It wasn’t long ago that gochujang was unknown outside of neighborhood Korean restaurants and jackfruit was just starting to take up menu space in one-off vegan concepts. Before these and other formerly obscure ingredients gained traction on menus, they first appeared in ethnic mom-and-pop eateries, chef-driven spots or fringe restaurants. So what’s next?
To find out, Technomic is currently looking at more than 50 menus from leading independent restaurants across the U.S. for its updated Independent Insights report, powered by Ignite. Here’s a peek at some of the lesser-known ingredients showing up at commercial operations that may soon trickle over to the on-site side.
With fermented foods and beverages like kimchi and kombucha gaining wide acceptance with consumers, chefs are exploring new ingredients that can add a funky, slightly sour edge to preps—and koji, an edible mold that has long been used in Asia to ferment beans and grains, is showing up in dairy and meat applications. At Elske, an edgy Danish-influenced restaurant in Chicago, cultured koji butter accompanies sourdough bread, while koji ice cream with apple, cranberry, persimmon and maple crisp is on the menu at Departure Restaurant + Lounge in Denver. On the meat side, koji-marinated slow-roasted pork belly is featured at Han Oak in Portland, Ore.
Fregola or fregula, literally translated as “little fragments,” is the name for the small, pellet-shaped toasted pasta that’s similar in looks to Israeli couscous. Like farro, sorghum and other ancient grains that are being “rediscovered,” fregola is finding its way into modern restaurant kitchens—often paired with seafood, as it is in Sardinia, Italy, where it originated. At Spoke Wine Bar in Somerville, Mass., fregola is combined with squid, maitake mushrooms and mint, and Casellula at Alphabet City in Pittsburgh menus mussels with green garlic, sofrito, fregola sarda and charred lemon.
3. XO sauce
A widely used condiment in Hong Kong—its place of origin—as well as Southern China, XO sauce has largely been limited to Chinese home cooking here in the States. Recently, the chili-spiked fish sauce has been getting more play on both Asian and non-Asian restaurant menus. Braised pork over rice with XO Brussels sprouts and fried shallots is featured at Pagu in Cambridge, Mass., while the Asian-Southern fusion of waffles with shrimp, country ham, XO and fried egg is on the menu at Little Octopus in Nashville.
Also known as mosto cotto or cooked grape juice, saba is the result of the first step in the balsamic vinegar process. Saba has less acidity than balsamic, and chefs are taking advantage of its complexity in desserts, on cheese plates, with game and in beverages. Monteverde Restaurant & Pastificio in Chicago serves a signature cocktail called Saba Bourbon Soda, and at Tulio in Seattle, saba is drizzled over burrata and added to a dish of Brussels sprouts and caramelized figs.
Hojicha is a Japanese green tea that is typically roasted over charcoal until it turns a nutty brown color and develops toasty, earthy caramel flavors. Health-conscious consumers have embraced green teas for their reputed antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, but hojicha’s distinctive roasted flavor profile is the main reason chefs are experimenting with it in dishes. At Entente in Chicago, hojicha shows up in a tres leches dessert, paired with banana and sorghum. Pagu in Cambridge, Mass., incorporates the tea into cookies and sorbet, and smokes ice with hojicha for one of its cocktails.
Soursop is the more recognizable name for guanabana, the tropical fruit that's beginning to appear in indie menu descriptions. Its name has recently been made popular on the internet in connection with guanabana’s supposed cancer-fighting properties, but pastry chefs, in particular, are taking advantage of guanabana’s custardy texture and sweet-tart flavor in desserts. At Alter in Miami, the fruit flavors a sorbet plated with a vacherin garnished with kaffir creme and citrus consomme.
Agrumato refers to a style of olive oil in which the olives are crushed with whole citrus fruits, vegetables or herbs. Chefs are using the fragrant, flavorful oil across the menu to enhance seafood, vegetables and desserts. Razor clams are menued ceviche-style at Bibiana in Washington, D.C., drizzled with orange agrumato and garnished with finger limes and pink peppercorns. At Otto Pizzeria Enoteca, one of Mario Batali’s New York City restaurants, spicy broccoli rabe comes with ricotta salata, lemon agrumato, fresh chilies and breadcrumbs.