, showcasing Korean, Chinese and Japanese cuisine. With expert tips and simple, authentic recipes, caterers have everything they need to ‘go east’.”
It is also important to be realistic. Tony Holmes, Bestway Wholesale’s sales director for retail and foodservice, says mainstream operators cannot compete with the range of dishes offered by Chinese restaurants, but adding a Chinese element to menus or specials boards offers a point of difference.
Bestway and Batleys’ Chinese New Year promotion features frozen poultry, seafood, cooking sauces, fresh vegetables, tinned vegetables and fruit, noodles, flour and rice. Fresh Direct predicts the continued rise of the steamed bun and big demand for healthy, lighter broth-based soups for 2017. Duncan Parsonage, Fresh Direct’s head of food development, says: “The east meets west trend is well established. Traditional dishes or ingredients with their roots firmly in Europe are being brought together with the bold flavours of Sichuan pepper, soya bean paste, black vinegar, anise and shaoxing wine to create some simply stunning dishes.”
Set the scene
Chinese food lends itself to visual theatre and tableware can enhance the experience. Nisbets’ Vogue range features everything from woks to bamboo steamers. Heather Beattie, Vogue brand manager, says: “The two-part steamer is an extremely versatile piece of kitchen kit, ideal for steaming everything from rice and vegetables to pancakes and dumplings.”
Nisbets’ melamine chopsticks, in packs of 10, are scratch-resistant and dishwasher safe and complement the APS Zen tableware range. Parsley in Time’s Neo range, manufactured in porcelain by Steelite, includes plates and sharing platters for Chinese meals.
The stylish Akita black cast iron teapot from Artis is available in two sizes – 1.25l (£32.50) and 33cl (£17.50) – and is a great option for green tea service.
Operators often set up takeaway points outside restaurants for the festivities. Huhtamaki’s Eatwell range has sizes from 7oz to 24oz, ideal for favourites to go, such as chow mein, dumplings and spring rolls.
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