Let’s get the formalities out of the way first. In the paragraphs that follow, I will refer to a group of cuisines that originated in various nations of the Malay Archipelago, the Malay Peninsula, and Indochina—specifically, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam—as “Southeast Asian.” I do so mindful that there are several, perhaps dozens, of cuisines native to each one of these various nations, and that residents of any or all therefore may take umbrage at the suggestion that their unique culinary heritage can be lumped into such a crude, amorphous geographic and cultural catch-all term. I intend no offense, and my apologies in advance for any taken.
As a reminder, this column each month is about identifying and harnessing food and beverage trends that may be ripe for translation to quick-serve or fast-casual restaurant environments. Typically what we’re looking for are interesting, under-the-radar culinary experiences from sources “high” (fine-dining restaurants), “low” (urban/ethnic street foods), and anywhere in between.
So when we talk about the characteristics that make Southeast Asian cuisines as a whole so fresh and exciting, we’re talking primarily about bold flavors and flavor fusions (extra spicy, extreme sour, sweet heat, sour-spicy, and bittersweet, for example), complex textures, exotic origins, shareable portions, and plenty of vegan or vegetarian options.
Given that quick-serve concepts are constantly seeking innovative ways to win the loyalty of millennial consumers—known for their adventurous palates, restless natures, increasing disposable incomes, and boundless curiosity about different cultures—one has to ask: Has there ever been a more perfect marriage of food and consumer than the one that could be arranged, with a little creativity and resourcefulness, between millennials and Southeast Asian cuisine?
Here are some of the most exciting regional culinary attributes or trends with broad implications for menu-development experts.
Creative comfort-food alternatives
While comfort foods ranging from mashed potatoes to mac ’n’ cheese remain enormously popular and have been subjected to numerous creative permutations in the past decade or two, a new generation of worldly consumers has redefined the term.
In some corners, we’re already seeing a move away from basic American comfort foods to Southeast Asian alternatives. Instead of treating the common cold with a bowl of chicken-noodle soup, for instance, many younger consumers now turn to Vietnamese pho or a delicious bowl of tom kha gai from their local Thai restaurant. The Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich is becoming the new BLT, and the traditional breakfast toast and jam ritual is increasingly being supplanted, in some hip locales, by Malaysian “kaya,” a dish consisting of coconut jam, butter, and a soft-cooked egg served on toasted bread.
Think of kaya as a lightly sweetened eggs benedict. The coconut spread has something of a health halo, thanks to the presence of the aromatic herb pandan—often dubbed the “vanilla of Southeast Asia”—that is reputed to help people with hypertension, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. Once you try kaya, orange marmalade will never look quite as inviting again.
Vegan and vegetarian options
Mess around with their burger, steak, or chicken, and you’ll hear from American consumers. But our countrymen and women have shown themselves much more forgiving when it comes to unusual vegan or vegetarian options.
Witness the Southern Thai–style turmeric rice salad at Kin Khao in San Francisco, which is served with pungent herbs, seasonal vegetables, sour fruits, shallots, toasted coconut, puffed rice, tamarind, and black sesame sauce. Another big winner is the summer squash curry at E.P. in West Hollywood, California, with its tofu, puya chili, Thai basil, and radish.
Burmese/Malaysian cuisine is also getting a great deal of attention. One popular Bay Area spot features a rainbow salad comprising garlic, onion, wonton strips, chile flakes, papaya, cilantro, carrots, tofu, and other veggies in a tamarind dressing.
We’re increasingly seeing a trend toward lighter, less-cloying sweets. If your core consumer favors a slab of cheesecake or a mega-Oreo mud pie, these may be nonstarters. But for chains looking to satisfy customers’ sweet-tooths in a lighter-handed way, Southeast Asian imports such as sticky rice with mango, Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk ice cream, or fruit salads that combine quince, mango, and persimmons alongside apples, pears, and grapes, may offer welcome alternatives.
All of which is to say that Southeast Asian cuisine remains a rich vein of untapped possibilities for today’s enterprising fast-food and fast-casual concepts.