Breakfast with Asian Appeal

Asian Flavors Shake Up Breakfast

Using the wisdom of hindsight, a celebrity panel of culinary experts assembles near the end of each year to analyze and pronounce their picks for the top 10 trends of that year. Last November’s event established Forbes’ 2016 “Seat 1A Food Trend List” with four trends on the final list focused squarely on Asian cuisines.

At the top of the list stood “Asian Twists on Comfort Food” Number seven was “Filipino Cuisine and Flavors,” number eight, “Miso,” and number 10, “Turmeric.” The judges pointed out that kimchi and Sriracha are now commonly used with conventional comfort foods and that Korean gochujang and Japanese dashi stock were following suit. It was noted that fermented foods and chili sauces not only add complexity, but work extraordinarily well with classic comfort foods.

And that’s why Asian spices and flavors work so well with traditional American breakfast foods. Eggs, potatoes and entrée starches offer relatively neutral platforms, perfect for pairing with more assertive flavors. Delicious in their own right, eggs not only contribute protein but create widely diverse dishes by partnering with high-flavored items like pulled pork, miso or kimchi.

For the past century Asian food meant chop suey or chow mein to many Americans, but those days are quickly fading. Egg foo yung is another item from those earlier days and it does have one thing in common with the more updated items we’re seeing today: it uses eggs in a significant way. Many of the newly popular dishes found across the spectrum of menus use eggs as either the only protein or as an important add-on. Bibimbap, congee and ramen dishes frequently include a soft-cooked or fried egg, to name just the more familiar ones.

Today’s consumer chooses from dozens of ethnic traditions, often ordering them at non-Asian operations. As consumer familiarity expands, operators have a unique opportunity to invigorate menus with the diversity of Asian flavors. Pickled vegetables, items adding umami notes, and hot Asian chili sauces and pastes already have a strong presence on U.S. menus. Using this growing popularity offers operators a new opportunity to stay on trend and get creative.

Technomic’s most recent Breakfast Consumer Trend Report1 shows that 51 percent of Millennials and 43 percent of Gen Z consumers are looking for more ethnic flavors at breakfast. The increasing interest in and menuing of Asian breakfasts fits many current trends, including several traced to Millennials’ impact. Healthy eating has become a cause for bragging. An adventurous palate is almost an American birthright, but has gone into high gear across demographic groups in the past decade. Younger consumers avoid processed foods and demand fewer additives, and with other age groups joining that chorus, manufacturers are giving them what they want. All these trends are hallmarks of Asian cuisines.

Whether adding heat or using citrus notes for zest, integrating Asian flavors into a menu highlights distinctive tastes within any cuisine. Here are a few ways to make that happen:

  • Let produce, grains and spices take center stage; add protein using a soft-boiled egg.
  • Use meat not as the central ingredient, but as part of a symphony of flavors and textures; egg is often added to meat-containing dishes to increase the flavor and protein quotient.
  • Allow the power of umami flavors found in Asian dishes and sauces to shine. (See the Cosmos Goss quote in “Sun Shines On Asian Breakfasts.”)

We know that consumers and generational shifts are driving trends, but not all operators are taking full advantage. Datassential found that breakfast bowls appeal to 57 percent of consumers.2 Breakfast bowls are up 112 percent on menus, yet only 27 percent of operators menu them. With menu mentions of both Korean and kimchi having risen over 400 percent2 between 2012 and 2016, it seems this is a Korean flavored item waiting to be added to menus. A soft-cooked egg, pickled veggies and thinly sliced meat on a bed of rice, noodles or ancient grain will allow the consumer to customize with a choice of sauces.

Giving consumers what they want with on-trend, adventurous flavors is never a bad business move.

1. Technomic Inc.; Breakfast Consumer Trend Report (2015)
2. Datassential; MenuTrends Keynote Series: Breakfast (November 2016)

Sun Shines On Asian Breakfasts

Census trends might show why Asian cuisines are appearing on more non-Asian restaurant menus: the U.S Asian population is by far our fastest growing ethnic segment – up 76 percent between 2000 and 2015 – with nearly two-thirds being foreign-born.

But that’s only the beginning. In the 2017 edition of its “What’s Hot” survey, the National Restaurant Association found that out of 119 types of foods, ethnic-inspired breakfast items (ranked in the top 20 since 2011) had jumped up into the #6 spot. Examples given included Asian-flavored syrups and coconut milk pancakes. Ethnic condiments came in at #22 with examples of sriracha, sambal and gochujang.

One more confirmation of Asian cuisine rising: When the Chicago Tribune asked 13 Chicago chefs what one item they considered their “secret-weapon ingredient,” five cited Asian sauces. Fish sauce topped the list with three enthusiasts. As Cosmo Goss of The Publican said, “Adding fish sauce is like adding drops of flavor lasers. It makes everything taste better.”

Right in step, food manufacturers have ramped up production of Asian-inspired breakfast foods, many of which are eaten throughout the day in their home countries. Examples include Weight Watchers Smart Ones Vegetable Fried Rice, made with scrambled eggs, red bell peppers, carrots, peas, and onions; and Thai Kitchen Asian Creations Chicken Pad Thai with vegetables and eggs in tangy sauce and rice noodles. One imported item is Ayam’s Kaya Coconut Spread, the sweet and creamy Malaysian coconut milk and egg jam. Kaya is the signature ingredient in Kaya toast, which is traditionally dipped into soft boiled eggs.

There are scores of recognized Asian cuisines. Beside the 30 within China alone, southeastern Asians have brought with them regional variations of cuisines including Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino and Malaysian. Hoisin and fish sauces, mango, peanuts, cilantro, ginger, garlic, basil and lime are just some of the flavors rising in breakfast sightings. Increasingly menued dishes:

  • Ramen (Japan) ‒ noodles in soy or miso flavored broth, usually topped with chicken or pork, seaweed, green onion, and egg, a must for virtually every ramen bowl
  • Bibimbap (Korea) ‒ rice topped with seasoned vegetables, soy sauce, gochujang or fermented soybean paste, fried egg and sliced meat
  • Congee (China) ‒ sweet or savory thin porridge with meat, vegetables and often, eggs
  • Bánh Mì (Vietnam) ‒ baguette filled with meats, cucumber, cilantro, pickled carrots and white radishes and often, a fried egg (especially in the growing number of a.m. bánh mìs)

There are three basic ways operators menu these cuisines on non-Asian menus: flavors suggesting a cuisine’s essence; fusion versions of authentic dishes; or actual authentic dishes.

Cuisine’s Essence

  • Mount Fuji: poached eggs, Asian veggies, grits (Shopsin’s, NYC)
  • Bang Bang Shrimp® Eggs Benedict: English muffin, crispy shrimp, poached eggs, green onions, spicy Hollandaise (Bonefish Grill, Nationwide)
  • Kaya Toast: coconut jam, egg cloud for dipping (ChoLon, Denver)

Fusion Versions

  • Bi Bim Bop Breakfast Bowl: cauliflower​ “rice” with guanciale, pickled veggies, sunny side eggs (Little Goat Diner, Chicago)
  • Okonomiyaki: Japanese pancake, pastrami, sauerkraut, fried egg (Shalom Japan, Brooklyn)
  • Korean Fried Chicken: short grain rice, house kimchi, eggs two ways (Tasty n Aldr, Portland, OR)


Authentic Dishes

  • Chashu Pork Belly Ramen (Japan): tonkatsu broth, fresh Tokyo wavy noodles, bean sprouts, scallions, poached egg, nori furikake (TenPehn, Washington, D.C.)
  • Spamsilog (Philippines): Spam, garlic fried rice, sunny side egg, cucumber and cherry tomato relish (Jeepney Filipino Gastropub, NYC)
  • Mushroom Congee (China): Shiitake mushrooms, ginger, soft-boiled egg, housemade devil doughnut (Ba Bar, Seattle)
  • Bánh Mì Bowl (Vietnam): braised pork belly, nuoc cham potatoes, pickled daikon & carrots, jalapeños, cilantro, sunny side up egg (Nighthawk Breakfast Bar, Venice, Calif.)
  • Five years ago bibimbap and silog weren’t even part of mainstream food discussions, but kimchi is now served in omelets and on burgers, while sriracha is found next to ketchup on dinner tables. McDonald’s offers a Signature Sriracha sandwich line and began testing a Sriracha Big Mac in 2016.

    In just a few years, items that only dared to be vaguely Asian-inspired have evolved toward authenticity and are menued in near-original form on non-Asian menus.

    There’s not much that Americans find foreign about Asian food these days. Menu and product developers need to stay ahead of that ever-changing curve.