Going Global: Why restaurateurs should make the unfamiliar familiar

By Sherry Tseng

Leftovers for dinner, again? It doesn’t always have to be that way. There’s no question that dinner is an important daypart — it’s the second most-offered daypart among foodservice operators, according to Datassential’s Pulse 2018: Market Overview, and more than 90 per cent of restaurants offer dinner service. With today’s up-and-coming generations more likely to eat out (Millennials, for example, are more likely than the general population to purchase meals away from home, according to Datassential’s Millennial Keynote Report), it can be hard to stand out in such a crowded landscape.

Inspiration can be taken from global cuisines, however, which often feature dinner entrées showcasing bold and exciting flavours and ingredients. Both Gen Z and Millennials are more likely than their older counterparts to experiment with new foods — more than 85 per cent of Gen Z consumers say they like trying new foods, while Millennials are much more likely to love global flavours, according to the report. The key, then, to maintaining dinner traffic and sales in an increasingly competitive landscape is to stay on top of trending global dishes and consider how they might be adapted to suit your menu. Through Datassential’s MenuTrends tool, which tracks more than 500 Canadian menus and hundreds of thousands of U.S. menus, Datassential has uncovered some of the fastest-growing global entrées on Canadian menus today — and there’s enough going on that you won’t have to repeat last night’s meal.




Escabeche (pronounced Esk-a-bet-chay) refers to a number of dishes featuring fish (or sometimes meat) that has been marinated and cooked in an acidic mixture made from vinegar or citrus juice. It’s similar to Latin American ceviche, but stars poached or fried rather than raw fish. Escabeche can be found in many countries and regions, such as the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico, but is thought to have originated in Spain. The dish is highly versatile, as it can feature a wide range of proteins (swap fish for chicken or pork, for instance) and be marinated in anything from lime juice to apple cider to red wine vinegar. Escabeche can serve as a centre-of-plate protein at dinner alongside rice or steamed veggies, or it can be used as a topping for entrée salads or rice bowls. The dish has grown more than 250 per cent on Canadian dinner menus over the past 4 years and increased over 80 per cent in just the past year alone.




Poke (pronounced po-kay) has seen explosive growth in the U.S. over the past few years, so it’s not surprising that it’s now trending in Canada, too. The Hawaiian raw fish salad has grown by more than 250 per cent on Canadian dinner menus over the past four years with dedicated eateries like Vancouver’s The Pacific Poke and Calgary’s Po-ke popping up across the country.


At its most basic, poke is diced raw fish seasoned in soy sauce and sesame oil and served over rice, though many restaurants serving the dish will jazz it up with add-ons ranging from seaweed salad to pickled onions and cucumbers to avocado. These days it’s not uncommon to also find vegetarian renditions of poke made from tofu or non-seafood alternatives like chicken poke. Operators shouldn’t be afraid to experiment when it comes to poke — while purists may appreciate simpler iterations of the dish, offering a variety of toppings for guests to customize their own bowls can also add an element of personalization to the dining experience.


Beef Satay


There are countless regional variations of meat on a stick — Italian arrosticini, Japanese yakitori, Turkish shish kebabs — and Indonesian cuisine is no exception. While satay (also spelled sate) is Indonesian in origin, it’s also popular in other Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.


Satay can feature nearly any type of meat, from chicken to goat to pork (and even fish), but beef satay in particular is trending in Canada, having grown by more than 160 per cent on menus in the past four years. Satay is usually seasoned with a mixture of soy and peanut sauces, though other condiments like chili sauce can be used as well. Given its approachable and familiar format, satay could be leveraged as a dish to introduce customers to trending Southeast Asian flavors without intimidating them.


Fish Cakes


Fish cakes are typically made from ground seafood (usually whitefish, like cod or haddock) and mixed with starch and egg, then pressed into a patty and fried. Alone, fish cakes typically have a relatively mild taste, making them a suitable canvas for many different flavours, either by seasoning the ground seafood before frying it or pairing the cooked patty with a range of sauces.


Fish cakes are commonly found in Asian cuisines, though variations of the dish are also served in some Eastern European countries. They’re a common ingredient in Chinese hot pot, a communal dish that involves cooking a variety of proteins and vegetables in a constantly-boiling pot of broth, and also feature prominently in the popular Japanese street food oden, which is made with skewered fish cakes simmered in a soy-flavored dashi broth.


Fish cakes have increased on Canadian dinner menus by nearly 120 per cent in the past four years, likely reflecting growing consumer interest in Asian cuisines and ingredients as a whole. Operators might consider leveraging them as an alternative to traditional proteins in stews or curries or serving them lightly grilled with several different sauces so customers can customize them as they see fit.


Spaghetti alla Puttanesca


Everyone knows what spaghetti is, but what about spaghetti alla puttanesca? Hailing from Naples, this regional Italian pasta dish features tomatoes and olive oil with anchovies, olives, garlic, and capers to create an umami-packed dish. While Italian cuisine is likely familiar to most consumers, in recent years, there’s been growing consumer interest in discovering more regional dishes, puttanesca included.


The term “puttanesca” itself has experienced nearly 120 per cent growth on Canadian dinner menus over the past 4 years. As operators look to stand out, menuing specific regional dishes like spaghetti alla puttanesca can be a way to pique customers’ interest without scaring them off.




Making brandade only requires two ingredients: salt cod and olive oil (although it’s not uncommon to add dairy, potato and any number of aromatics the equation). A whipped spread made by emulsifying rehydrated salt cod with olive oil, brandade is often eaten in France, Spain and Italy, where it can be paired with anything from crackers to crusty bread to polenta. While salt cod has grown on Canadian dinner menus by 33 per cent over the past 4 years, brandade has increased a whopping 260 per cent just in the past year.


Though it’s traditional to use salt cod, West Restaurant in Vancouver demonstrates that there’s no reason not to break out of the mold, featuring a crispy halibut brandade served with poached eggs and sauce bearnaise on its dinner menu.


Served in a scaled down portion, brandade can be a unique appetizer or tapas offering. Alternatively, operators might consider breading and frying brandade to make croquette-like fritters, which can be served as a centre-of-plate entrée.


Massaman Curry


While many Thai curries tend to bring the heat, massaman curry is a milder rendition that won’t scorch your taste buds. Mentions of it have grown by more than 80 per cent on Canadian dinner menus in just the last year, but what is it, exactly?


Commonly served with rice, the dish has Muslim roots, and as such, traditionally features chicken rather than pork. It can also be made with duck, beef or goat, or turned vegetarian or vegan by omitting meat entirely. The dish is unique in that it features dried spices not commonly found in other Thai curries, such as cardamom, cinnamon and bay leaves. Traditional Thai ingredients, like coconut milk, shrimp paste and fish sauce, aren’t lacking though.


Massaman curry can serve as an approachable introduction to Thai cuisine, as it’s customizable (even the curry paste itself can be adapted to different tastes) and mashes up familiar flavours like cinnamon with lesser-known ones like shrimp paste to create a unique dish.




Saag (pronounced sahg) fits right into the plant-forward eating trend that’s been sweeping the restaurant landscape recently. Hailing from India, it’s essentially a curry made with leafy vegetables, and nearly any leafy green is fair game — spinach, mustard leaf, or collard greens can all be used to make saag. In the Western hemisphere, most renditions of saag feature spinach, although other mild greens like chard, beet greens, or even finely chopped broccoli can star as the main ingredient (operators can even use Chinese bok choy for an unexpected mashup).


For a heartier entrée version of saag, chefs can add cubes of paneer (an Indian cheese) or tofu to keep things vegetarian, or add beef or chicken to appeal to meat-inclined diners. As it’s grown over 75 per cent on Canadian menus over the past four years, saag is a dish operators should keep on their radars, especially as it appeals to consumers’ increasing desire to be health-forward.


Avoiding Authenticity


While the idea of menuing dishes from lesser-known global cuisines can be intimidating for many operators, restaurant owners and chefs don’t have to keep things strictly authentic — consider creating mashup dishes that combine some of the above flavours in a familiar format (for instance, consider featuring a beef satay burrito) to pique consumers’ interest. As consumers become more knowledgeable about global cuisines, they’re hungry to try the foods they’re learning about. Around half of consumers say they’ve eaten globally-inspired food in the past two weeks according to Datassential’s Global Flavors Keynote Report — as a result, it’s important that operators stay on top of and try to incorporate the latest global trends, as doing so can be just the edge they need to draw in customers.


Sherry Tseng is a publications specialist at Datassential