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Consumers embrace bold flavors of Korean cuisine

Popular barbecue drives interest in new dishes, NPD found

Americans’ growing awareness of Korean culture — from K-Pop to K-Beauty to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang — coupled with their increasingly adventurous tastes has led to a rise in Korean barbecue and other Korean flavors on United States restaurant menus, according to research firm The NPD Group.

“[There’s] a lot of buzz, energy around Korea,” said Annie Roberts, vice president of NPD SupplyTrack®. “Korean barbecue sauce is coming up big.”

According to The NPD Group’s SupplyTrack® research, the amount of Korean barbecue sauce, in pounds, that was shipped to U.S. independent restaurants and “micro-chains” with fewer than 15 units grew by 120 percent last year. The versatile and bold-tasting product is primarily distributed to Asian casual-dining and bar-and-grill restaurants, NPD found.

Korean barbecue is showing growth in a variety of segments, NPD reported, including steak and rib, quick-service hamburger, quick-service chicken, barbecue, pizza and Italian, as well as in colleges and universities.

It also is exhibiting broad appeal. Nearly half, or 46 percent, of the growth in Korean barbecue at bar-and-grill restaurants was driven by 10 markets. That list includes major cities like Boston, Philadelphia and Houston as well as smaller markets including Louisville, Ky., and Wilkes-Barre-Scranton, Pa.

“More and more, the younger generations are looking for more authentic experiences, seeking out places that are offering true experiences of that culture,” NPD’s Roberts said.

Many operators are looking for ways to add these bold flavors to their menus in a manner that is both on-trend and on-brand.

Here chefs from Datz in Tampa, Fla. and Proxi in Chicago share how they have successfully incorporated Korean barbecue into their non-Korean menus, how their customers have responded to these items, and what other Korean flavors and/or dishes they’re exploring next. 

Going bold at Datz

The latest menu additions at Datz, a Jewish deli-meets-gastropub concept, are all about Korean barbecue.

“I’ve always loved Korean food,” executive chef Zach West said. “I’m a big fan of kimchi … [and] of any and all things barbecue.”

Among the Korean-inspired dishes added to Datz’s menu is the Kimchi Quesadilla, made with caramelized kimchi, pepper Jack cheese, roasted corn, black beans, green onions, lime crema and pico de gallo in a flour tortilla. The dish was introduced two months ago.

Also added at that time was the smoked Spam sandwich made with Korean barbecue glaze, American cheese, bacon, grilled pineapple slaw and rum mustard, served on a sweet sourdough bun.

West has previously incorporated Korean flavors on the menu as well. Two years ago he added Yum Yum Wings, a pound of crispy Korean barbecue chicken wings with peanuts and Asian pineapple-chile sauce. That remains a popular item.

The new Korean-influenced dishes are selling better than West expected, in part, he says, because “a lot of Korean flavors are extremely bold. People are looking for something they’ve never had before … something that’s alive and awakens the senses.”

West said he has been considering adding a Korean bulgogi-style dish to the menu as well.

Bulgolgi is thinly sliced dish of grilled meat that’s marinated in a blend that usually includes soy sauce, garlic, chile and sesame oil.

“You have to stay on your toes, be aware of the trends,” West said. “You have to grow and keep changing.” 

Korean fusion

At Proxi in Chicago, Ill., chef Andrew Zimmerman celebrates bold flavors and fresh ingredients in dishes that are inspired by his love of global travel, yet still feel right at home in his contemporary American restaurant.

When it comes to Korean flavors, Zimmerman is currently pairing ssamjang butter with coal-roasted oysters. Ssamjang is a thick, spicy paste used for a category of Korean dishes called ssam, a type of lettuce wrap.

Having made the ssamjang butter for a grilled ribeye a while back, Zimmerman thought it would be good not just on steak, but almost anything.

His customers seem to agree.

“The Korean-inspired dishes we have been doing at Proxi have been consistently popular since day one,” Zimmerman said.

Other ways Zimmerman infuses Korean flavors onto his menu include a ramp kimchi purée in a coconut vinaigrette used with a raw tuna dish. He also occasionally makes kimchi fried rice.

Zimmerman said he plans to continue to explore Korean flavors. In particular, he’s considering a dish of kalbi, or barbecued beef short rib.

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