Street foods, if you’ll pardon the overwrought metaphor, are the perfect well from which the rich waters of flavor innovation can be drawn. In the past 10–15 years, U.S. consumers have come to crave global street foods ranging from empanadas and tacos to samosas and satay in forms both authentic and, well, something other than authentic.
On the authentic end of the spectrum, more of those worldly and endlessly adventurous Millennials are continuing to seek out novel and exciting flavors from far-off places. Recently, we at CCD Innovation have observed burgeoning interest in four different cuisines in particular:
Burmese. Traditional dishes such as coconut chicken curry and tea-leaf salads (kits for which are sold in Burmese markets) are ripe for fast-food reinvention. It’s easy to envision chicken fingers served with a sweet coconut sauce, for instance, or green salads served with the pickled tea-leaf dressing, which would impart a pleasingly exotic sour flavor. Then there are chickpea fries; beloved in Myanmar (formerly Burma), they’re already making inroads in fine-dining restaurants in the U.S. and are a natural for quick-service or fast-casual settings.
Caribbean. From Trinidad and Tobago comes bara, a soft fried bread that, in its authentic form, would be filled with a curried chickpea paste and topped with mango or tamarind sauce. Bara puffs up when fried and effectively becomes a hollow carrier ideal for stuffing. But it could also be a novel yet perfectly suitable vehicle for a hamburger, hot dog, or fish fillet. From Jamaica, of course, come the jerk spices that would be completely at home on a chicken sandwich or skewer. And then there is the venerable Cubano sandwich, which has been present in some menus for a while but continues to provide interest with its toothsome combination of pork, caramelized onions, tamarind sauce, cabbage or lettuce, mayo, and cheese.
Norwegian. While Scandinavian cuisine has never really hit home on these shores, there are some specific items worth investigating. The Norwegian lefse is a delicious potato flour pancake that’s typically topped with lox and cream cheese. Personally, I’m drawn to the idea of using the same carrier to enliven a fish fillet sandwich. And I have a feeling the combination could be a winner at a fast-food or fast-casual spot.
Portuguese. Take the nation’s traditional garlic steak with hot egg and pepper strips and consider transforming it into a burger patty with fried egg and seasonings such as garlic and piri piri. The latter is a succulent, singular, distinctly Portuguese sauce that combines ingredients like red pepper, cayenne chilies, garlic, paprika, lemon juice, and onion to deliver a thoroughly unique flavor combination.
On the other side of the street-food coin are curious fusions that, while utterly inauthentic, are wonderfully inventive and work beautifully. It took some enterprising minds to come up with these counterintuitive combinations, but trust me: they work!
In Chicago, a concept called (wait for it) Kimski has pioneered a mashup of Far Eastern and Eastern European cuisines. Specifically, it’s slinging a Polish-Korean hybrid that features dishes such as a Polish sausage sandwich with soju mustard, “Kraut-chi,” and scallions. And its scallion potato pancakes combine pork shoulder, a kimchi of the day, and smoked soy sauce. Very creative.
A few miles north, in the northwest Chicago neighborhood of Wicker Park, 5411 Empanadas is fusing Latin and French traditions by stuffing its empanadas with bacon, dates, and goat cheese; ratatouille; and mushroom, thyme, and blue cheese. Just the thought of the umami impact is enough to entice playing with this concept.
Elsewhere, the combination of Korean and regional American barbecues is gaining favor in several quarters, thanks to combinations such as pulled pork made with the distinctive Korean hot sauce known as sambal, and gochujang short ribs, featuring the namesake spicy Korean condiment that combines red chili, rice, fermented soybeans, and salt.
Finally, three continents merge in a fiendishly clever fusion: Mexican-Korean-Indian. Think taco bowls or burritos featuring spicy Korean barbecue sauce or chicken tikka masala. This is the formula that the popular 3-3-3 food truck in San Francisco has been rolling with successfully for some time now.
The bottom line is that, when working to effectively court Millennials, who are attracted both to authentic culinary experiences and to creative, thoughtful mix-and-match approaches, it pays to start plotting an action plan that includes street foods. Menu developers surveying the culinary landscape for fresh new ideas can look either to faithfully reproduce the most addictive foods from different cultures or to try their hands at combining foods of unlike origin that have enough in common to make a mash-up a smashing idea.
I’d be interested to hear what your concept is doing to capitalize on the rampant popularity of various ethnic street foods. Drop me a line sometime at firstname.lastname@example.org.