One chef explains why side dishes are a perfect match for ethnic flavors.

Ethnic cuisine continues to one of the fastest growing trends on American menus, and many chefs are struggling to meet consumer cravings while still balancing the basics of their core offerings. For those who are embracing the trend, there is still a risk that not all customers will enjoy a fully-blown ethnic meal, which is why many successful chefs are implementing global flavors on a smaller scale.

Here, Jeff Wirtz, senior director of culinary development at Blount Fine Foods discusses the ethnic foods trend and explains why side dishes are a chef’s best bet for incorporating new flavors.

1. Why has there been an increase in consumer demand for more global cuisine?

Travel plays a major role in consumers’ interest and demand for ethnic flavors. People are traveling more and trying new flavors in different places, and in general they just want to have more options for their meals. Trendy ingredients are also more readily available on the American market than they were even just a few years ago, and that fuels demand.

2. Is this trend limited to younger diners, or do you also see Gen X and Baby Boomers trying more ethnic-inspired dishes?

I don’t think this trend in limited to younger diners—they are just more vocal about their experiences, likes, and dislikes. With social media being so prevalent, millennials and Gen Z are posting and sharing their experiences in real time, especially photos of meals with their friends. But Gen X and Baby Boomers are also trying new flavors and are equally willing to step outside of their comfort zones for more nontraditional flavors and spices—they just aren’t sharing those experiences with the world the same way that younger diners are.

3. What are some of the challenges that chefs face with incorporating ethnic flavors on menus, and how can chefs differentiate their offerings?

As chefs, we are always looking to stay ahead of the trends and be educated on what is happening in all food industries. It is part of our responsibility to track trends and stay ahead of them, as well as figuring out how to incorporate what we’ve learned into our business of creating soups, sides, meals, and sauces.

Chefs rely a great deal on their vendors and suppliers to stay up to date and informed of the trends in their particular fields. Combined with reading and always being willing to try something or experiment with something new, that is part of our job.

4. How have you seen chefs responding to those challenges, or how have you yourself responded?

We have responded here at Blount by taking some of the flavors that are mainstream, and adding some of the more trendy flavors in order to create a new twist on the product. For example, citrus flavors are huge right now, so we added that flavor profile to a very familiar lentil soup to create a Citrus Lentil Soup—which refreshes the dish and makes it interesting and relevant on a menu.

5. Why are side dishes such as soups a particularly good medium for incorporating ethnic flavors?

People are looking to try new flavors, but don’t always want the commitment of a complete dish. Side dishes provide a small format which is a great way for diners to be experimental with their ordering, and also for chefs to experiment with new ingredients.

Rice cauliflower, as another example, has been a very popular dish recently because it satisfies trending diet plans like low-carb and keto. With spices from around the world now being so readily available, we took the Tandoori flavor from India—a method of cooking in a cylindrical ceramic or metal vessel called a tandoor and adding spices like turmeric, fenugreek, and other spices—and created a Tandoori riced cauliflower. This provides guests with a quickly identifiable plate which at the same time introduces a new, ethnic flavor.

6. What are some of the most popular global flavors that chefs are using on menus, and what are consumers asking for?

I think the most popular flavors on menus are Tandoori, spicy chilis, various barbecue flavors, harissa, and citrus.

7. What are some misconceptions about global cuisine, or what might surprise people about cooking with these flavors?

Different ethnicities are often pegged for only one specific kind of flavor, but in actuality there is so much more to a culture than just a single spice. For example, it is sometimes assumed that Indian cooking and cuisine is all curry and always spicy, but that is not always the case.

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