For a cuisine that we’ve been enamoured with since the late 19th century, it’s downright impressive that demand for Asian food has only continued to climb and climb, with the UK market currently worth over £3bn (Oriental Food Report via Alliance Online). Already customary in Asia, street food’s ascent over here has no doubt helped the cuisine maintain such a stronghold. Mike Hardman, marketing manager for Alliance Online, agrees, saying: “Including Chinese, Japanese and Thai cuisine, Asian food is incredibly compatible with street food culture due to UK consumers increasing hunger for the new and diverse flavours that the cuisine provides.”
As Chinese New Year is usually a fortnightly affair (this year, starting on 5th February), this means caterers could look forward to a profitable couple of weeks. Getting the offering right will be crucial to securing that desired yen. Which shouldn’t prove too difficult for operators, according to Alison Smith, product developer for Mars Food Europe, who says: “Renowned for exotic, exciting and experimental flavours, Chinese new year welcomes an array of Oriental flavours onto the table, making the occasion a fantastic source of inspiration for many caterers.”
Though it is Chinese new year, ‘pan-Asian’ has grown to become an accepted concept, so there’s no reason why caterers shouldn’t play around with dishes or offer sashimi alongside a steaming pot of pho. Ramen – considered a staple Japanese dish – is originally from China, so it would appear that cultural fusions have been some centuries in the making.
What consumers are more concerned about is a dish’s authenticity – find a millennial that hasn’t been to Thailand/Bali/India/all of the above, and I shall eat both of our hats. Point being, they’ve had a taste of the real stuff, so they’ll be able to spot the genuine from the imitation – no points for guessing what they’re willing to pay a premium for. Some specialist ingredients may cost more to get in, but if they can be used in low-cost recipes like stir-fries, we predict good fortunes all round!
The food is, of course, a very important part in ensuring sweet (not sour) sales but looks are also everything. Beautifully intricate red and gold decorations adorn houses and restaurants during Chinese new year celebrations, so if you’re looking to score authenticity points, you’ll need to go all out. “It’s important to decorate appropriately,” concurs Mark Rigby, executive chef for Premier Foods. “Items such as Chinese lanterns and fortune cookies are perfect for the event. Also, look at hiring some traditional acts that can entertain guests. Your customers will really appreciate that extra added touch to the evening that is really in keeping with the Chinese new year theme.”
As Jacqui Mee, director of food for Olive Catering Services, points out, a lot of Asian dishes lend themselves well to being cooked in front of the customer, and there’s nothing people seem to love more at the moment than dinner and a show. This has led to them launching a new street food concept, The Kerb, as Mee explains: “We set up individual stations using induction cooking to prepare quick and healthy dishes heavily influenced by Indonesian and Thai food, and these have proved to be a very successful way of bringing theatre and exciting food to lunchtimes.”
Asian food remains a staple sector in the UK food market and will continue as one for years to come, adapting and integrating with food trends as they change – and Chinese new year provides caterers a great opportunity to capitalise on what is already in such huge demand. The key is to combine creative menu options with fusion flavours and traditional, quality ingredients.