Will Londoners' love for Korean cuisine spread to the regions? And can Taiwanese take over the high street? Will Hawkes reports on the up-and-coming global food trends that are keeping UK customers keen
It's 10 minutes past 12 on a Thursday lunchtime and a queue is forming outside Pret a Manger on Lexington Street in Soho. The six or seven mostly young people waiting patiently are not, however, about to go into the sandwich chain; instead, they're peering across the road at a 32-seat restaurant, from which a white-coated waitress periodically emerges to invite one or two of them over.
A second Bao is on the cards, to open in Fitzrovia on 15 June. This success (the restaurant began as a street-food stall in 2013) took its founders - Nottingham-born siblings Wai Ting, 31, and Shing Tat Chung, 29, and his girlfriend Erchen Chang, 26 - by surprise. "Even though we had some regulars and a social media following from our market days, we had no idea what to expect," says Chung. "There have been imitators - some more obvious than others!"
That's inevitable - the food scene in this country is evolving quickly, and concepts like Bao are bound to be replicated. The traditional standbys - Indian, Italian, French and fish and chips - have been joined by a host of new cuisines, including Mexican (via California), Lebanese, Portuguese and more. New flavours and ways of eating are emerging, ready to change the way we dine out again.
Indian food has become such a staple of British life that it's hard to imagine our country without it, although - if you believe a recent report in the Financial Times - its star is beginning to wane. But it might be better to say that it's evolving, with more regionally faithful cuisines popping up.
The same is true of Chinese food. Its dominance has long been unchallenged, but the rise of Japanese ramen shops and Korean food (well illustrated by products like Harvey and Brockless Gotcha Ketchup, a sweet and sour, smoky sauce made with a gochujang chilli paste) are presenting a challenge.
And then there's Taiwanese food. Bao's most popular dish - a white roll filled with salty pork, sour pickles, fresh coriander and crunchy peanuts - has huge potential when you consider the runaway success of pulled pork and other meat-based sandwiches. But there's plenty more they can teach about flavour.
"The menu comprises food that we love and were brought up with, combined with dishes we've created that we think will be tasty," says Shing. "For example, we're using some great chia shiang rice that forms the base of classic dishes in Taiwan like turkey rice or lu rou fan. In the new restaurant we'll have rice dishes, such as one with beef shortrib with a Taiwanese beef soup to be poured into the bowl."
Thai food is also undergoing an evolution, and an interesting development is the rise of Thai barbecue. One of the most notable new openings is the Smoking Goat on Denmark Street, London. "Good Thai cooking tastes like food converted into glorious technicolour: it's sour, salty, spicy and umami all at once," says owner Ben Chapman. "Londoners are ready for niche and creative Asian cooking," he adds. "Perhaps we've lacked ingredient-focused South-East Asian restaurants in London?"
What happens in London tends to soon arrive in the rest of the country, Wing Yip director Brian Yip says. "London is the multi-cultural hub of the vibrant UK restaurant market. And the emergence of Japanese and Thai food on street markets nationwide suggests that Londoners' love for Korean food has moved out of the city."
Asian cuisine also benefits from the perception that it's best for those who don't eat meat, says Will Matier, managing director of distributors Vegetarian Express. "We recently commissioned some research that found that 41% of people feel Indian food is the cuisine that caters best for vegetarians," he says.
EHL Ingredients, an importer, blender and packer of global food ingredients, has launched four new spice blends: Chinese Five Spice, Aromatic Oriental, Thai Seven Spice and Spicy Thai Fish Seasoning. The next big thing, though, could be Malaysian and Filipino food, according to the McCormick Flavour Forecast 2016. It's clear the British desire for spice is not about to go away.
Cured and pickled
When you look at what had been popular over the past few years, you might conclude that health worries are not at the forefront of eaters' minds. In particular, the rise of American barbecue demonstrates that British customers will rate volume and flavour above any worries about their waistlines. The remarkably popular Smoke in Sheffield, where beer is served in jam-jar style glasses and the room buzzes with contented customers, is a perfect example. Anyone who can consume the gargantuan Brisket Plate (£16) is not someone who worries too much about their health.
Nonetheless, there is demand for healthy food, as long as it's delicious, too. That's why there's growing interest in pickled and cured food. This is to the benefit of Peruvian and Scandinavian cuisines, but also Korean, where pickled vegetables are significant. "Many of our customers tell us that kimchi is the new slaw," says Rachael Sawtell, marketing director of food packaging company Planglow.
But there is a problem, as Duncan Parsonage, head of food development at wholesalers Fresh Direct, explains. "Fermented foods introduce healthy bacteria into the gut, but food safety restrictions mean bringing room temperature, 'live' foods to the masses is a no-go. The alternative is a dull, pasteurised product."
One type of food that offers an easily achievable flavour hit is ceviche. "Peruvian food, and in particular ceviche, has been in growth for a while," says Mark Irish, head of food development at Brakes. "Although it hasn't attained mainstream status yet, it have certainly been on our radar for a while."
Aussie-style, all-day eating
British pubs have been opening all day for a while, but the Antipodean concept is starting to make waves. Based around a coffee shop rather than a pub, it's a smarter, modern space, with a focus on simple, quality ingredients.
A few places in the UK have followed this path, including Fernandez and Wells, and another success is Notes, which began in Covent Garden in 2010 and has now expanded to six sites. "We started out in Theatreland, but it works well elsewhere," says co-founder Robert Robinson. "We get a lot of female customers. We've worked hard to create a different atmosphere at night in terms of lighting and layout, and we switch to table service at 5pm."
Mexican food also continues to thrive, according to Dave Edwards, head of sales for Mission Foodservice. "Up and coming Mexican and Latin American ingredients include salsa verde, chilli con queso and chimichurri, a sauce made from chopped parsley, minced garlic, olive oil, oregano and white vinegar," he says. "All of these flavours can be added to UK menus to give something extra to consumers."
Bao founders Wai Ting Chung, Erchen Chang and Shing Tat Chung
Tom Styman-Heighton, Funnybones Foodservice's development chef, says: "While dishes such as nachos and burritos have long been associated with Mexican cuisine, we're now seeing a real rise in the popularity of street food from across Latin America. The beauty of Latin American cuisine is that it has widespread appeal, lending itself well to both dine-in and takeaway options."
The future looks exciting - we might even see queuing for bao outside of the foodie haven that is Soho. "It's hard to know if this would work outside London because we don't even know what to expect with our second restaurant," says Shing. "I don't see why not though. Bao is very similar to bread, which is a daily commodity. Hopefully it will go down well."
Harvey and Brockless
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