Global flavors are dominating fast-casual and quick-serve menus, and Korean is one of the most popular cuisines inspiring authentic and fusion dishes.
“When I was growing up in Houston, hardly anyone knew about Korean food, and I wouldn’t dare bring Korean food to school for fear of being made fun of. Now I see kids of all races getting Korean instant noodles or Korean candy or desserts,” says Kelly Kim, chef and co-owner of Yellow Fever, an Asian bowl concept with three locations in Southern California. “Things have come a long way.” The No. 1 bowl on Kim’s menu, she says, is the Seoul bowl, which is inspired by the Korean rice dish bibimbap and accounts for almost 30 percent of signature bowl sales.
But it isn’t just Korean concepts or fringe fast casuals that are getting in on the action. Even Wingstop—with 1,200-plus restaurants system-wide—began offering a Spicy Korean Q sauce option to its wings four years ago as a limited-time offer. After another successful LTO push 18 months later, the brand added Spicy Korean Q to its permanent menu last year. “The Korean barbecue flavor really resonated with our guests,” says Larry Bellah, director of flavor innovation.
The two big ingredients leading the Korean craze are gochujang and kimchi, which are often used in unison. Gochujang is a fermented chile paste that is spicy, tangy, savory, smoky, and sweet, all at the same time, Yellow Fever’s Kim says.
David Choi, chef/owner at Seoul Taco, which has seven locations and a food truck in the Midwest, describes gochujang as being more deep and earthy than other chile pastes. “It’s great for incorporating into different dishes, because it can be used as a side sauce or in actual recipes, like marinades and soups,” he says.
Justin Large, vice president of culinary operations at three-unit brand Left Coast in Chicago, shares Choi’s sentiment. The K-Town bowl and Montecito Hash breakfast dish, which both feature a hot sauce made from gochujang, are top sellers on the brand’s health-driven menu. “Gochujang is a great example of an ingredient that could be utilized across a number of cuisines, making the run-of-the-mill dish a pleasant surprise,” Large says. “Think gochujang ketchup for your burger.”
Kimchi, also a staple of Korean cuisine, is traditionally a side dish made from fermented cabbage seasoned with chilies and salt, among other ingredients. Known for its versatility, it can be eaten cold by itself or hot as a component in dishes like pancakes, soup, or rice. “There is an abundance of uses in this one dish,” says Injun Hwang, corporate chef at Bibigo, which has nine locations in the U.S. “To Koreans, if we eat something too greasy or heavy, it’s used to refresh palates and balance taste. It is also a probiotic item and helps with digestion.”
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There are many flavor profiles for kimchi, but the base notes are slightly sour, something that Betsy Wright, director of marketing at 33-unit chain BIBIBOP, says stimulates the senses and, when combined with savory components like vegetables and rice, creates an immediate craving for more. She also echoes the health benefits of Korean cuisine when utilizing ingredients like kimchi. “The philosophy of Korean food is centered around creating overall wellbeing through the thoughtful placement of fresh, seasonal vegetables; nutritious grains; and proteins that, when all mixed together, create a harmony,” she says.
Most Korean-inspired dishes in the U.S. use gochujang, kimchi, or both, but there are several other favored ingredients in the cuisine that might start picking up steam as American palates become more adventurous.
Glass noodles, for example, are a main component in japchae, consisting of sweet potato noodles that are thinly shredded and stir-fried with sesame oil, soy sauce, and vegetables at concepts like BIBIBOP. “I love the texture and the way the noodles soak up the sesame oil and soy sauce,” Wright says. “We posted a photo on Instagram, and within one day, it received more engagement than any other product in BIBIBOP’s history.”
Sesame oil and seeds, too, are a popular addition, bringing a subtle hint of nuttiness and smoky flavor to dishes, says Bibigo’s Hwang. And plum extract, he adds, is made in-house and used as a substitute for sugar. “It is an alternative we use for health benefits for the mild sweet flavor, along with it being great for digestion and health,” Hwang says.
In creating the globally inspired dishes at the Korean taco grill concept TaKorean, which has four locations in the Washington, D.C., area, making the dishes accessible to an American audience was key, says founder and CEO Mike Lenard. “I think the showcasing of true authentic ingredients and food concepts is important, but equally as important is the approachability and operations of the fast casual,” he says. Often, restaurants achieve this with Korean flavors by presenting them in a format Americans already love, like in tacos or rice bowls at TaKorean, for example.
And while the market probably isn’t ready for one of Lenard’s favorite dishes from Korea that consists of live octopus tentacles, he hopes Americans begin to explore more regional Korean dishes and preparations.
With Velvet Taco, an edgy, chef-driven fast casual that has offered Korean taco LTOs at its 10 units in the past, that may come true. “With my next round of innovation into Korean ingredients and dishes, I will take a more granular approach to the different influences between North Korea and South Korea,” says Grant Morgan, corporate chef and director of culinary.
Bellah of Wingstop doesn’t see interest in Korean food slowing down anytime soon. “Looking at the success of Spicy Korean Q at Wingstop is a really good indicator that America is ready and wants new, exciting, flavorful options that countries like Korea have to offer,” he says.